Kevin Ligon is currently playing Rudolph in Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce! This is Kevin's fifth time on the boards in Hello, Dolly! That is, if you count the first time. He was ten years old and it was a school production. But hey, you gotta start somewhere!
Kevin grew up in Dallas. He started out with Dallas Summer Musicals. At the time that Kevin got involved, it was very much like any other summer stock theater, like Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera or Sacramento Music Circus. Any of those
In the seventies they mounted shows that would go on to bigger things. They mounted Sandy Duncan's Peter Pan. Now, they essentially bring in big national tours which eventually went to Broadway.
In 1981, Kevin got his Actor's Equity card when he worked there for the first time. The show was My Fair Lady with Edward Mulhare. Edward had already done the first national tour of Lady as Henry Higgins. The next show that Kevin did with them was George M! He eventually went on tour with that show for the rest of that summer playing Kenley, the MUNY, Atlanta, and Indianapolis. Kevin met his best friend, Jennifer Smith. That was the summer of 1981. When that was over, he went back to school for that school year. When the school year ended, Kevin once again showed up to audition The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Karen Morrow for Dallas Summer Musicals.
At the same time they were launching a National tour of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. The thinking at the time was that by starting this at Dallas Summer Musicals, they could use some of those contracts to get it moving on a cheaper level. They used the original sets and costumes and original choreography. It was directed by Lucia Victor who was Gower's assistant and production stage manager on the original. Jack Craig who was the dance captain from the original company choreographed. About two thirds of the ensemble came from the Dallas, Texas area and the other third were from New York, many who had done the production before. Once she did her late seventies revival, she toured that off and on for several years. This would be the last big tour...for a while. They opened in Kevin's home town of Dallas, which was wonderful. They then went on to Seattle.Originally, Kevin was a 'cook' because he was a singer. While in Seattle, they decided that they wanted to 'juice up' the Waiter's Gallop some. As stated, they were doing the original Gower Champion choreography. They desired to give it more of a gymnastic feel.
Kevin believes that the movie had some bearing on that. People expected it. So additional flips etc. were added. As a result of these changes, Kevin was given various bits and was moved from being a cook to a waiter. Most of the photographs that Kevin has of that production, he is dressed as a cook, but the truth of the matter is that for most of that year long run, he was a waiter. They toured for six months.
After Seattle, the next stop was Los Angeles. Kevin recalls a party that was thrown by Ross Thoroughly Modern Millie with Carol, and George Burns.
It was August 1982 and it was called a Hello, Carol! party for opening night at the Pavilion Restaurant. Every great older era Hollywood person that Kevin had grown up ideolizing was there like Elizabeth Taylor, who flew in just for the party and stayed on in LA for a 10 day vacation. . Betty White was Ross Hunter's date. Rock Hudson, Dick Van Dyke, Shelly Winters, Red Buttons. It was just wild for this cast to see such luminaries. For this 20 year old boy from Dallas, Texas, it was quite dazzling and thrilling.Nearby was Jerry Herman, "Dolly's" composer-lyricist who supervised this production. According to one article, "The old gang is here," smiled Hunter as Channing, still beaming from the reception she'd received earlier, table hopped with husband Charles Lowe in tow. "Carol's my best friend," the producer proclaimed. Ross Hunter said he worked on the party for days, maybe even weeks! He said, "I just don't throw a party together. I like to seat people together who like each other." He saved a place for Channing at his table.
After Los Angeles, this production toured for another six months. They then took three months off before embarking for another six months.
In that tour, Patrick Quinn played Cornelius. Their original Mrs. Molloy was Pamala Kalt. Jan Neuberger was Minnie Fay, John Gallogly as Barnaby, Michael Booker as Ambrose. Kevin understudied him and got to go on the last week of the tour because Michael Booker also understudied Cornelius and Patrick left a week early to play Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers.
That last week that Kevin played Ambrose, his mom got to go to New Orleans to see him play it which was thrilling. That was the last week of the first leg of the tour. When they returned after a brief hiatus, they got a few new principals, Davis Gaines, who would later go on to fame as the Phantom, came on board as Cornelius.
Gary Wright played Barnaby. Elizabeth Hanson played Mrs. Molloy. KT Bauman played Minnie Fay. KT had appeared with Carol in various productions as Minnie Fay but when it was revived on Broadway in the seventies, she was Ermengarde. They did another six months from March to August. At the end of that tour, Kevin went back to SMU to continue on with his college career after this magical year on the road with Hello, Dolly!
He had two more years of school and then he took a year to assess where he was before moving to New York. He eventually made that move in 1986. It took him a little time to get his footing in New York but he already had a lot of friends due to his Equity work. In addition
to the work that he had done with Dallas Summer Musicals, he had also appeared at Casa Manana in Ft. Worth.
It was there that he did Hello, Dolly! with Ruta Lee.
He played Cornelius. This was in '86. Peter Palmer (Lil' Abner) was Horace Vandergelder.
Unfortunately, when Carol Channing did the last revival of Hello, Dolly! in 1995, Kevin was not available to audition. He wanted to be seen for Cornelius but it did not happen. Michael DeVries, who is a friend of Kevin's, ended up doing that role. He knew a lot of people in that company and at one point when they were on the road, they crossed paths because Kevin was doing A Grand Night for Singing in Florida and they were playing another theater in Ft. Lauderdale. The company of Singing went to see the Dolly company. He had no desire to be part of the ensemble again having done that. Also around the time of the initial auditions for Dolly, Kevin was playing Nicely Nicely in the national tour of Guys and Dolls.
Kevin first heard about the Bette Midler proposed revival around the time the rest of us did...through press releases.
It took Kevin back a bit. It was like a dream come true. He used to sit back in the dressing room with his dressing room mates in the '80s in the tour speculating who would be an appropriate successor to Channing after she was no longer able to do it. Unanimously, they all agreed it should be Bette Midler. Kevin remembers at the time imagining her doing the Dolly number.
He could see her in that red dress. She had already done The Rose and Divine Madness. He was a big fan as everybody was at the time. He thought she seemed at the time, of the current stars of that time, she seemed like someone who had that old fashioned sensibility, that old vaudeville razzmatazz. Of course, there were those infamous Sophie Tucker jokes. She also did a lot of nostalgic retro material and songs from the 1940s.
Kevin thought that she had the correct sensibility to be this kind of character. Even at that time, Channing seemed like someone from an earlier era. Although, Bette was very much 'of the time', she possessed this similar bygone era qualities.
At the time that this production of Dolly was being planned, Kevin was doing Anastasia in Hartford, CT. His agents called to tell him that they had set up an appointment for him for Hello, Dolly! for Rudolph and to cover Vandergelder. They told him that they would be sending him the materials to learn and he was thrilled. In the back of his mind, months earlier when he heard that they were doing it, he thought, "Oh man! Would I ever love to do this show!" It would be a dream come true. He thought to himself,what would he do in the show, because at his age, there wouldn't be many in the chorus his age. He thought maybe he could play Rudolph because he would be somebody his age. That indeed was what he got seen for. He felt very good about it because he also had a history with director Jerry Zaks AND choreographer Warren Carlyle. He had done several shows with both of them and had a good working relationship with both.
Sure enough, they were happy to see Kevin show up for the audition. It went well, obviously!
He has a specialty number that he normally does for auditions, Princess Poopooly Has Plenty Papayas. He says he has done it so many times that casting directors may want to pull out their hair but it works, so what the hay! It gets him jobs.
He did that number and they had already sent him the sides for Rudolph. He had worked on them and decided that he was going to do a thick German accent. He doesn't recall previous Rudolphs that he had worked with having thick German accents. It is written in the dialogue. He went more in the direction of David Hurst who plays Rudolph in the movie. It was a middle European German accent. They loved what Kevin brought to the table. He got a call back, which was a few weeks later. He was still up in Hartford with Anastasia, which was just finishing it's Hartford run.
He came in for the day for his call back. The call back was for Scott Rudin, the producer. They actually had already decided to go with Kevin. It was just a formality. There was no one else there reading for Rudolph that day.
The initial audition was the end of May with the call back being in July of 2016. Kevin didn't have anything else to do with the show until he started rehearsals in January. They had worked on a few of the numbers that didn't involve Kevin. A lot of Warren's choreography did not make it to the show because they wanted to stick a lot with Gower's original. There were two different versions of Dancing. The Waiter's Gallop in this production is pretty much Warren Carlyle's work. There is not much Gower Champion in this number. That is where it varies.
So during the dance labs, Kevin was not involved. Unfortunately for Warren, he was not eligible for Tony consideration, because so much was Gower's work. The truth is that a lot of Gower's work ended up not being used.
Having done the original choreography and knowing what it is, Kevin suspects that most people seeing this production have no idea how much is created by Warren.
The opening is very close to the original with a few minor adjustments. Sunday Clothes is a hybrid. The overall concept and design is Champion. The strut step movement is based on Gower's original. Warren also added a few touches enhancing the number. Dancing is probably the one number that is truly Gower's. The Parade is altered somewhat, even though its the same mode as Gower's. It is the same style, but it's not the same choreography. There's not the horse in Elegance like there was in the original. They did utilize the moving backdrop which became more of a centerpiece. Once again, The Waiter's Gallop is 90 percent Warren. As a nod to Gower, they left in the waiter skewering the chicken/turkey across the stage that is directly out of the original show. And, of course, the Dolly number which is so iconic, is mostly Gower's. There were a few adjustments that only true aficionados of this show and number would be able to decipher. The overall production to reiterate is what Gower came up with. The basic steps of the number were intact.
The polka is completely new. It is a different creature from what it was in the original show.
Although Penny In My Pocket has been put back in the show, Come In My Butterfly did not make it. Kevin has told others about that number. The Polka Contest was added into the show when Ginger took over for Carol.
It also has been a treat for Kevin to get to work with Donna Murphy because he has been a fan for a long time.
It wouldn't surprise Kevin to know that Come and Be My Butterfly may have even be considered for this current production. They really went back and gave a good hard look at the original concept and production, including aspects that were cut, to see if there was anything there of value that they might use, i.e. scenes from The Matchmaker that had found their way into the original script that did not end up in the final script in 1964. The 'pudding' bit is right out of The Matchmaker. Kevin, as Rudolph, and the waiters are standing right behind the drop when that happens. They feel this surge of laughter with every show.
Carol Channing: Kevin used to stand in the wings and watch her. He was such a fan of hers going back to when he was a kid and Thoroughly Modern Millie came out. He also had the album. He thought she was great. He actually did not know that much about her as far as Dolly is concerned because his frame of reference was the movie. He also did it in school, as mentioned. His association of the show had nothing to do with Carol until they were actually working together.
Speaking of the movie, Kevin loves it. At the time it was not 'cool to love it', but as time has gone on, more and more people love it. First of all, he was a huge Barbra Streisand fan after having seen Funny Girl, the movie.
As of this writing, Streisand has not been to see the current
production. Although she is a Broadway fan and from time to time attends shows. Kevin speculates that she might be 'too much under the microscope to attend this.' He doesn't feel that she would want people watching her. He thinks that she is friends with Bette. They have connected at other times.
He would love for her to come because in all his theater life, he's done these shows that she has attended but not to the companies that he has been a part of! Kevin was doing The Producers in LA and he got injured and was out of the show when she went to see the show.
Kevin did attend Carol Channing's opening night of her last revival of Dolly! It was so much fun because he had several friends in the show.
He had memorized her curtain speech from when they did it. He used to do it for people. Hello, New York, and environs...I know many of you are the same people I played to at "the World's Fair". You even smell the same. She would plug in whatever seemed appropriate. She would say, "We're going on a world tour...to Paris, France, Rome Italy, Heidelberg, Germany, and Monte Carlo".
Those were the four places always mentioned. While they were doing their last tour, Princess Grace died in that horrible car accident. They were in Tempe, Arizona, and the cast, as usual, were standing behind Carol as she was giving her speech. She reiterated, "We are traveling to Paris, France, Rome Italy, Heidelberg, Germany, and Copenhagen, Denmark", and the entire company felt like an earthquake hit. They were like "What?" They were so used to hearing Monte Carlo.
Evidently, she had changed it because she didn't want that association with
Monaco or Monte Carlo to be made with Princess Grace just dying. Kevin had heard from Carol's secretary that he had been called into Carol's dressing room later in the day and Carol asked him, "Where's Copenhagen?" He said, "Denmark, Carol", and it was in the show later that night.
Ruta Lee: Kevin did four shows with Ruta in Casa Manana. "Ruta brings that wonderful Ruta Lee personality to her performances." She was fun. At Casa Manana, the question is, "What part will Ruta play this year?" They LOVE her! She played Mame there, Steel Magnolias, and many other shows there. She looked fantastic in the costumes. In the wedding dress at the end of Dolly, she looked spectacular. She loved for things to go wrong in the show so she could ad lib. He remembers her hi jinx and craziness.
Bette Midler: This production has become a major Broadway phenomena. The moment tickets went on sale, everyone knew they had a major hit on their hands.
On the first day of rehearsals, they were having their customary Equity meeting as well. A representative from Equity comes to speak to the cast about business matters. Bette was there with the cast and she was wearing this wool cap on her head. The first thing most notice meeting her for the first time is that she is tiny. He had always heard that but he didn't expect it because she is a larger than life personality. It took an adjustment to think, "She's a small person." She came into the meeting and didn't say a word. There had been reports of mold in the Shubert and they were checking for that throughout the theater and the dressing rooms.
They had also mentioned that if any type of stage fog would be used, that would stir up the mold. These things had to be discussed with the company. The first words they heard from Bette were, "Smoke AND mold?" It, of course, cracked everyone up. The gist of that meeting was to address this.
At the end of the meeting, she got up and introduced herself to everyone that basically this was a scary thing for her to do, that she was used to performing, in one, out to the audience, with three back-up people. This was going to be an adjustment for her to be with other people on stage and interact with them.
She was the first to admit it. She said, "You're all better singers than me. You're all better dancers than me. But none of you are funnier than me!" Which they all loved and laughed. She was really trying to say, "Please be patient with me. It's going to take me a while to adjust to this style of working." It's not the normal thing that she did. It had been fifty years since she had been in Fiddler on the Roof, the last big musical that she had done on the stage. She had a full career working mostly solo. It was very lovely of her to present herself that way to the company.
It's amazing. Bette Midler has such a great instinct on how to play to an audience.
She has effortless timing. She doesn't seem to go after the laughs. Kevin has worked with a lot of people who are very good are getting laughs. She knows, however, how to get them. She has an inner confidence and she is a naturally funny person. He has worked with people in which you think, "Oh, they're doing their shtick again." She doesn't do that. It is her talent that shines through. She has a take on the world that we are all very familiar with. She has a particular style and audiences are welcoming to that. She really does play the reality of the character. If she goes up on a line, she ad libs and she make break the fourth wall by 'commenting' on it.
There are some people who might think that she is just doing that to get the audience on her side. She wants to do it right. She doesn't want to go up on a line or have something go wrong or to have to come up with a joke to get through it. To play the character, she's a strong woman. There is something about her personality that just lends itself to playing this character that wants to patch up these people to get them together. It just seems to match her personality together.
Once again, Kevin marvels at how much she doesn't 'go for the laughs' and yet gets them anyway.
A lot of times when someone gets a big laugh in a moment, they try and stick with that laugh. What eventually happens, is they stop getting the laughs. It becomes sort of maniacal. She is constantly finding new things. She is always finding fresh new ways of looking at things. Part of that has to do with the fact that she is not used to repeating things to this extent.
Donna Murphy: As of this writing: On Tuesdays, the role of Dolly Levi will be played by Donna Murphy through January 9, 2018. Donna Murphy will also perform the role of Dolly Levi on Sunday evening - October 15, Monday evening - October 30, November 1 - 5, Friday - November 24 at 2pm, and Sunday evening - January 7. Bette Midler plays her final performance on January 14, 2018.
Bernadette Peters begins performances as Dolly and Victor Garber begins performances as Horace Vandergelder on January 20, 2018.
Kevin's observations: Bette approaches things instinctively and Donna did a lot of research. Donna was very interested in little things. For instance, early on in the process, they were discussing who their characters were in the Harmonia Gardens. Warren is very big on everyone having a 'life' as a character. It's more than just dancing on stage. They had a day in which people came up with names for their characters. Of course, Kevin's character already had a name. Donna found out about that after getting cast. she wanted everyone to write down who their characters were for her so she could have a better idea of who she was talking to when she walked out on stage. Kevin really admires that so much. Actually, he had a lot of joy in sitting down and writing Rudolph's backstory, who he was and where he came from.
He had quite a life according to Kevin! Shortly before our interview, Bette had to miss a performance due to illness, and her understudy, Linda Mugleston, gamely stepped up to the plate. Believe it or not, the mood was very upbeat. First of all, the entire company knew that Linda was completely prepared. Just the week before, they had done a full 'put in'.
They had seen her performance already and being the understudy for Horace Vandergelder, Kevin has rehearsed with her a lot. This is also Kevin's fourth Broadway show with Linda. Everyone knowing that she was particularly ready to do it, and in the back of their minds, they kind of thought she would never go on. The fact that this was suddenly happening, they all felt a little giddy in a way that they were all excited for her. They were a little scared too because they had no idea how the audience will respond. They had bought tickets to see Bette Midler, and listen, people paid a lot of money for those tickets. The company could understand the audience's huge disappointment, no matter who it is.
They were not seeing Bette Midler, so there's a slight tinge of fear as to how the audience will respond.
David Hyde Pierce was excited to do the show with her. She's a beloved person in their family. When something like this happens, it's like an electric atmosphere backstage.
Although Kevin stands by for Hyde Pierce, as of this writing, he has not gone on yet. Michael McCormick, also standby, has gone on. They prepared him first. He is a little closer to Bette in age. Placing him in the show as the Judge is not as drastic as placing Kevin in the show as Rudolph. McCormick was the person they were focusing on first. Right after this interview, Kevin was preparing for his own 'put in as Horace'. Eventually, he may go on. Honestly, David doesn't really miss that much. It was a fluke and it was wonderful for Michael. Bette got the biggest kick out of him. They had the best time. She went up on a line in the eating scene. Instead of getting upset, she recovered brilliantly. The audience just eats up everything she does. Kevin hopes to go on as Horace.
Shortly after our interview, it was announced that Bette Midler's final performance will be January 14th, 2018. Next up: Bernadette Peters! She will begin performances January 20, 2018, opposite Victor Garber. They've had major celebrities attend the show making the cast speculate if they are interested in playing Dolly. Scott Rudin is a very tight ship and everyone in the cast found out about Bernadette the same time the rest of us did.
At the helm of all of this is Jerry Zaks. What does he bring to the table? His sense of humor, his positiveness. Kevin just adores him and could go on forever about him. Back in the nineties, Kevin worked with Jerry on the critically acclaimed revival of Guys and Dolls, which was Keven's favorite show to do. Kevin would go on to do Sister Act with him as well as many other productions. Kevin didn't do the Broadway production very long. He left that production to play one of the managers in Phantom.
The best thing about being in this production for Kevin is the sense of joy. There is a lot of chaos in the world right now. People are starving for this kind of entertainment. Kevin admits to getting teary eyed thinking about this. This company senses that hunger at every performance. To see a show that is so full of joy and love and hear that music and to experience that humor. Audiences are just letting go and enjoying a night out at the theater. To be able to share that with an audience every night cannot be put into words.
Dolly has had a huge impact on Kevin's life and career going back and being able to do it with Carol Channing. That was a gift of a lifetime to be able to do that. It is great as an older and wiser man to be able to revisit this classic of the American Musical Theater.