Jenifer Lewis: Hello, Dolly! Fifth Avenue Theatre Seattle, WA March 2009
Jenifer Lewis, a star of film (currently starring in Black-ish on ABC, and has appeared in Sister Act I and II, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Jackie’s Back!), TV (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Friends), and stage ( Motormouth Maybelle in Broadway’s Hairspray and as Yvette in George Wolfe’s star-studded Mother Courage, helmed by Meryl Streep), describes the role of Dolly as a “lifelong ambition,” one to which she brought her own original interpretation. Her professional relationship with director David Armstrong goes back to New York in the ‘80s, when he directed her in a series of influential cabarets. These shows, including Jenifer Lewis on the Couch and Jenifer Lewis in the Cosmos, helped her create her comically outrageous Diva persona, and culminated in her hit show at the Public Theatre, The Diva is Dismissed. Lewis says that while her “diva experience” was useful for approaching the role of Dolly, it lacked one crucial attribute: warmth. “Dolly’s a star who has been humbled,” she explains. “That’s what makes her so appealing, and so wise. She’s wise, warm, and wonderful. You want Dolly on your team.”
In June 2010, Lewis’ distinctive voice was in fine form as she told The Jazz Joy and Roy syndicated radio show, “I just did a production of ‘Hello Dolly’ at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle and it had to be one of the greatest productions that I have ever done, because I got to just do a character, Dolly Levi, and it was just great.”
Broadway, film and television star Jenifer Lewis was a safe bet to don the formidable shoes of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and many others as Dolly Gallagher Levi, and that bet paid off in the David Armstrong directed and choreographed Hello, Dolly!
But casting Pat Cashman, a veteran radio and TV personality with little or no stage experiences as skinflint Horace Vandergelder? Or Suzanne Bouchard, one of Seattle’s primo purveyors of sophisticated women’s roles from Shakespeare to Coward in the open-hearted and vocally challenging soprano role of Irene Molloy? That was the gamble. Well, the payoff was on 5th Avenue stage in a satisfying Dolly with some captivating choreography that did the memory of the show’s original director/choreographer Gower Champion proud without slavishly mimicking his work. (Source: Risky Casting Pays off in 5th Avenue’s Hello, Dolly!)
The 5th’s entire production has been well-cast, with many players who frequently appear on the 5th Avenue stage. The songs are still as purposeful and catchy as ever, and the choreography as athletic. There’s a reason plays like Hello Dolly survive decades and cultural shifts. In this case, it’s mainly because the theme of finding true love—more specifically of love not being all accessible and rosy and easy and perfect all the time—are timeless.(Source: Hello Dolly Proves Timely Still Review)
David Edward Hughes wrote in The Seattle Times in 2009, “Broadway, film and television star Jenifer Lewis was a safe bet to don the formidable shoes of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and many others as Dolly Gallagher Levi, and that bet pays off in the David Armstrong directed and choreographed Hello, Dolly!”
She earned the RIGHT to BE Dolly Levi!
2013 Bistro Award Winner Jenifer Lewis was born in Kinloch, Missouri, to a nurse's aide mother and a factory worker father.
She was BORN a leader! She has always been a leader. She can remember leading in the third grade, God help her! She went from her youth doing talent shows in the Catholic school basement.
She comes from a poverty stricken area. She comes from great poverty. She literally used an out house until she was in the ninth grade. To add insult to injury, they lived across from the high school, so she was teased every day. However, when she got to high school, she became president of the school class and remained president until she graduated her senior year!
She was also the captain of the cheerleading squad. She was always in that leadership position. She is the baby of seven children and it shows. By the time she was born, her mother was exhausted, so she’s been begging for attention ever since! She attended Kinloch High School and then college at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri majoring in theater arts.
Ms. Lewis got her BA in theater arts and went straight to New York. Soon after she arrived in New York City she got her first professional job within her first two weeks of arriving, Lewis debuted on Broadway in a small role in Eubie (1979), the musical based on the work of Eubie Blake. In New York, she went from Broadway show to Broadway show. She did Comin’ Uptown with Gregory Hines, Rock and Roll: The First Five Thousand Years which they nicknamed Rock and Roll: The First Five Thousand Minutes because it lasted sixteen performances.She had no fear in her. She next landed the role of Effie White in the workshop of the Michael Bennett-directed musical Dreamgirls, but when the show moved to Broadway, Bennett chose Jennifer Holliday for the role.
She was hired as “the actress” to develop the role knowing they were going to hire Jennifer Holliday. Jenifer was never upset about that because at the time she didn’t know it was going to be the hit it became. She already had a job doing the national tour of Eubie so she was fine not being asked back. She went up to Boston and did a production of Mahalia. She remembers coming back to New York and hearing And I am Telling You on the radio. The song was released before the show opened. She was getting out of the shower when she heard it.
She had not heard it since SHE sang it. She literally whipped her towel off and bowed down to the radio. She thought, “Damn! I can sing but NOBODY can sing like that!” Jenifer got paid throughout the run of Dreamgirls for her contribution to the workshop. Michael Bennett started a workshop process with A Chorus Line. Everyone who participated in the workshops was compensated throughout the run whether they were cast or not.Bette Midler snatched her up and Lewis accepted a position as a Harlette, a back-up singer for Midler which led to Lewis' first TV appearances on Midler's HBO specials. She had the time of her life in 1983 touring with her.She did a forty town tour with her and rest assured there are forty stories! To this day, Bette Midler is very supportive of Jenifer’s career. They are friends and Jenifer has a million stories. She loves Bette. Bette has always been there for Jenifer. Jenifer recently returned to New York City cabaret for a sold out run at 54 Below. That led to her Bistro Award. Bette Midler was there opening night which was incredible; Jenifer didn’t know she was coming. Jenifer said she raised the bar and gave her everything she had. They have maintained that relationship since 1983.
Ms. Lewis landed her first screen role as a result of her relationship with Midler, appearing as one of the buxom chorines in the 'Otto Titsling' production number in the Midler vehicle Beaches (1988). At the same time, Lewis was developing her nightclub act, The Diva Is Dismissed, an autobiographical comedy and music show in New York City cabarets.
She appeared at Freddy’s, The Bushes, Sweetwater’s, Don’t Tell Mama, which was her spot. When she was there, it was next to impossible to get in.
Eddie Murphy’s manager, Robert Wachs, came to Don’t Tell Mama one night. This was her Lana Turner classic story.
He said, “Come on out to Hollywood and I’ll make you a star.” She went out and he took care of her. It was at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
She was emotionally ill-prepared for Hollywood. She also had been taught to hit the back row and in Hollywood, everything needs to be brought more inward to be small for the camera.
She didn’t know anything about being small. She was still hitting the back row. That transition was not easy from stage to camera. After the AIDS epidemic hit, Jenifer pretty much fell apart.
She went to get help and discovered that she was bi-polar. She literally has a list of one hundred and fifty guys she knew.
She was emotionally unable to make the transition in Hollywood until she got into therapy. She was diagnosed and stayed in therapy for seventeen years and became very successful in Hollywood. As of this writing, she has just been hired for two movies. These will add up to sixty-five movies! She has done 259 television shows. She has done four Broadway shows including her most recent, Hairspray.
In 1988, Lewis relocated to Los Angeles.
People often ask Jenifer how she became a star and she tells them what she knows. She never knew she wasn’t a star! She was so “naïve” in thinking otherwise.
It was what she desired to be. It is what she became. She worked her ass off. She has had a great career and it has been wonderful. It is her brand of life. She has never been married. She married her career. She has no regrets. She has had four good relationships. Life has been good in that way.
When Hello, Dolly happened for Jenifer at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle, she says it was the most exciting thing to happen to her. David Armstrong had directed some of Jenifer’s cabaret shows in New York. He was now part of the 5th Avenue Theater directing and producing team. He called her and asked her to come up to Seattle. Nothing was going to stop her from doing that. She was so excited she could not see straight. When she approached the theater and saw her face on the marquee, and it was so big that her knees got weak, it was just another aspect of an entire experience that was one of her greatest memories.
Dolly Levi is a whole full character. She is compassionate. She is fun. She is smart. She is lonely. She is everything. She is a package of humanity. It is one of the greatest roles ever written. Sometimes Jenifer will find herself singing, “Out there! There’s a world outside of Yonkers…” Hearing and singing, “Listen, Barnaby!” she loses her mind. Sitting backstage every performance, waiting for her next entry when she starts Dolly’s part of Put on Your Sunday Clothes when you feel down and out…” would charge her up. Barnaby, as is often the case, almost stole the show from Jenifer.
In this case, that actor was played by Mo Brady. “He was so good!”
She also had a great Horace Vandergelder, Pat Cashman. He is a local Seattle star, a veteran radio and TV personality. The entire cast was unbelievable. The chorus also had her back. She almost fell one night making that famous entrance down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens.
Two dancers jumped in quickly and the audience had no idea.
They were so attentive and they were there for Jenifer/Dolly’s every move and every breath. She gave her all every night. A great director, a great cast, a great conductor, great sets, great costumes all add up to a blissful experience. Money was spent on Dolly, her dresses alone were worth the price of admission!Jenifer brought Jenifer Lewis straight in there! She also brought a lot of Pearl Bailey in. She brought a little of the blues. She put her stamp on it. She stayed with the melody a lot.
She didn’t desire to mess with those great melodies but she would sneak in her riffs when she could, just as Bailey did.
Dolly absolutely spoke with Jenifer on a personal level. Those moments with Ephraim resonated because of loves that she has lost in her own life. Jenifer’s life is huge.
She is a constant show business. When was the time for relationships? There was one guy that she dated in college that has since passed away. She was deeply in love with him. They were not together when he passed away. He was a very spiritual guy and Jenifer always felt his presence.
She would go out to the beach sometimes and “talk” to him. She understood Dolly.
The one life lesson that Jenifer learned on this production of Dolly that she has carried forth in her career since then is to study MORE, to do MORE work, to get MORE involved. She learned so much playing Dolly.
She had never STARRED in a musical prior to this. She had great roles in college and studied the classics. She starred in everything else, but NOT a musical. She didn’t know it was going to be that much work. Add to that, the dresses! She thought, “What the hell!?!?!” Every costume was built on Jenifer’s body. Nothing was rented for this production. Every costume was made from scratch.
The whole process was unbelievable. She had no idea that it was going to be that detailed. “David Armstrong does not f!@# around!” He is one of the greatest directors that she knows.
Because she had worked with him, she trusted him. She was safe in his arms. She was safe in his knowledge. He respects the art form. He respected the integrity of the music and the orchestrations.
It was a huge orchestra. Who gets that anymore? It was a full orchestra with strings, horns, it was crazy wonderful!
The music is what has created the lasting legacy of Hello, Dolly over the past forty nine years and the characters. Who doesn’t know the title song?
It is known all over the world. The world has seen it thanks to Streisand. Pearl Bailey performed the songs on frequent television appearances. Then there is Louis Armstrong who everybody loved. Everybody has heard him sing Hello, Dolly! Then there are the many actresses who have played Dolly and will continue to do so. It really went into Jenifer’s soul. Dolly and Mama Rose were on her bucket list.
She still desires to play Mama Rose. When she came around that corner, both literally and figuratively, and saw her face on that marquee. It was one dream come true. Her only regret is that it wasn’t on Broadway. The first inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States took place on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. Jenifer was there. Nothing was like the inauguration, but she admits that she should have stayed home and studied more.
She was not really ready opening night. She sat behind that newspaper for her first entrance and was so nervous. She felt like she didn’t know her lines. She got through the show that night and grew as time went on. One critic got her, however, that first performance. He said things that were true. Most of the people who wrote great reviews for Jenifer had interviewed her prior to the show.
Some of them had even come into a rehearsal and saw a number or two. She was not ready opening night. She grew into it. After the third performance, she was unstoppable. She was on! She pulled it off. David was happy and that was her main concern.
Jenifer has never seen another Dolly on stage. She can’t believe she hasn’t, but she hasn’t. She watched Mimi Hines on YouTube as part of her preparation, and of course, Streisand and Pearl Bailey.
There is a lot of Dolly in Jenifer. An actor on stage is first and foremost the actor portraying the character. An actor can only bring to the character what they know and what they’ve experienced in life. The other aspects are based on study and technique. Jenifer studied Stanislavski. She picked the character apart.
That’s why she speaks of her passions. She had a lot in common with Dolly. She is not a matchmaker, but she is a bit of a sage. As this blog/chapter attests to, she has lived a lot of life! Jenifer can sayshe can claim wisdom. She was drawn to that aspect of her being and she is very generous with her stories.
She never tries to preach to people or teach people. She lives her life the best she can and when they see her light, that’s fine. She’s in the middle of writing her memoirs.
Looking back on her career, she cannot imagine Hello, Dolly not being a part of that magnificent resume. Now, she just needs to add Mama Rose. If she has to produce it herself, she WILL do Gypsy!
Hello, Dolly ran for one month, March of 2009. When Jenifer is playing a character, regardless of the medium, time doesn’t exist. When the doors of whatever medium she is in close, she is only in that world. Outside that theater, it was bleak in Seattle and rainy. She stayed in side: in the rehearsal space and eventually the theater.
Once Obama's Inauguration was over, she dove in! She has aged a little and her memory is not what it used to be. She goes down two flights to her car only to find out she forgot her keys! She would do things differently now. Learning lines is not as easy as it used to be. Hello, Dolly is not stop talking!
There was and has not been anything else in her career like her closing night. The audience would not stay down. From the moment she did the reprise to I Put My Hand In, she got a standing ovation on practically every song.
She had the Jenifer stamp on EVERY song. That came from the JOY of the lyrics and the music and the orchestrations.
When the curtain came down that night, Jenifer felt satisfied which is a rarity.
One tends to feel they can do better. She KNEW she had done her best. She dreamed as a child of being on The Johnny Carson Show, NOT the Tonight Show, but The Johnny Carson Show. She was on the very last show with Bette Midler along with Charlotte Crossley, also one of the original Harlettes.
Robin Williams was backstage. Linda Hopkins made Johnny greens and fried chicken. What a night it was!
You cannot tell Jenifer dreams do not come true. That feeling of satisfaction returned when she closed in Dolly. It is BLISS. It is Bliss when one gets what they desire.
When one can sing songs with Bette Midler, or as Dolly, or on The Johnny Carson Show THAT is Bliss. There is, however, a moment that surpasses Dolly. Jenifer was called to sing for a Black History Month celebration with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, 64 pieces, and with an 84 voice choir in her hometown in February 2012. In attendance were her high school teachers, her friends from high school and college, her professors, her aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews, fans from every area of her career. It was sold out. They were all there for Jenifer. She was THEIR Dolly coming home! This was at Powell Symphony Hall. When Jenifer was a little girl, it was “No Blacks Allowed.” There she was in the most beautiful theater in the Midwest singing.
It was an unbelievable orchestra. She sang As If We Never Said Goodbye, and there were collective cheers! She WILL play Mama Rose! She believes that with every essence of her being!
When Jenifer stood at the top of those stairs every performance, she was home.
Jenifer Lewis wishes they still wrote shows like Hello, Dolly today! She honors the composers, the writers, Jerry Herman, they all CARED! When a writer and composer and lyricist and a director care enough to make a production that entertaining, the actor can only care more to give everything to that script.
When they give their best with something rich and meaningful, and a true artist gets a hold of it, they can ONLY give their absolute best.
It is an absolute joy to receive that kind of material.
Updated July 19, 2018: Jenifer can be seen in Black-ish on ABC on Tuesday nights and read Jenifer's Memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood.