When the curtain rises on Hello, Dolly at the Goodspeed Opera House, it will include two firsts. It will be the first time that Goodspeed Opera House has EVER produced this iconic musical. It is also interesting that the 50th anniversary of both the theater and Hello, Dolly are approaching. Another first is the NEW Dolly, Klea Blackhurst. It is the “perfect storm” of massive proportions! Performances will play June 28-Sept. 15 at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.
The show, staged by Daniel Goldstein (Broadway’s “Godspell”), runs June 28 to Sept. 8, with the opening set at July 17. Goldstein also staged the workshop production of The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester.
There have been so many actresses to precede Klea’s descent down those famed stairs of the Harmonia Gardens. Klea will be drawing on all of those that have gone before her for inspiration.
There are moments that she would “gently” tip of her hat to a number of them. She won’t even tell the audience! When the audience sees those subtle touches, it will be remarkable. It is not a big deal. It is just a gentle nod to those Dollys that are beloved. Every time she utters, “wow, wow, wow, fellas…look at the old girl now fellas”, all that occurs to Klea is what Carol Channing brought to that moment in her mind’s eye. Klea did see Carol in the ’95 revival. It is more in her head or in her ear from the record. Certainly from seeing it, it is in her mind’s eye. Klea really hasn’t seen other Dollys other than Betty Marshall who was Dolly at Pioneer Theater many years ago.
It was also there that Klea finished her Equity apprenticeship as part of the ensemble. Klea can only imagine what Marilyn Maye and Ginger Rogers, for example, brought to the role. What Klea does love is Shirley Booth’s portrayal of Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker.
Klea also loves the idea of Ruth Gordon in the role. There are all of these images rolling around in Klea’s head. There are VERY FEW pointed moments in which Klea KNOWS what she is doing but she hopes that they are all rolled in there and will present themselves during her upcoming run at Goodspeed and play a part in what Klea is bringing to it almost fifty years after Hello, Dolly’s premier on Broadway. There have been so many actresses making Dolly their own…from the original guard on through the actresses of more recent memory. It is a fabulous legacy and it is a fabulous part for women and others. It is ALL there. Klea also knows that she has to SHOW UP fresh!
KLEA BLACKHURST is an actress, singer and comedienne who is best known for her award-winning tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything The Traffic Will Allow. Among many accolades, this production earned her the inaugural
Special Achievement Award from “Time Out New York” magazine and the recording of Everything the Traffic Will Allow was named one of the top ten show albums of 2002 by Talkin’ Broadway.com. She has played several iconic roles of the Merman cannon including Mama Rose in Gypsy.
It is a well known fact that Hello, Dolly was written for Ethel Merman. However, after appearing in Gypsy for four years (two years on Broadway and two years on the road), she turned Jerry Herman and David Merrick down. Jerry, especially, was crestfallen. The very first Broadway show he ever saw was Annie Get Your Gun starring Merman. The bug bit and he always dreamed of writing a show for Merman.
When Dolly came his way, here was his opportunity. The score was written with her mind. Not only did she turn them down, she didn’t even desire to hear the score for fear that she would either regret her decision or possibly change her mind. That decision, on her part, of course, led the ball rolling towards Carol Channing and a long line of Dollys! Merman finally gave in at the end of the run and came out of her “retirement from Broadway” and ended the run. By her involvement, they were able to extend the record set by My Fair Lady and became the longest running show. It had opened on January 16, 1964, at the St. James Theatre and closed on December 27, 1970, after 2,844 performances.
When the show opened,Carol Channing starred as Dolly, with a supporting cast that included David Burns as Horace, Charles Nelson Reilly as Cornelius, Eileen Brennan as Irene, Jerry Dodge as Barnaby, Sondra Lee as Minnie Fay, Alice Playten as Ermengarde, and Igors Gavon as Ambrose. Although facing competition from Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, Hello, Dolly! swept the Tony Awards that year, winning awards in ten categories (out of eleven nominations) that tied the musical with the previous record keeper South Pacific, a record that remained unbroken for 37 years until The Producers won twelve Tonys in 2001.
After Channing left the show, Merrick employed a string of prominent actresses to play Dolly, including Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable,
Pearl Bailey (in an all-black version with Cab Calloway, Mabel King, Clifton Davis, Ernestine Jackson and a young Morgan Freeman), Phyllis Diller, and Ethel Merman.
When Channing took over Dolly, two songs that had been written for Merman were cut due to the vast differences between Channing and Merman. Those songs, Love, Look in My Window, a ballad, and World, Take Me Back, a rousing Ethel Merman showstopper, never were heard UNTIL Merman came into the show.
Merman wanted to hear those songs when she finally acquiesced. She desired to them and they were both added to her run without cutting anything else just adding another ten minutes to the show.
Because those songs are so closely associated with Merman, they are rarely done in any subsequent productions of Dolly. One or both songs HAVE been added to some productions, depending, of course, upon the actress playing the part.
Due to the association of Klea and Merman, there was much excitement among when Blackhurst was announced as Dolly that audiences would once again hear those songs making Klea’s Dolly very much like Merman’s Dolly. The first thing that people ask Klea about on this production is whether or not those songs will be sung.
Comments and speculation started appearing everywhere.
The decision was made NOT to incorporate those songs into this production. As Goodspeed embarked on this production, it was never anyone’s wish to add those songs. Klea did not push or fight for that because the more she thinks about it, she honestly feels in her heart that unless she WAS Ethel Merman, which she is not, coming to the role, seven years into the run, those songs don’t add anything for the “average” person.
What Klea is hoping is that there will be a moment somewhere and somehow in the months ahead of her that she will be allowed to share World, Take Me Back, if not both of them, in some sort of other format. Quite frankly, when Klea got this job, she auditioned for it, fair and square. She didn’t come to it as any kind of a person with a “persona” and this “expertise” she has.
Klea was being invited to audition as an actress. Therefore, she has no problem with not doing these songs. She loves them, of course. Klea says, “The real truth is that when you stop and really look at it, Hello, Dolly is perfectly crafted as it came to past with Carol Channing. Those songs are like an added bonus for those of us who care. But I don’t know that anybody really needs that from me. It is a matter of controversy. ”
There have been a couple of high profile Dollys in the past five years that Klea has had the privilege of auditioning for. At the time of each of these auditions, she was desperate to book the job. Over the course of the past five years, she has done a lot of reading and re-reading of The Matchmaker. She has also read of Dolly’s history and Jerry Herman’s point of view.
She also has the added layer of her love of Merman and doing her own show and having that whole angle on it. When she didn’t get those jobs, she was crestfallen at the time. There is now no question in her mind that THIS is HER Dolly.
Klea says, “With the 50th anniversary at Goodspeed, they’ve never done it. I’ve never done it. I’m a little bit further along in my own path. I feel so right about this being where I’m supposed to be and having never approached it really in the nuts and bolts of it before.” She couldn’t have been happier to march into the Drama Book Store and buy the score with that tax write off being a legitimate write off this year! She began by sitting down and making sure she had all of the lyrics correct in terms of what was actually in the score.
As of this interview (June 18th, 2013), they had their first designer run on Saturday. The show is now completely on its feet. It has one more week in the rehearsal room, polishing and finishing before she “loses all will to live during tech.” She has no question that that is going to happen. She keeps saying to herself, ‘this will work, right?” as she ponders the size of the stage at The Goodspeed Opera House. As of this writing, their current production is Good News!And Klea has seen it twice. They have been this fifty years so Klea knows it will fit on the stage. She feels that tech will be a humbling recalibrating process. Right now, it feels wonderful. The promise they have this week is getting to run it once in its entirety every day this week.
Klea is already pretty far along in the process. She desires to be so word perfect. That is a major goal of hers. That is true of most actresses. Sometimes, in most instances with MOST productions of Dolly, the rehearsal process is very short. That lends itself to paraphrasing and the like. Klea is in their digging and trying to get every single word right.
Klea got cast in February. When the curtain comes down on this production in September, a good seven and a half months will have been spent with Klea inhabiting Dolly Levi and vice versa. With where her personal like is currently in real life, and the changes that are taking place, she has to say that this show feels like a blessing to her at this point in her life. She did Gypsy for her last year, another first. She almost feels as if Dolly is a much more difficult to execute.
It’s heavy lifting but it doesn’t weigh very much.
Whereas Gypsy feels like heavy lifting and it feels heavy.
The main thing that Klea has noticed is that in Gypsy, twenty years elapse. In Dolly, from start to finish, it’s one day! Klea is already adopting the fundamental message that Thornton Wilder started with. There is a message of jumping into life without knowing what the outcome will be, deciding to be fully engaged, deciding to be a fool among fools rather than being a fool alone. Hello, Dolly is a full affirmation.
Klea was thinking recently how brilliant The Matchmaker is as source material. That alone really takes off and sings without a note of music. The hope is also when there is a musical adaptation of a work, for it to work. Sometimes they just DON’T. It is an equation that needs some alchemy to really get these things to fly sometimes. Hello, Dolly is one of those projects in which Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman and Carol Channing and Gower Champion all coming together in that combination really created something magical that Klea feels so blessed to be part of.
Klea finds that when she does this at her moment right now, her life IS Hello, Dolly! She is under contract and obligated legally to have her lesson be this beautiful piece.
Klea has no doubt that she will step away from this summer and step into the autumn with a huge gift that she has been given. She has also been given the enormous gift of a four week rehearsal period PLUS the week of tech BEFORE even unveiling what she is trying to come up with. Almost anyone in the business now knows that that is a very luxurious thing! Klea is very grateful for that.
She is also grateful to be running it for the span of time she has. They are also adding additional performances due to demand. Hello, Dolly is a show where people sit up and take notice. They don’t have to even know very much about who is their Dolly or Horace. They just know that they desire to go and experience Dolly once again. It is ALREADY a good show for Goodspeed. It is going to be a huge part of Klea’s life. The number of performances under her belt when all is said and done is a wonderful thing to contemplate come September 15th.
It is not difficult for Klea to play as an actress. “Dolly Levi is a brilliant improve artist. It is interesting to decide how much is calculated with what she decides to do throughout the course of the play and how much of it is ‘Well, I really wasn’t expecting that to happen, but now that it’s happened, I’m going to take a left turn here to still get my way to get to my ultimate goal.’ As a person, I wish I had a fraction of that absolute ability to steam roll through to get to the final goal. Deciding what is what in this piece and not just having it be that she is the ultimate deus ex machine that never takes in any of these roadblocks is not as much fun as ‘Holy smoke! I wasn’t expecting that!’ and rolling right through that. It is that indomitable spirit that Dolly has. ”
Are there any flaws in Dolly or is it a perfect show? “When Barnaby counts his money in the first act, he has about forty-five cents less than he has in the second act! Who wrote that? I don’t know! In terms of the structure of the show, I really don’t think there are any flaws.”
Klea is taking the words and the music and what they say through the process of studying it all and then applying her process. She has to bring herself to the table. In other words, those are her hands and her legs and her voice and she has to act and sing it. Klea desires HER Dolly to have a warmth to her that is very likable. It should not be an annoying quality. By “annoying”, Klea is using a word to describe that non stop way that she talks and walks and wins people over. She desires all of that to have a great warmth to it and a realness that makes this person genuinely likable and not just a “musical comedy force of nature”. Carol Channing as a personality and a persona and as a woman is extremely heightened in the reality that she presents to what we have known of her over the years. HER Dolly would HAVE to be different from all other Dollys because her Dolly coming through is such a unique woman. Klea believes all other Dollys from Ginger Rogers on have had to bring their ‘real person’ to the table and put on all those words and all that music and, once again, Klea is hoping for a sense of reality and a sense of warmth that will inform the comedy.
Klea is beginning to realize the older that she gets that there is a cannon of roles for women just as there is Shakespeare for a certain population of the acting profession. Some desire to visit Hamlet. Some desire to visit King Lear. Hello, Dolly is also one of those shows. As a kid, loving musical theater and being aware of it, it is one of the shows that is RIGHT THERE in the bull’s eye, There is really no chance in Klea’s experience that it would have escaped her eye. It feels to her like it was just one of those songs that she marched around singing those songs and that Jerry Herman thing happened to her and it means everything to her to now have the opportunity to sing these songs. She doesn’t know how, as a child of thirteen and fourteen, sometimes words and music work together in a way that she KNEW what they meant even though much of life, she had not experience. In the scheme of things, the true meaning of Before the Parade Passes By probably passed her by in the seventh grade and yet, somehow, it is on such a primary level that it delivered. It just feels like one of those things that as an actress in theater and a lover of musical comedy in particular, and especially that era in our history, this is just one that most want to experience on either side of the footlights. When one is “worth their salt” and around long enough, the desire is for it to come your way. Klea feels blessed in her case that it is Goodspeed. When she heard Dolly was on Goodspeed’s roster, she went after it. Not to denigrate any other production, but she feels so blessed that HER Hello, Dolly, her first (if she is lucky, there will be others), is not a “three weeks in” and she is out! A week and a half of rehearsals and a week and a half of performing and she’s on to the next as is the case in most summer stock scenarios. This is a legitimate gorgeous production. All of her costumes are made specifically to fit Klea’s body. This is an unbelievable gift and Klea cannot believe her good fortune.
Klea wishes that she could have seen Carol Channing in early ‘64 at the height of HER Dolly. She thinks that would be a thrilling time to time travel. She, of course, would have loved to have seen Merman. She would have also loved to have seen Marilyn Maye. She would love to have seen Marilyn with her joy of life and her It’s Today persona. Klea has no doubt that Marilyn’s Dolly had a great deal of irrepressible joy in it. Klea would have loved to have seen all the Dollys, quite frankly. She would have loved to be able to offer an educated opinion of all the Broadway Dollys. Because of her love that curiosity also extends to other women who have played Dolly. Because of where she is standing now, she is okay with having not seen too many of them.
Klea is also lucky to have an incredible leading man, Tony Sheldon. He is a good foil for her and she is loving working with him. Gravitating towards him is feeling very natural. She is also loving the foursome of Jeremy Morse as Barnaby Tucker, Spencer Moses as Cornelius Hackl,Catherine Blades as Minnie Fay, and Ashley Brown,(who created the title role in Broadway’s “Mary Poppins”),as Irene Molloy. They are fantastic and Klea is also really in love with her Ermengarde (Brooke Shapiro). Klea is convinced she is going to grow up to be a Dolly in about thirty years! Klea has told her that she is a classic character lady but that she doesn’t get the opportunity to play this role for at least that amount of time because that is how the math works in this business.
Choreography is by Kelli Barclay (Goodspeed’s Hello, My Baby, My One And Only and How To Succeed…) Music direction is by Michael O’Flaherty, who is in his 22nd season at Goodspeed. Goodspeed’s resident music director. F. Wade Russo will be assistant music director. Orchestrations will be provided by Dan DeLange, who has created the orchestrations for numerous Goodspeed productions.
The ensemble includes: Maddy Apple, Will Burton, Jack Doyle, Steve Geary, Drew Humphrey, Matthew Kilgore, Frankie Paparone, Kristyn Pope, Robbie Smith, Kathryn Lin Terza, and Melodie Wolford. The swings are Melissa Chaty and Gregory Dassonville.
Klea feels that it is important that this legacy of Hello, Dolly SHOULD be written down and make sure that it is all there for her Ermengarde to grow up and play Dolly, that it exists and documented for future generations.
If Klea could be anyone connected with Dolly, past, present, or fictional, she would choose to be Gower Champion! What was it like to be in his head and have this show spring to life in the way in which it did and set everything in motion in this kind of a magical way. Ethel Merman also comes to mind. Klea loves that moment in her mind and the way that it plays out imagining her going down to Jerry Herman’s house and asking to hear those songs and the image that Jerry talks about oh him being in tears when he heard her sing them. It took him back to the time of a little boy seeing her in Annie Get Your Gun. That defining moment was what set Jerry Herman into motion. Klea loves that image so much. Even though Merman isn’t really an integral part of this story, she truly IS! The Merman connection is vital to Klea and what is riding to the earliest raw current and she feels that that is rather exciting.
The floodgates are about to open! Once the curtain rises on Dolly/Klea, it is a non stop journey to the finish line of September 15th. It has become very clear to Klea already that she needs to treat her body like a first class athlete! She admits that in recent months she has put on a few pounds. She reached a point where she didn’t want to exercise, which was psychological in her head. She realizes that she is involved in a show like no other that she has ever experienced. Since she has been in East Haddam at The Goodspeed, she has had the added inspiration through Georgia Osborne, Klea has been continuing to go to Weight Watchers, something she began at the beginning of the year. She has been tracking her points, making sure that she is eating really healthy food. What little Klea knows of Carol Channing, she knew how to eat well and maintain her stamina. She knew how to make her body run really efficiently, a real good pioneer in that area, Klea thinks. Klea is eating well, walking, and skipping rope! Klea has been in boxing training the last six years. She has primarily been off of that the past year, but skipping rope for three minutes is virtually impossible! She does it like a boxer. She skips rope for three minutes and then takes a one minute break. Adding the costumes is going to add both a literal and a psychological layer as well. It is just going to be exhausting. Klea learned from her run in Gypsy that when she is resting, just rest! She doesn’t need to feel bad about it. She doesn’t need to be multi-tasking. “When you have the gift of this kind of work, it is your duty and the theater is depending on you.” Klea is perfectly happy to take naps and get her stamina built up. This is very analogous to looking forward to a marathon.
Klea’s hope is that audiences who will see her Dolly over the coming months will enjoy themselves in a way that is deceptively simple. She feels that Hello, Dolly is such a gift as a performer performing it and as an audience experiencing it that she hopes that she is able to convey goose bumps in the places that she feels they belong because she receives them herself. She wants everyone to walk away with a sense of what a gift life is and what an opportunity it is to stop and make the choice to engage in your life and make it happen and not just let it happen to you. She hopes that that will be a really visceral connection that she has and that she can give to Goodspeed’s audiences without having them feel that she has been trying to give them anything but a good show. She thinks the message inherent in this piece is so beautiful that she feels so privileged to be right where she is today and being asked to be Goodspeed’s Dolly and being able to deliver it.
Those of us who see Klea Blackhurst as Dolly are the lucky ones.
Visit goodspeed.org for more info.