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Ed Flesch

Ed Flesch (artistic director of The Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin on Hello, Dolly)

Dick and Betty Klopcic built an intimate, sixty by sixty pyramid-shaped restaurant in 1964, the same year that Hello, Dollyopened on Broadway.
That would be the beginning leading to the Fireside Theater. Ed Flesch joined The Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson as the theatre’s Artistic Director in 1978. He has produced all and directed most of the more than 138 productions staged by The Fireside Theatre over the years.
Each year he auditions more than one thousand professional singers, actors and dancers, primarily in New York, in order to cast approximately one hundred roles.

Since times have gotten a little tougher, as it has for most theaters, they don’t bring in as many guest directors as they used to. This still bring in guest directors from time to time.
Philip McKinley and the late Thommie Walsh have both directed there.

As of this writing, Ed is wrapping up his fifth production of Dolly, this one starring Bonnie and Clyde’s Leslie Becker (See my chapter on her).
His first encounter with Dolly was seeing Carol Channing in the original in ’64. He grew up right outside of New York City, in Long Island.
He saw his first Broadway show at age six. It was The Music Man starring Robert Preston and was pretty much hooked on musical theater from that point on.
At age fourteen, he started buying his own theater tickets.
His parents would let him go into the city on matinee days by himself.  This was the beginning of his Broadway viewing life. That was when he saw Dolly.
What struck him most of all was the spectacle; the look of the show was so beautiful. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. He had already seen a lot of Broadway shows by this point, many of them great.
Of course, he remembers Carol Channing. How could you forget her?

He went back to see Pearl Bailey do in 1968 in the all African-American production. He also remembers her more vividly than all the Dollys he has ever seen. He thinks Pearl Bailey was the best. She and Cab Calloway are still vivid in his mind.

The show actually looked fresh. Merrick gave it a kind of face lift. The color scheme of the costumes and set were also a little different. In some instances, it seemed a little more vibrant. But mostly, Ed remembers Bailey. She was everything the character embodied. She was funny and charming and warm. She did some of the best bits that he still remembers to this day. The eating bit was hysterical.

Those are the only two Dollys Ed has seen on Broadway. He has seen a couple of dinner theater productions and regional productions and, of course, there are the four different Dollys he has worked with, he used one in two productions, Jennie May Donnell. Of course, prior to directing it, he had a perspective having seen it twice on Broadway. By the time he directed it, he had read The Matchmaker.
He was now familiar with the play. What he wanted to bring to Hello, Dolly,

At one time, Fireside also owned La Comedia Dinner Theater in Springfield, Ohio. They bought it from the original owner and sold it six years later.

 (Photo provided, Fireside Theater)

Ed produced Dolly there and Jennie May had already done it at The Fireside. When he mounted it at La Comedia, he asked her to do it again because he thought she was great. That was fun because that is the only Dolly he has gotten to do in a proscenium. Obviously, there are certain things in the show that were designed specifically for a proscenium stage that he has had to adapt in the round.

She was not his first Dolly. His first Dolly was almost thirty years ago as of this interview.

Ed Flesch

All of Ed’s productions have been at The Fireside Theater except for the one at La Comedia.
His current production is beautiful. One of the great things about the round is that it is intimate. At the Fireside, there are seven hundred seats. Because they are on all four sides, the audience really is not far from the stage, even in the last row. It is a real acting medium because the cast and director are not restricted by proscenium movement and turns and keeping open to the audience. Ed has always tried to really zero in on and bring to life what the characters and Dolly are all about. That is informed by productions he has seen and also by Wilder. Michael Stewart was extremely faithful when he adapted it.

Ed wishes that he had done The Matchmaker, but he hasn’t.

There is a personal reason why Ed always returns to Dolly. It always sells tickets.
He thinks it always sells tickets because of the message, not just because it is a well known story and has some great and wonderful songs and dances. The story and character of Dolly really speaks to all of us who sees someone who celebrates life. She is someone who enjoys life, with one or two exceptions, when she reveals in the show that she has gotten kind of lonely. Everything to her is an adventure. Everybody she meets and everything she does, she is manipulative, but she does it with love.
Everything she does, certainly she has her own agenda.

Certainly, she has her own self interest. Along the way, everyone she touches and everyone that is affected by her is better for it. To Ed, that sense of life and hope and adventure and positivity is what she and the show is all about.
When Ed is casting Dolly, he is looking for a certain quality. The great Dollys have it. There’s got to be some individual quirkiness, something that makes each Dolly unique. Dolly is the kind of person that when she walks into a room, she owns it. The force of her personality fills the room. Obviously, he looks for someone who is a good actress and who can sing the music. The music is great and not everybody can really deliver it. It doesn’t have to be the same quality in all. As a matter of fact, every Dolly Ed has seen and/or worked with has been different. They all brought their own individuality to the piece.

They all have that quality of immediately making you smile and immediately making you feel that you are in the presence of someone benevolent, and good, and who has such a life energy that you cannot help but being caught up in it. The mark of a good Dolly is when you are sitting in the audience and finding yourself grinning involuntarily just because of what she brings to the plate. As most casting directors will tell you, you can’t necessarily quantify that.

She’s got to be a great belter and a great dancer. There is that element that when you see it, you know it. Without it is just a good actress/singer doing a role.

Regarding his most recent Dolly, Ed knew she WAS a Dolly as soon as she walked in the door to audition. He can’t say that as she walked in that  he knew that she was HIS Dolly at that point.
He knew that she had all the elements. On the call back, as soon as she got up and read a scene, he saw more of what he was looking for. They talked and she read the scene again. At that moment, he went”Yes. That’s it.”   No one else who is coming in can touch her.
His Horace Vandergelder in this production was Michael Halls. Ed has known Michael for many years and he has done a lot of work for Ed over the years as well as working in a lot of other theaters. He was based in Chicago for a long time. Vandergelder is a “comic villain”, but he is not a villain. He’s gruff. He’s short tempered. He’s stubborn. Yet, there always has to be that glimmer of the man inside that deserves Dolly.
The thing you always have to have in a Horace Vandergelder is the quality that when he and Dolly are together, the audience feels truly satisfied that they are together. If he is too much of one thing or another, the audience will accept it because it is the end of the show, but they won’t really go, “Ahhhhh….that’s wonderful.”The audience should really be hoping from the very beginning that they should be together.
You have to have an actor who can play that gruffness without losing that sense of the heart that’s underneath. That is one of the things that Michael does really well.
Ed admits that he is one of those directors that gives pep talks to the company. He likes “speechifying” when he gets the chance.
Not after they open, but he’ll have something to say to the company before the first performance.
They took the whole first week to stage the show and it very well. He knew that everybody was going to be great, but Ed knew that was going to be a great Dolly when they did the first run through, he got that feeling, when he first saw Dancing and the other numbers such as Put On Your Sunday Clothes. He was actually being engaged emotionally with what was on stage. When they did the final run through and they did the title number, it totally blew him away.
THAT’S when he knew this was going to be a great Dolly.

What are the future audiences for Dolly? That is an interesting and hard question for Ed. He hopes to prove that younger people coming in to see the show will have the same reaction and be charmed in the same way as all audiences. In fact, in the first week, Ed had friends coming in, one a seventeen year old girl. As of this interview, he was very anxious to see how she felt about the show. He does feel that anyone at any age who is open to the theater going experience is going to feel everything that every audience feels when they see Dolly. The problem is not necessarily how younger audiences feel about Dolly. The problem is how they are going to feel about LIVE THEATER.

Fort Atkinson is a fairly small town. There is a girl who works at the local grocery store, The Century. Ed talked to her before they did Legally Blonde earlier in the season. As soon as it was on their season, she was so excited and couldn’t stop talking about.

Leslie Becker

She had to see it. It was her favorite show.

She had seen the movie. She had seen it on Broadway and just loved it. It was a fabulous production. She saw it at Fireside and loved it.

When Ed mentioned Hello, Dolly to her after it, she said she never heard of it. “That’s an old show. Isn’t it?” Ed says if he can’t get them in at The Fireside, they will become customers. If they come in, they will be as enthusiastic as any audience. The challenge, and this is the challenge of ALL live theater, and especially those in regional theaters, is in encouraging younger audiences to come to the theater.

Who could play Dolly today in a Broadway revival and sell tickets? The only marquee names now on Broadway are film and television people. Ed no longer feels that there are now Broadway stars who sell tickets to the common theater goer or tourist.

Leslie Becker

Of course, they are not as familiar with those names as previous theater audiences were with Broadway stars in the fifties and sixties. So now, the Broadway stars of today are, once again, those film and television stars who come to do shows. That being said, it is difficult to pick a Dolly from the current crop.

Ed does feel that Hello, Dolly is among the top five best of his career.

The last time Ed directed a production of Dolly was in 2003.
Every time he revisits a show, he discovers new things and comes up with new things.
Some of the staging, they’ve adapted a bit. His choreographer is the same choreographer he worked with in 2003. She has actually choreographed a few productions for Fireside. He is using some of the same staging as previously.
Every time he revisits a show, he discovers new things and comes up with new things.
Some of the staging, they’ve adapted a bit. His choreographer is the same choreographer he worked with in 2003. She has actually choreographed a few productions for Fireside. He is using some of the same staging as previously.

Leslie plays a warmer, more intelligent character that truly connects with the individual people on the stage in a different way from the last time and his last Dolly was fabulous.
She was just in another direction.

Like any good director, especially in musical theater, your work shouldn’t be obvious to an audience. There are some directors who pull attention to themselves by doing something clever in the staging.
That doesn’t always serve the piece. That doesn’t make for good directing. Ed brings his concept of the show, his sense of pacing, and takes it in a direction that has been discussed earlier here.
It is a sense of an audience getting and seeing what each actor is bringing into the piece. It is Ed’s job to make sure that all of that works and goes out to the audience and is invisible to the audience.  That is what he brings to the table as the director. He has been successful with that.

He doesn’t tweak a show a lot after a show opens beyond taking notes. He comes in once a week or maybe every two weeks for a note session, but by and large it’s a fairly short run.
It’s only a nine week run. Most of what needs to be done is a little bit of policing, especially with a show that has a lot of slapstick and that type of humor. That is the job of the production stage manager more than it is of the director.

This makes sure that the show doesn’t get away from its honest core. There are some directors who, if they don’t watch the show and come back in a few months, they get crazy because things change. Things always change, little things. It is a big mistake for a director to come in and discourage people from growing. He doesn’t think people should be allowed to get too big.
They need to be consistent. Thing are going to grow however, and some things are going to be a little bit deeper. Actors are going to discover things that perhaps were not discussed with Ed. The director really has to sit there and put the go aside. The director has to sometimes say, “That’s fine. It works in the production.”

The Fireside Theater is a little off the radar for some outside of Fort Atkinson and Leslie Becker may be off of the radar of some of the people with Fort Atkinson’s borders, but here’s hoping both change that paradigm.

They do so many shows at the Fireside and there are so many good shows out there. It’s a privilege to do the classics. If Ed was a director of Shakespeare, he would feel the same way about the times he would direct Hamlet or Julius Caesar or any of the other real classics of the theater. As a director or as an actor, some people lose touch when they are in a show, like Hello, Dolly! or Fiddleror Fair Lady, that they are truly doing the masterworks of American musical theater. It always increases your zeal of the art when you’re working with a show that is so well crafted. It is an appreciation of the art and your learning how to do your work better and well is always uplifted by great works.

Ed’s first production of Dolly was in 1981. Dolly, for Ed, has a particular ability to speak directly to an audience in a way that some other shows don’t have. Directing the show, and especially directing it the first time, and not just because it’s  very presentational and the characters break the fourth wall occasionally, but you look at a show like Fiddler or Oklahoma!, which are wonderful shows, but they don’t reach out and embrace the audience in the same way that Dolly does. That was certainly a lesson to Ed in exactly how to do it and that he could apply to other shows.  Dolly is pretty bullet proof.

The Fireside Theater is a twenty by twenty stage but they have excellent Broadway quality dancers. His choreographer, Kate Swan, is fabulous. She is an award-winning union choreographer and director of musical theatre.
As a director and choreographer, she has worked Off and Off-Off Broadway, in LORT houses, dinner theatres, universities, and summer stock. Obviously, there are certain things you cannot do on a twenty by twenty stage just by virtue of the fact that you can’t go leaping like you would over a forty foot proscenium.
There are still no liabilities or weaknesses that they have to adhere to. The Fireside is really known for having really strong casts all the way around from time to bottom. They always operate from a position of strength.

The Hello, Dolly number, itself, always stops the show because it is a “formula piece”, but it’s the piece that invented the formula.
You lead up to it. You start to lead up to it in the first act. You lead up to it in the second act. Dolly is almost always on stage in the first act and then she disappears.

So there is a feeling, even though you’re enjoying the Waiter’s Gallop and everything that precedes that, of “Where’s Dolly?” You want to see her again. By the time you get to it as an audience, as she comes in in one of the greatest entrances of all time, and down the staircase, and then you have this really terrific number.

If you really listen to the number from beginning to end, there is a build; there is an orchestral build, there is a build in the music, it is just so wonderful, you cannot help but be excited at the very end with that kick line. You would have to be dead to feel that.
Ed’s job is to interpret the show. He doesn’t desire to impose anything on it that isn’t there. His job is to bring out what IS there and present it to an audience in a way they can truly relate to. He doesn’t believe in taking something like Dolly and saying, “I think I’ll set it in civil war time.” Since starting to go to the theater at six years of age, the biggest change that Ed has seen in the theater since then is now a Broadway show has to be an “event.” People go to the theater now as a tourist attraction. When he was growing up in New York, there were plenty of people who would finish work, call their ticket agent, and see what show they could go see that night.
Ed remembers very often just going into the city and walking around on a Saturday afternoon and deciding what show he would want to see. Theater was an industry for people, for theater-goers. You didn’t have to plan six months in advance. Shows could stay open without having to sell out at one and two hundred dollars a ticket.

The biggest change Ed has seen in the musical theater is the transition from going to the theater and having a wonderful experience to people going to the theater now to see Spiderman as opposed to Bonnie and Clyde.
The theater, once again, has become an “event” and has to be more dazzling and spectacular in order just to stay viable.
That is not to say that some of the great shows that are selling tickets now are not great shows. They are. Some of them are terrific shows. The nature of musical theater and Broadway has changed.

When he directed the first Dolly, they were a very young theater. It was also non-Equity at the time.
They had younger actors playing the roles. His Dolly was terrific but she was way too young to play the role.

Ed loves Barbra Streisand.
He thinks she is amazing. She is one of his favorite entertainers of all time, but he doesn’t think she is a Dolly.
He also thinks she read too young and she was “Barbra Streisand.” She wasn’t Dolly.

Ed loves Jerry Herman. The Fireside has also done Mame. They have not done any other Jerry Herman musicals, although Ed would like to and hopes to someday.

The very first Herman show that Ed saw on Broadway was Milk and Honey in 1961, he was eleven.

He thinks Herman is clever without being “smartass”. His lyrics are really excellent without drawing attention to them. They are really natural. He writes songs that come out of the characters and the scenes. He is one of the great composers of the American musical theater.

Hello, Dolly, to Ed Flesch, embodies what musical theater is capable of. He believes, as an artist, his job is to make people feel better about the human condition, about what it is to be a human and have human relationships.
Of all the shows that he has worked on and that he knows about, Hello, Dolly does it better than any other show.

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