‘Hello, Dolly!’ was first produced in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1980 and South Africa’s first Dolly was Joan Brickhill (1924 – 2014). Joan and her husband Louis Burke were a husband and wife team who were the dominant force in the musical theatre scene in South Africa for twenty years from the mid 1960s. They had been trying to secure the rights to Hello, Dolly! unsuccessfully for many years but it was only after Michael Stewart, who wrote the book for both ‘Hello, Dolly’ and ‘I Love My Wife’ (which Joan and Louis had successfully produced in South Africa) saw Joan walk down a flight of steps into Sardi’s restaurant where they had a lunch date, that he agreed to do everything he could to see that they were granted the rights. Joan, who was South Africa’s first lady of South African musical theatre, knew how to make an entrance and how to walk down a staircase and Michael Stewart sensed immediately that she had the warmth, glamour, grace and humour needed to portray Mrs Dolly Levi.
Joan and Louis chose ‘Hello, Dolly’ as the final production at His Majesty’s theatre, a large old art deco theatre in the centre of Johannesburg that they had taken a lease on for 5 years in a brave but ill- fated attempt to save, as the area had become run down and activity had moved into the suburbs. They spared no expense on the final production and the show received rave reviews and was sold out for its entire run with standing ovations every night. In the last month before the theatre closed, the demand for tickets was so high that the show was performed twice nightly, but alas it was too late to save the theatre. Joan received the DALRO award (South Africa’s equivalent to a Tony) for best performance by an actress in a musical and even Margaret Thatcher was spotted in the audience one night.
Joan had been appearing onstage since the age of two and had been dubbed “The Shirley Temple of the sugar cane fields.” She had initially become a drama teacher on leaving school, then an award winning radio actress. She had gone on to play everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Shaw, but it was in was in musical theatre that she became famous.
She and Louis presented many musicals in South Africa such as ‘Oklahoma’, ‘The Boyfriend” and the first productions of ‘Grease’ and ‘Annie’ to name but a few, with Joan usually directing and choreographing, but Joan also played Ado Annie in ‘Oklahoma’ and Maisie in ‘The Boyfriend’. From the mid 1960s, she starred in a series of follies extravaganza revues which they devised which brought her national fame.
Besides her talents as a singer and dancer, Joan was a wonderful comedienne and won rave reviews for her portrayals of Miss Hannigan in ‘Annie’ and for Mame Dennis in ‘Mame’. In 1991 she was nominated for a Tony award for best choreography for ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ which Louis directed on Broadway, but she considered her greatest work to be ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and nobody that saw her in the show will ever forget her strutting her stuff with the waiters of the Harmonia Gardens in a beautiful red gown with feathers in her hair, one of those magical moments in the theatre.
Joan died just short of her 90th birthday in January 2014. Despite her star quality onstage, she was known for her humble and unassuming nature. She was greatly loved by everyone that worked with her and she always had time to nurture and encourage new talent. She was deeply mourned by many South Africans all over the world when the time came to say goodbye to our Dolly.
They chose ‘Hello, Dolly’ as their final production at His Majesty’s theatre
(Contributing writer Graham Sonnenberg)