Three-time Tony Nominee Lewis J. Stadlen
Horace Vandergelder to Andrea Martin, Leslie Uggams, Randy Graff, Lee Roy Reams...and upcoming: Betty Buckey!
The son of voiceover actor Allen Swift, Lewis J. Stadlen began his own career by studying with Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler.
Lewis J. Stadlen has appeared in various productions of Hello, Dolly, playing opposite Leslie Uggams and Randy Graff. Before that, he played Horace in The Matchmaker opposite Andrea Martin. That was about seven years prior to the Leslie Uggams production.
What an incredible road to The Matchmaker! Lewis made his professional debut at the age of nineteen with the National Company of another 1964 hit, Fiddler on the Roof starring Luther Adler. In 1965, when Zero Mostel left the Broadway cast of Fiddler during a contract dispute, Adler took over the role of Tevye. He made his Broadway debut as Groucho Marx in the musical comedy Minnie's Boys in 1970 and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.
He was Ben Silverman, the nephew in The Sunshine Boys on Broadway. Dr. Pangloss and various roles in the 1973 production of Candide and was nominated for a Tony Award. He has been nominated for three Tony awards over the years. Lewis appeared in a revival of The Time of Your Life that opened in March 17, 1972 at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles starring Henry Fonda, Richard Dreyfuss, Gloria Grahame, Ron Thompson, Strother Martin, Jane Alexander, Richard X. Slattery and Pepper Martin with Edwin Sherin directing.
That show toured and was the second show to play the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Lewis would go on to do Neil Simon’s female version of The Odd Couple. That starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers. In 1985, Neil Simon revised The Odd Couple for a female cast.
The Female Odd Couple was based on the same story line and same lead characters, now called Florence Ungar and Olive Madison. The poker game became Trivial Pursuit with their friends becoming the girlfriends: Mickie, Sylvie, Vera, and Renee. The Pigeon sisters became the Costazuela brothers, Manolo and Jesus. Lewis was one of those brothers.
He did another Neil Simon play called Laughter on the Twenty Third Floor starring Nathan Lane. He also did The Man Who Came to Dinner also starring Nathan Lane. He played Banjo, a role that was originated by Hello, Dolly’s original Horace Vandergelder, David Burns. Lewis, interestingly enough, has done many roles originated by David Burns. Lewis did another Neil Simon show, Forty-five Minutes from Broadway. He also has played Max Bialystock in The Producers, 782 performances! It started with the first National Company but he also played the role on Broadway for six months. He did a musical six months prior to this interview called People in the Picture. It was a Holocaust musical starring Donna Murphy.
He was nominated for a Tony Award for The Nance, starring Broadway’s favorite golden boy Nathan Lane returning once again to the stage. Lewis also played Nathan Detroit in the first National Company of Jerry Zaks’ version of Guys and Dolls. Lewis has made fifteen movies, the best of which are Serpico and Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be. He has appeared on NBC’s new show on the behind the scenes machinations of Broadway, Smash. Lewis took on another David Burns when he was cast as Senex in the 1996 Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and that garnered him another Tony nomination. That also starred Nathan Lane. A very unhappy year for Lewis was the year he spent as Taylor on the TV series, Benson. He eventually screamed his way off of the show. He was also Ali Hakim in a wonderful revival of Oklahoma that was choreographed in the flesh by Agnes de Mille.
He also did an interesting play by Doug McGrath called Checkers, about Richard and Pat Nixon. Douglas Geoffrey McGrath is an American screenwriter. Lewis played Nixon's old campaign adviser, Murray Chotiner. Lewis has also spent six consecutive summers at the MUNY. There he played a wonderful assortment of roles.
Everything from Tevya in Fiddler (a role he would recreate at Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera last summer). He has done at least twelve Broadway shows.
In 2010, BearManor Media issued a Kindle Edition of 2009’s Acting Foolish, an unjustly overlooked memoir by actor Lewis J. Stadlen.
Those are just the highlights!
Lewis had performed at Williamstown in three plays prior to The Matchmaker, Thornton Wilder's comedic farce about a rich businessman who employs a matchmaker to find him a wife, not realizing this wily lady is herself looking for a mate. Nicholas Martin, who was the director, thought Lewis would be a good fit as Vandergelder.
Why do a play that has been eclipsed by its musicalized adaption, an adaptation which besides being a super hit literally made the title character synonymous with one star? The Matchmaker is very different from Hello, Dolly! In The Matchmaker, Horace Vandergelder and Dolly Levi have equal sized roles.
Horace has huge monologues. It’s wonderful, but the Gower Champion version of Hello, Dolly is a much more successful piece. There are a number of characters that were cut in the transfer to the musical to economize the show. In Williamstown’s Matchmaker, Marian Seldes played the dotty aunt, a role that doesn’t exist in Hello, Dolly! Matchmaker shows that it has enough life as a non-musical to provide audiences with a grand old-fashioned good time. It was a very interesting experience for Lewis. They only had three weeks to do it. The role is enormous and Andrea Martin was a terrific Dolly. She is an antic comedienne. Lewis considers it a successful production. Not only did Mr. Martin succeed in achieving his goal, but he cleverly acknowledged the overwhelming influence of Hello Dolly by giving his production its own musical underpinnings and graciously tipping his hat to the Dolly theme song at the end.
When it comes to Dolly, he says a woman is needed who has lived a life and accumulated a great deal of wisdom. He doesn’t feel that it should be played by someone thirty years of age or younger. It should be somebody who resonates age and gravitas. He goes on to add that he has been playing character roles since he was twenty.
It has a lot to do with somebody who can play old age. He had a wonderful experience with Julie Harris. Lewis had played The Miser at Yale Rep in his forties. He was playing a seventy five-year-old man. There was a large photograph of him in front of the theater. Julie Harris said to Charles Nelson Reilly, “Who is that?” He said it was Lewis J. Stadlen.
She wanted to know why she didn’t know him since he was a contemporary.
Charles Reilly snapped, “He’s not a contemporary!” If an actor or actress can play age, that’s great.
As far as Dolly is concerned, it also helps if she has a great voice. It also helps when an actress is a clown.
Certainly, the two productions that Lewis did of Hello, Dolly which was marvelously directed by Lee Roy Reams relied on some bits that were created by Carol Channing. When someone can simulate that and build on it, it helps. What is wonderful about playing Horace Vandergelder is that he is this tyrannical “old fool” and the arc of the play, by the end of the play, his heart is opened up and he sees the world through different eyes. He allows himself to love something other than the “unholy buck.”
What Lewis brings to it is that he has a very strong understanding of the Horaces who came before him. David Burns was kind of a hero of Lewis’. He found him so hilarious and he believes, and does this with all the roles he plays, that when he has seen someone do a role he is playing brilliantly, one of the good things he can do is steal!
If he was to mimic David Burns, for example, audiences could make that connection. Taking it a step further, what Lewis tried to do was to figure out what made Burns’ performance so hilarious and try to channel that essence and then it becomes an amalgam of the person he so admired with his own talent and his own personality.
Lewis brought a Vaudevillian type of essence and ethos to a very well constructed character. He really goes through a journey. The show is also a farce.
The show also speaks to Lewis on a personal level. He didn’t realize he had a heart till he was forty-five! It was all in his head. He had a certain degree of confidence in terms of his intellect.
He knew how to break down a play and how to make his character fit into the construct of a play. The idea of conducting the heart with the heart was something that was alien to him until he was forty-five and so the idea that this person who was screaming and yelling at people and not getting along with anyone, it takes a wise man.
Lewis knew how to break down a play and how to make his character fit into the construct of a play. The idea of conducting the heart with the heart was something that was alien to him until he was forty-five and so the idea that this person who was screaming and yelling at people and not getting along with anyone, it takes a wise man.
On a nightly basis, he felt like he had lived, was being reborn, and that he was going to paradise at the very end of the play.
It is a very rewarding role to play.
As constructed by Gower Champion, Hello, Dolly is a near perfect entertainment. It is filled with Thornton Wilder’s profundity. The speech at the end about having a lot of money versus no money at all is all about viewing humanity at its best.
Cornelius has a speech about women. “You can know a woman all your life and not know if she likes you.” There is such a profound understanding between male and female.
He knows the show better now having done the role. It’s the same with Tevya. His first professional job was as Mendel, the rabbi's son, now he plays Tevya.
The first time an actor does a particular show, they learn the lines and
the choreography, and it takes a while to “let it go.”
The second time, there is an evolution because the actor knows the show better in terms of the craft.
The actor knows what they need to go through to create that performance on the stage.
Also, working with three very different women, Andrea, Leslie, and Randy are very different.
Andrea brought to the role the idea that she was a woman who could justify everything she did. She was the ultimate con woman. She believed in moving forward. There was a sense that she had this understanding that we only go around once and that she was willing to improvise to an outlandish extent to get what she needed. Even at the end of the play, audiences aren’t quite sure if she loves Horace Vandergelder. She just knows that it is the RIGHT move to be with Horace Vandergelder.
Her talent will help another human being. That’s what she is, she’s a matchmaker.
She desires to spread the love around. Andrea is a great farceur.
She was hilarious. Any actress doing The Matchmaker is not living in the shadow of Carol Channing. It is a different piece.
With Leslie Uggams, first of all, she has a great singing voice. They added Love, Look in My Window, that was written for Ethel Merman.
Lewis asked Leslie in rehearsal why she wanted to do that. He feels that it is perfectly written the way it is. It is so moving when Dolly arrives at Before the Parade Passes By. There is a fabulous crossover scene leading into that. She has returned to New York and encounters Mrs. Rose. Dolly realizes the expanse of time since they last saw each other.
Leslie brought a tremendous warmth to Dolly.
She also had great comic appeal and was unbelievably game. Both productions of Hello, Dolly are thrown together very quickly.
The first one at The MUNY with Randy Graff was put together in ten days. When they did it at TUTS in Houston, Leslie had never done it before. They had two weeks. Lewis is sure that if they were on the road or Broadway, what Leslie would bring to it. She also enjoyed the idea that she was spreading the word around. Lewis doesn’t feel that Leslie quite got that last speech about money. It was not something that she immediately connected to.
He remembers saying to her, “Leslie, this is such a beautiful speech. Give it much more time and don’t rush through it.” Lewis feels that speech is the symbol of the whole play. It’s about opening up the generous side of one’s personality. Again, she sang it great and acted it great.
Lee Roy Reams was very demanding about taking the Carol Channing eating bit and trying to replicate it. Leslie did it very successfully and was wonderful.
Randy Graff also brought warmth to it. Randy can make anything shine. We are not talking about just anything here, but rather, a musical comedy masterwork. She brought sincerity to it. Initially, she was a little uncomfortable, having to be this antic clown and having to put it together so quickly and at The MUNY which is an eleven thousand seat theater. She brought integrity to it, which she does with everything she touches. This was a woman that audiences rooted for and desired to spend an entire evening with.
Also in that production was James Clow as Cornelius. He made Lewis cry in the courtroom scene when he sang It Only Takes
Lewis did not see Hello, Dolly initially. He finally saw the 1996 Broadway revival starring Carol Channing and directed by Lee Roy Reams at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater. Lewis went to a matinee. Carol Channing came out and it was like she was a head with no body. He saw an old woman doing this role. She starts off doing the show and Lewis’ first thought was that she was never going to get through it. He didn’t think she had the vitality to get through it.
It was masterly in which she realized what she had to do in terms of the progression of the show. She got stronger and stronger and more hilarious in the role. By the end of the show, it was a monumental performance. He jumped to his feet. He knows that standing ovations now are obligatory. People pay so much for their tickets that they think it is de rigueur.
That was one of the few times that he felt compelled to jump to his feet. He thought she was so great. She understood that last speech better than anybody he has seen do it. The idea that she would have such an understanding of Thornton Wilder’s philosophy was just brilliant.
She then gave that hilarious curtain speech about “I’m sure you’ve seen this before. I thought that was you.” She did it with such spontaneity. She had done it five thousand times and it was brilliant. She owned the role. She is to Dolly what Zero Mostel is to Tevya. No one will do these roles better than them.
Lewis definitely thinks Hello, Dolly should be revived on Broadway.
Lewis doesn’t feel they should play around with it to the extent of reconceiving it. There are certain musicals that one shouldn’t do such as Fiddler on the Roof or West Side Story without Jerome Robbins’ ORIGINAL choreography.
They can’t be done any better. They are perfect. Jerome Robbins was a genius. Lewis feels the same about Gower Champion.
He did brilliant work. The construct of the Hello, Dolly number is never going to be better. The commercial theater has become so ridiculous that they think they can improve on the original. If George Abbott wrote a libretto, they will bring in Nicky Silver, for example.
“He can write a better book.” It’s absurd. They have this idea that everything that was in the past is somehow archaic. They feel that everything needs a new twist. Perhaps Hello, Dolly should have a new twist!?!?! Perhaps Lewis is an artistic reactionary, by his own admission. He doesn’t think there is any choreographer/director alive today who is going to improve upon the original production.
Who would also make a great Dolly?
Faith Prince, Victoria Clark readily come to mind. It will take someone with great comic panache and tremendous warmth.
Lee Roy Reams also feels that Megan Mullally would make a great Dolly. It has to be someone who has the antic quality to go along with the sincerity and intellect that the part needs.
Lewis had a great time each time he played Horace. The first speech that Vandergelder has when he yells at Barnaby and Cornelius about everyone being a fool is a wonderful moment. To play a tyrannical character feeling that he has an innate way of how things work only to find out after he has been “stripped naked” by this woman that this has what has been missing his entire life, that’s a great arc for any actor. Lewis tries to find the “fault”, a flaw, in the characters he plays. Then he pounds the flaw all night. That makes the character human AND funny. At the end of the piece is this epiphany. The epiphany is that the most important thing in life is love and that’s beautiful and it makes one cry.
Lewis recalls the feeling of having to let it go after his “final” performance with Leslie Uggams and hoping that he will get another opportunity to do it. One of the things that he found very rewarding was that he received a great deal of affirmation from Jerry Herman. Jerry saw it in Houston in a dress rehearsal. He didn’t see it in front of an audience. Both times that Lewis did Hello, Dolly, the critics have compared him to David Burns, not that he takes much stock in drama critics unless they say something outrageously perceptive! Horace Vandergelder is a funny part. Hello, Dolly has the good fortune to be based on a great play. It has a dramatic context that is embedded and made better by the music and dance. It is interesting that they had so much trouble out of town initially. The first act, at first, ended with a big number for Horace, Penny in My Pocket. The creative team realized that the show was not about Horace Vandergelder, it was about Dolly Levi. The disproportionate amount of plot had to go to Dolly. It was a very perceptive move on their parts. They created this masterpiece that grew out of a lot of trouble on the road. Horace essentially only sings one song in the show.
One critic said that he was the funniest Horace Vandergelder since David Burns. David Burns was one of the great comic actors of all time. It is always painful to let something go.
Imagine being able to sit each night in a little tent set up for the actors at the MUNY and listen to Hello, Dolly, and listen to the build of the orchestrations, and hearing those boys assisting Dolly, in one of the greatest musical numbers in the history of theater.
In a strange sort of way, the next few productions that Gower directed/choreographed, he tried to replicate that especially in Mack and Mabel. He desired to create another Hello, Dolly number. Other numbers he created were good enough, but they weren’t masterpieces. The Dolly number is a masterpiece.
Hello, Dolly to Lewis Stadlen brings out different sensibilities. There are a great majority of people in the world who only have a material sensibility. They only know what things cost or what can be accumulated in life. That is their measure of success.
There are other people who have a poetic sensibility. They see life in the abstract. They keep spreading generosity around the planet. Hello, Dolly is about love. It is about a woman who takes it upon herself to refine people to love each other for the duration of their lives. That is what is most profound to Lewis about. It has been stated earlier, but to take somebody who has only that material sensibility and reintroduce him to an element that he never knew existed is a beautiful thing. That’s what audiences walk out with. They not only are humming the tunes, but in some way, that philosophy is something that hopefully makes it profound and makes an impression on them. To Lewis, that is what Hello, Dolly is about.