Morgan Freeman (Rudolph: Pearl Bailey/Cab Calloway Broadway Production 1967)
Morgan Freeman is an actor, film director, and narrator. Freeman hasreceived Academy Award nominations for his performances in Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption and Invictus and won in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby. He has also won a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Freeman has appeared in many other box office hits, including Unforgiven, Glory, Seven, Deep Impact, The Sum of All Fears, Bruce Almighty, the Dark Knight trilogy, and March of the Penguins.
Most people don’t know, however, that he made his Broadway debut as Rudolph in Hello, Dolly starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway in 1967. This was not just another version of the hit showby Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman.
When the Bailey company premiered at the National Theatre in DC before Mr. Merrick decided to take it to New York, Rudolph was played by an actor named Richard Kye-Kahn. Morgan replaced him at the National Theater in Washington DC. By the time the show got to Broadway Mr. Freeman had replaced him.
Morgan had just closed in the first play he was in in New York. In 1967, he got his first role Off Broadway, in a play called The Nigger Lovers, about the Civil Rights Era, at The Orpheum Theater, which also featured Stacy Keach ,Viveca Lindfors and Jeff Sproul. It opened and closed quickly in 1967.
It was Morgan’s first real acting lesson.
He had auditioned as a replacement for Dolly.
Unfortunately, the first “Rudolph” had issues that caused him to be fired.
When it came to taking on the role of Rudolph, Morgan said you just learn your moves and what you have to do. He knew that Rudolph was the head waiter of a high end restaurant and he acted accordingly. He was very happy with what he brought to that production. He had a steady job for eleven months.
When it comes to Miss Bailey, Morgan says she was an excellent entertainer and woman. She always gave a hundred and ten percent. She was a great role model for professionalism, maybe the best he had. He learned so much from watching her. He loved her. They spent time together backstage on matinee days. She invited Morgan to functions she was involved in. He remembers Bailey’s husband, Louie Bellson, opening at The Riverboat in NYC.
She invited Morgan which was a big deal to him. He was also invited to dinners at her home. Pearl Bailey wanted to take this company all over the world but it didn’t happen. The score and the book were exactly the same as for the previous white Dollys but Pearl added her own personality, a “child” here and a “honey” there, her expressive gestures and her rich, inimitable voice. It was sometime hard to tell where Dolly Levi ended and Pearle Mae began and she was quite aware of that. In addition to the show itself, much has been written about her “third act” after each show. Morgan saw Miss Bailey give and go beyond her one hundred and ten percent at each show.
A lot of the chorus and dancers would stand on stage behind Miss Bailey and Mr. Calloway as they continued to entertain their audiences. She got a lot of flack for this from the company and Morgan thought it was very unprofessional for the company to complain.
Cab Calloway was terrific. He was Cab Calloway. He was really over shadowed by Pearl and sometimes you could see it. He wasn’t resentful but sometimes he was quirky.
At the time, there was a lot of controversy surrounding an all African-American company of what was a traditional all white show. Now, with productions, such as the recent Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire starring Blair Underwood, people think less of it.
Morgan absolutely feels that Hello, Dolly is among the top five best shows of his career. They were always sold out. He considers himself “just one of the players.” There are no small players. He enjoyed himself. Everybody brings something particular to their own role. The Waiter’s Gallop, he had to master. He had to learn to thread his way through on coming dancing waiters without bumping into anyone or dropping anything. The show was very closely choreographed. There was one point where “Rudolph” had to serve dinner to Dolly and Horace. One night, Morgan was on his way out and one of the units that rolled on and off stage was coming off and Morgan turned to go on and bumped in to it and dropped his platter. He had to go out there and tell her “No dinner tonight.” She laughed.
David Merrick was cool. He was a great producer. After they opened in New York, he sent a memo for all the male dancers to tone down the make-up. From October 11th, 1967 when this production of Dolly had its first performance at The National Theater through March 28th, 1969, it was described as a constant love-in.
The cast was very much aware that they had a big hit on their hands.
Morgan learned valuable lessons with his run in Dolly that he has carried forward throughout the rest of his amazing career, a sense of professionalism and how he conducts himself. Pearlie Mae loved the role and she loved her audience and her love was returned in full measure, night after night, performance after performance. Even matinees were filled to capacity. Morgan got a strong sense of who he was in terms of the show.
Hello, Dolly at that time with an all African-American company broadened the perspective of audiences in terms of what could be and what was possible of who does what.
Pearl’s Dolly broke the house record by grossing about $90,000 a week in 1967 dollars and averaged 1,670 persons per show at The National and 2,681 at The St. James.
Morgan has never seen any other actress beyond Pearl Bailey play Dolly. David Merrick said after this production opened, “I looked for the right cast for Dolly for four years and finally I found it.” On the bulletin board backstage at the National Theater, there was a note to the cast that optimistically announced, “ Friday, November 10th, will be a dress rehearsal at the St. James Theatre, your home for at least the next two years.”
Was there an increase in African-American audiences as a result of this cast? Morgan doesn’t really know. This cast replaced the Betty Grable company on Broadway which went on the road.
Lucia Victor who directed both companies was terrific according to Morgan. She was one of those people that he would equate with Julie Taymor.
Morgan never did actively work with Jerry Herman. Jerry’s involvement was done long before Morgan came on the scene.
The reason the title song ALWAYS stopped the show? It was rousing Broadway. It was pure show business.
After eleven months, Morgan had another job and left this Dolly company, to be replaced by Nate Bennett.
Hello, Dolly was Morgan Freeman’s first big Broadway professional show. The lessons in professionalism from Pearl Bailey are among the best lessons in his stunning career.