Joey Patton: A Director’s Perspective on Hello, Dolly!
Joey’s first encounter with Dolly Levi when the national tour starring Mary Martin played New Orleans, Louisiana in 1965. His favorite, of all the Dollys he has seen, is Mary Martin skipping around the passerelle singing counter harmony to the Dolly number. She was so joyous, and putting her head through that curtain at the top of the stairs in the Harmonia Gardens scene and coming out with that Peter Pan giggle.
The first production that Joey was actively involved in, he choreographed and played Stanley. It was still running on Broadway at the time but this was at Canal Fulton Summer Playhouse in Canal Fulton, Ohio.
There was a director there named Rinaldo Capaluto. Joey had auditioned as a performer and it got down to the wire of him playing the Emcee in Cabaret. That led him to the choreographer position for Hello, Dolly! The star was Gisele MacKenzie. Joey says she was adorable. His parents came up from Louisiana, as they always did when he did a show. They came up for the closing of Fiddler on the Roof and the opening of Dolly! His mother had this wonderful purse with her. Gisele saw this and said, “That’s Dolly’s purse!” Joey’s mother, Frieda, said, “ It’s yours!!” Gisele ended up using the purse in Dolly.
Joey’s parents would arrive with one suitcase with twelve boxes all tied together. His mother would bake pecan pies in Louisiana and bring them to the cast. The night they would arrive, Joey’s father would buy vanilla ice cream and the entire company had Frieda’s pecan pies with vanilla ice cream! Frieda has been gone about twenty five years. Before she passed, she told Joey on the phone, “Don’t forget baby, I’m always there front row center.” More important than Frieda’s pecan pie recipe, Joey owns Frieda’s charm bracelet, with every charm that she ever collected. He always used to know where she was sitting in the theater because of the sound of the charms as she applauded. Since Frieda’s passing, Joey has always assigned this bracelet to someone in the audience so he can still feel and hear Frieda’s presence.
Over the years, Joey has done a lot of productions of Dolly. A couple with a fabulous performer named Susie (Elizabeth) French. She just had it! That thing that is indescribable. He did two productions with her. He also loved doing it with Sheila Smith.
Joey choreographed the first one with Gisele. After that, he directed and choreographed all subsequent productions.
Joey feels that Hello, Dolly! is one of those musicals that is deceptively simple. You believe it all about the “lady” and the four dance steps. Each number has its own primary dance step. Dolly number is the duck walk. The Dancing number is called the “ticky tacks.”
The Parade number is “Step , ball, change, march two three four”. Again, it is all deceptively simple. You believe you are seeing something simple, but, in actuality, what Gower did, was stage it in a way that Dolly was always the center of the numbers.
Only once did he deal with a Dolly who tried to play the “star card” and it wasn’t intentional. It was with an actress who was in her seventies, at the time. After a preview, she asked Joey if he could give her HER notes in the dressing room. Joey told her that for her sake he could not. He told her that she was part of the company and if she remained a part of that company, they would love, adore, and support her. Being “separate” was what she was used to. It was in no way negative. The actress was Jane White of Once Upon a Mattress fame. Joey said she was wonderful and they remained friends. They lived in the same neighborhood and would frequently get together for lunch.
Joey absolutely believes that Dolly would be a viable Broadway vehicle in the twenty-first century if it was a brand new vehicle without its rich history. It’s an incredibly entertaining show and it’s about love and the lack of it. It’s one of the great musicals derived from a great play. “If you know how to love, you can be happy. If you don’t, you can’t.”
He also has done it a couple of times in the round. There was one of those “six day wonders” where it just gelled. When you’re staging a show, you are never better than the actors and script. You can take one person if you have the time and really focus on them. But generally it’s all in the casting. And in one particular production, he HAD to be creative. There is no way you can take a show in the round and reproduce it the way it was in a proscenium theater.
You can, of course, pick up qualities of the original.
Joey once did a production in association with Northwestern University. It was a high school production. He was brought in to stage a cast of ninety students. They had a real train on the stage. It was one of those children’s steam powered locomotives. It went across the stage with lots of people sitting in on it. He had two weeks with them. The show was basically blocked prior to Joey. He was brought in to shape it, to set the dance numbers, and give notes. When those kids realized what Joey already knew, what they had, it was magic. They didn’t know what they had until it clicked. For the rest of their lives, they will have known what that “thing” is and it is indefinable.
Joey has always believed that the ultimate love song in the American musical theater is Hello, Dolly! How many people know the name of a waiter? She KNOWS those people. A lot of those jobs at that time were passed down. Some of those kids whose fathers were chefs were peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Some of the waiters, their own brothers or kids were the bus boys. Being a waiter also took enormous skill in a rather expensive restaurant on Fourteenth Street, the basis for Luchow’s. In Joey’s own mind, Dolly’s husband dies. Dolly and Ephraim were a couple who tipped everybody. If a kid was born to one of the waiters, Dolly and Ephraim would bring a gift.
The last time all of those waiters saw Dolly was at Ephraim’s funeral. And she’s back! And she looks beautiful! And time has stood still for her. She comes down the stairs and says “Hello, Harry. Hello, Louie.” She recognizes those familiar faces. And they all sing back, “Hello, Dolly!” It is the ultimate love song and in that modulation, IF they believe it, they will start shedding tears.
Every night with that modulation, Joey would see that take place. As much as it is about her, she is in awe that they feel this way about her. She never knew. She knew how she felt. She never knew how they felt. Those great musicals are about the generosity of spirit of the person in the leading role. When the star makes the show about everyone they come into contact with, the audience will find out everything about them (meaning the star).
Joey only uses the preview period for tweaking. It is all about inspiring the actors. He will give a note that says “try this” as opposed to sitting down with them and saying, “Why not consider doing this?” His stock question is “Do you know what you don’t know?” It’s like Minnie Fay and Barnaby being attracted to each other and yet shy. It’s like Dolly in the Dancing number and being in dance position and she is pushing Cornelius’ feet with her own, moving them around, and he’s looking down at his feet, and she foes, “One (pushing his foot), Two (pushing his foot), three…one, two, three, one two three”, and he says, “Look, I’m dancing….well, I was.” And she says, “Of course you were, Mr. Hackl.” It is just loving these characters and letting them soar.
Joey experienced that same feeling when Cyd Charise stood up on her toes in Grand Hotel. It was like going back in time.
Joey said the one thing he learned on his first production of Dolly that he has carried throughout his career is the importance of casting. He has worked with John Canemaker, who has played Cornelius several times (once with Sheila MacRae). John was drawing caricatures that summer and went to Manhattan Marymount College to get some life experience credits. He graduated and created the animation department at New York University.
He won an Oscar several years ago for his animation of The Sun and the Moon. So you never know who’s in your cast!
His job as choreographer and/or director is to make everyone look good. He also is always involved in the casting process. He once missed the mark in his casting choices in Dolly and he was highly influenced by the other people in the room. Positively influenced. It wasn’t as if others were saying “You have to hire my friend.” It was that the actor’s intentions were off.
Joey has had a busy full career and once a show had moved beyond the preview stage, he was on to the next project and very rarely went back to visit them. He would travel back to New York, sleep, put the audition material together for his next show, and on to his next project. One year he did eleven shows in twelve weeks in four different theaters.
He has always had a routine for every show. At the first rehearsal, forty minutes was his. It would normally be the forty minutes prior to lunch. He would tell his company , “We are truly blessed. At one point, we were all that strange person that wanted to sing and dance when everybody else wanted to be a cheerleader. Here, in this space, you ALL get to do the thing that you love. And you’re getting paid for it. You might not be getting a lot. AND you are in a room surrounded by people who love what you love. Support each other. “
When Joey first moved to New York, he saw Ginger Rogers as Dolly. He saw it from the second row! He found Ginger cute and adorable. She was with David Burns and there was a “break-up” moment in the hat shop scene that she had incorporated and you always believed it.
He also saw Phyllis do it who he also thought was wonderful. She didn’t play “Phyllis” which made her wonderful but it was not what the audiences desired.
He also saw Ethel Merman do it a couple of times. “Magic.” No one else was ever like her. She was brassy but also had that vulnerability. Everyone seems to forget she had that in Gypsy. Everything’s Coming Up Roses is all about vulnerability and pain.
He also saw Betty Grable play Dolly. Again, wonderful. If you’ve got a personality, it just floats. Carole Cook says a gorilla can play the role because of the way Gower structured it! She goes on to say that any actress who comes down the stairs and does not grab the audience, get out of the business.
He saw Carol do the role many years later. Watching Carol, he always felt it was written for her. You never got the sense that it had been written for anyone else in mind. He saw the last two revivals. Joey would love to see Bernadette Peters play Dolly. Years ago, they studied with the same voice teacher, a guy named Jim Gregory. Lee Roy Reams also studied with him. Joey remembers that right after Bernadette was written out of A Mother’s Kisses, there was a straight play that opened and closed in one night. Greg, as Jim Gregory was called, said that if Bernadette was born in a different era she would have been an even more gigantic star. She is so individual and she has a quality that sets her apart. She is totally “yesterday”. He knew that when she was in her early twenties. It was before it clicked for her. He said she would be a star or nothing. Joey feels that quality of yesterday would be delightful for Bernadette as Dolly. It’s very hard to be surrounded and protected of this “special thing she’s got and have the years pass by and still have that freshness.” Mary Martin also had that. Walter Kerr, in his review in The New York Times of The Sound of Music said, “Mary Martin is still the freshest talent on Broadway.”
No matter how you thought about David Merrick, here was a producer who made it happen! He may not have done it with a great deal of kindness from what we gather. BUT, he accomplished it!
One big change in the industry that Joey has seen that he doesn’t think is for the better is that we don’t have songs on the hit parade anymore. Everybody knew the title, Hello, Dolly! Man of La Mancha, The Impossible Dream musical. Mame. All of those. You also had shows in New York like The Tonight Show and even The Today Show that would bring the stars of those shows on. Then there was the Ed Sullivan Show that would do full segments.
Hello, Dolly! has always made Joey happy. He is happier leaving a performance of Hello, Dolly! than any other show he has seen or been a part of. He feels that is pretty universal. Most people feel better leaving than they were when they walked in.