It’s great when people think of you for a role. So much of the business is who you know and it breeds a lot of work. Julian Brightman got a couple of WEST SIDE STORIES from Dolly connections, a show every performer should get to do in their career . People often ask about working with Carol at auditions which is a good ice breaker and he even got an agent from Dolly, too. Never underestimate the power of what you think is a small role!
Julian had done Peter Panwith Bill Bateman and he hired him for HELLO, DOLLY! with Madeline Kahn. Lee Roy directed with Bill as dance captain on Carol’s revival so he was very fortunate to be invited to that cast. Connections, connections, connections!
Julian Brightman’s first “Dolly” was with Madeline Kahn, a three week summer
tour in ’93 that played Atlanta FOX Theater, the MUNY and the Starlight theatres. The MUNY and Starlight were huge outdoor arenas so it was a challenge to play to the back row and exciting to play to all those people. One of the two was especially huge, the stage flanked by two giant oak trees. To fill the stage they added some local folk to flesh out the parade scene, including some kids under a Chinese dragon, a marching band, etc. For Dolly’s entrance in the opening she usually rides in on a small cart pulled by two poor actors in a horse suit. For Ms Kahn’s production she arrived on a huge double decker bus/carriage pulled by two even larger Clydesdales! It was really impressive according to Julian. At one point one of them relieved himself in the wing and Ms. Kahn’s reaction was a priceless, prim, “oh my!” as only she could say it. She was a very warm person, quiet and sweet. He remembers rehearsing the Dolly number on one of those huge out door stages, and during a pause with the band, Ms Kahn gave them her “Are you in show business…? Then get your feet off the stage!” ( from Blazing Saddles) to the orchestra below the passerelle. Needless to say they all cracked up. She threw everyone a closing night party which was so kind. She wanted to see everyone dance but was bit of a wall flower herself. “When she passed away, we really lost a brilliant comedienne. Her “bone structure” scene in Paper Moon is one I like to watch if I need to cackle. Be sure to talk to Bill Bateman about her, I know he was very fond of her.
In Carol’s revival, they opened in Colorado. The audience response when she came down the steps was something he doesn’t think anyone could have anticipated. From then on, they knew they were in for an exciting run. When they hit Broadway and she came down opening night, it was just one of those truly happy moments, being a part of a slice of theatre history with lots of happy tears.
It is really difficult for Julian to think of someone on stage now equally as unique as Channing. He knows people didn’t know what to do with her when she started in the business, and he wonders if today she might seem just too odd to be put in a show. There is a sense now that casting is about packaging a group of actors , that there is a feeling of some repetitiveness of type and a feeling of pedestrian casting. Granted, It is harder now to take a risk on a new unusual actor in lead roles especially on Broadway. We do have our current “little monsters”… like Bernadette, Pattie, Nathan Lane, Liza. But are we still creating these wonderful oddities by taking chances on casting? On the flip side, how many times does a Channing walk in the door?
His experience with Carol and Dolly was really a result of the Kahn tour. Bill Bateman and Lee Roy Reams brought him into the production without auditioning, so that was really an honor. He thought Carol was a bit wary of him at first, giving him the eye, as she should cause she is no fool. The blonde jazz baby thing belies a wicked sense of humor and intelligence. He thinks he gained her trust and she was ALWAYS kind to him.
They had a month of rehearsal and they ran for about a year and a half. The tour continued after Broadway but Julian got cast as The Boy in The Fantasticksat the Fords Theater in DC with Joe Sears and Jaston Williams of GREATER TUNA so he did not continue with the tour.
What really impressed him about their production was Carol and what she brought to the character later in her career. He had heard so many people say, “oh she’s too old,blahblahblah” – but he thought that because of her age it made the whole story that more poignant. She is a widow looking to take her final chance and get back into life, to not let the “parade pass by’. Dolly is no shrinking violet, but with her husband’s death you could see how she was now experiencing her own mortality. And, as people did not live as long then, he thinks this was a real issue for lots of people in that period. Carol and Dolly getting out there again was truly inspiring and the audiences realized it. He thinks anyones doubts about her abilities were completely blown away. It was a real melding of actor and character.
This production also recreated the original sets, costumes and choreography so seeing all that was petty cool. Julian thinks it will be really difficult to do a new production of the show, so many parts of the original are really iconic. They will need a powerful comedienne to make it her own and a director/choreographer with a really specific vision to see it through. He enjoyed the film version (don’t tell Carol) but he thinks for film Gene Kelly had to open things up and make it include all of NYC as a set. The parade really had to be a full on parade.
Lee Roy Reams as director
Lee Roy is a hoot, but was also a no bullshit kind of guy in rehearsal. We had a whole month of rehearsal, so we were really ready to go, but he would let us know if things were lagging. Lee Roy is old school – a gypsy from way back, so there is that work ethic. Lee Roy can be really bawdy and has a million great show biz stories. In some city I was riding in the car with Lee Roy and Bill Bateman on the way to the show. Lee Roy had been telling the usual bawdy stories and jokes and we were cackling. He made some remark about how sweet and innocent I looked and that he “couldn’t imagine me having sex!” From the back seat I dryly exclaimed, “Well, think again.” Lee Roy nearly drove off the road as he and Bill collapsed with laughter. I was very proud to have broken up the “Sophie Tucker” of gypsies. It was great to see Lee Roy in THE PRODUCERS. I could tell he was really enjoying camping it up as Roger DeBris/Hitler. I also saw him do the lead in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, and he brought his wonderful Sophie Tucker quips and attitude to Zsa Zsa’s interaction with the audience. I never saw Lee Roy “phone it in” on stage, rehearsal or in life. He was a great energy behind our revival of DOLLY.
Julian’s approach to playing Stanley
A lot of my approach to Stanley was just being thrilled to be in the show! It was my second big tour/Broadway show and being with Carol was a real honor. The cast were all fun and a friendly bunch. It was a show when things really clicked. The show itself is a celebration, and audiences were always very responsive so it was not hard to be energetic on stage. Stanley is a fun part cause he has featured moments with Dolly, “lose some weight, Stanley?” Also doing the original choreography and looking forward to the DOLLY number each night was great, especially having gotten through the “Waiters’ Gallop” which precedes it!
He has seen everyone in the cast at least once since closing and they had one reunion a few years ago. Sadly Donald Ives, Jay Garner and more recently Elizabeth Green have all passed on. The faces of people you work with eight shows a week for almost two years are indelible and he will always remember them in their costumes and moments in the show. Don Ives as Carol’s handsome escort in “Dancing” and during the Dolly number, Jay Garner and his dry delivery (Julian’s favorite being him walking past you as he came off stage saying “just keep moving around out there, that way they can’t hit you”) and Elizabeth Green as Mrs Rose (occasionally carting an obscene object or two in her cart as she crossed the stage in the dimly-lit moment.)
The one thing that Julian learned from his involvement with Carol Channing and Dolly that moved him to the next level in his career was definitely Carol’s work ethic. She knew they were there to see her, and not going on was really not a choice she would make. Also Carol’s sense of comedic timing. Comedy is so much more technical than the audience might think. Her eating scene in The Harmonia Gardens was always a work in progress, she was always finding the right speed, the right amount of potato puffs, the right moment for the salt over the shoulder. Check out Chaplin’s “dance of the rolls” and you will see how Carol is in the same tradition of getting these moments right to create a comedic “dance”. Specific moments, takes, line delivery are essential for Dolly’s humor.
Worst experience (if any with the show)
Meeting weird people who stalk people in the show. Being on stage can cast some bizarre spells on audience members, and flattery can also be seductive to those on stage.
I understand the “glamour” of it seems enticing and have definitely been star struck myself, but it is misleading and the person on stage is not who you may have a crush on from the footlights. Of course most folks are polite, harmless fans who are genuinely excited to see shows and thrilled to meet cast members. But you have to be careful who you are friendly to, and know when to draw the line. The moment you feel uncomfortable I say trust your instincts and shut it down. Suffice it to say, I have learned my lesson on this and I think it might be wise for it to be acknowledged in theatre programs for young actors.
Julian’s mom said to him recently when he was down about a lull in his career that he should never forget how fortunate he has been and especially to remember the experience with DOLLY. Channing is theatre royalty and history and the odds of being in something like that are miniscule. He is so proud also that their DOLLY number was filmed by the Smithsonian for their archives and appeared in a special exhibit there about musical theatre. Now that IS something.
Thoughts on Jerry Herman
Jerry was so thrilled for us all and was very hospitable to us when we played LA. He had us to lunch and swimming at his place (he is an accomplished interior designer) and was very generous at our opening.
Of course he is one of the great composers of the golden age of theatre and is still such an enthusiastic member of the community.
He knows how to write a beautiful melody and the score of DOLLY is entirely hummable.
Julian had the score to Dolly throughout his childhood, and he remembers seeing his high school’s production. Hearing the full orchestra play it at their first onstage dress rehearsal was something he will always remember too.
Thoughts on Gower Champion
Of course we didn’t get to meet him, but Carol and Lee Roy were our connection to him and they never fudged on what he would have wanted.
Marge Champion did see the show a few times and I know she passed her thoughts on to Lee Roy and Carol. As for the beauty of Champion’s choreography, the show has a lovely cinematic and constant flow of movement and I believe there is only one scene change behind a curtain.
The choreography is also very idiosyncratic and specific. It’s not just kick step chorus line in the Dolly number, there is never a repeated movement; it is all finely detailed and a smooth economy of movement that really builds to a wonderful finale.
Who would they like to see play Dolly?
He would like to see Bette Midler play Dolly Levi. She has a great sense of physical comedy, the comedic and sympathetic acting chops to handle it and make it her own. It’s a very natural fit.