When Madeline Kahn signed on for a limited tour of Hello, Dolly! in 1992, she had never
seen the show, and the closest she’d gotten to performing in it was a Forbidden
Broadway-style spoof called “The ‘Dolly’ Sisters” in a nightclub revue at the start of her career. Alongside Betty Aberlin (later of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and Fannie
Flagg (author of Fried Green Tomatoes), Madeline mocked the original Broadway
production, which was still running at the time.
According to the number, the three stars of Dolly were a “triple threat,” because Carol Channing “can’t dance,” Ginger Rogers “can’t sing,” and Mary Martin “can’t see.”
What’s more, Madeline’s Dolly production would be a summer whirlwind,
rehearsed for one week, then performed one week each in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Kansas City — outdoors in the heat of August — without a single day off. Madeline had done summer stock early in her career, and only once, with Born Yesterday, had she undertaken a big national tour. She hadn’t much enjoyed those experiences.
But, as she explained to her director, Lee Roy Reams, Madeline signed on for the usual reason: her erratic, extravagant mother, Paula, needed money again.
She started by meeting with Lee Roy and Jerry Herman, then going home that
night to watch Shirley Booth in The Matchmaker. That bit of actor’s preparation is telling.
Madeline’s approach to creating a character was largely internalized, informed by the Method, and from the start she was uneasy with the idea of Dolly as a “star personality” and with the conventions of playing the role. She protested any bit of stage business or any sight gag that struck her as “shtick,” Lee Roy tells me, and he had to go to elaborate lengths to draw out of her the kind of performance he wanted. For example,
breaking the fourth wall, as Dolly so often does, didn’t mean talking to the audience, it
meant talking to Ephraim, and the audience simply happened to hear her. For Dolly’s promenade at the Harmonia Gardens, Madeline refused to wave to the audience until Lee Roy came up with names of specific people, friends to whom Dolly, not Madeline, could wave.
That’s a lot of work to put into a character so iconic that many actresses have managed to play her almost by instinct alone — and with only one week to rehearse, Lee Roy drew on all his patience. At one point, he had to tell Madeline, “It’s not Chekhov.”
But from their first conversation about Dolly, he depicted the character in terms that appealed to Madeline. The wily, widowed matchmaker wasn’t all that different from the twice-divorced Paula Kahn, who schemed and plotted and took odd jobs all her life to get ahead in the world. Paula was Madeline’s first music teacher — and yes, she charged for those lessons, beginning when Madeline was a child.
An aspiring opera singer, Paula didn’t have Madeline’s discipline, but they did possess similar lyric-soprano instruments, and
Madeline went on to sing high-lying roles in opera and on Broadway. But singing eight performances a week of Cy Coleman’s On the Twentieth Century in 1978 made her fear
she’d wreck her voice permanently, and she was fired from that show only two months after opening. Only once in the intervening years had she attempted another fully staged
musical, and that had been performed not on Broadway or in huge amphitheaters but in a tiny theater in Santa Fe, NM.
Watching a pirate video of a performance in St. Louis, I realized that Dolly really isn’t a good fit for Madeline’s voice. She sings mostly in
her middle register, which is solid but unremarkable; high notes are her specialty, but the score doesn’t give her much opportunity to shine. Because she wasn’t a belter, she doesn’t deliver the thrills that a Dolly like Ethel Merman did. Paul Gemignani, who conducted On the Twentieth Century, tells me that Madeline seldom had to sing in chest voice
and that doing so made her nervous; he suggested that the unhappy experience of working with Coleman and Hal Prince damaged her self-confidence to the point that she was afraid to perform in musicals again, effectively blackballing herself. While Lee Roy speaks lovingly of Madeline, and the two clearly had a terrific working relationship, I wonder whether he realizes just how much trust she placed in him.
Madeline was still finding her way during the first performances in Atlanta, but by the time she got to St. Louis, she’d overcome many of her reservations about playing “big” and projecting a star personality. She nails the comedy — her dinner in the courtroom scene is a riot — and she appears to be having a great time.
Truth be told, it’s not ideal casting. The real Madeline was entirely unlike the bawdy broads she played in Mel Brooks’ movies and Paper Moon. Dolly would have been a great part for some of Madeline’s other characters to
play (wouldn’t you love to see Lili von Shtupp give it a whirl?), but for Madeline to play Dolly required effort.
That effort paid off, though, not only in the Dolly tour but also in her next theatrical gig: playing “Doctor” Gorgeous Teitelbaum in Wendy Wasserstein’s The
Sisters Rosensweig, first at Lincoln Center Theater, then on Broadway.
In the key scene
where Gorgeous tries on a Chanel suit, Madeline felt “just like Dolly on the ramp,” she told Lee Roy and his date, Carol Channing. Her newly restored confidence helped her to realize that theatergoers were coming to see her in what was indisputably one of the most talked-about performances of the New York season. When Tony time came around, Madeline asked to be considered for the Best Actress nomination — not Best Supporting — and she won the prize.
For a time, André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, considered
reviving The Matchmaker for Madeline, but Sisters Rosensweig would remain her final stage production. Only at the end of her life did she consider appearing again in a musical in New York — a revival of Jerry Herman’s Dear World, which she performed in readings at the Roundabout Theater in 1998. She didn’t play Aurelia; Chita Rivera did.
Instead, Madeline played Gabrielle, the Madwoman of Montmartre (originally played by Jane Connell, who had reprised the role of Gooch in the film version of
Mame, replacing Madeline).
It’s entirely possible that, in a supporting role, Madeline might finally have found the success that eluded her in Broadway musicals, and Scott Ellis, who directed the readings, recalls that Madeline set the tone for the entire show. But Madeline died, at age 57 of ovarian cancer, on December 3, 1999, and any momentum for the Dear World revival dissipated. What strikes me is that Madeline — just shy of her fiftieth birthday during the
Dolly tour, and already an acclaimed performer — used her experience in the show to challenge herself, to learn, and to grow as an artist. Dolly herself would approve: Madeline refused to let this parade pass her by.
Thank you, William V. Madison (© July 25th, 2017)