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Nancy Opel

Hello, Nancy Opel! A Twenty-First Century Dolly!

Please Note: This interview took place PRIOR to Nancy Opel's Star Turn in Hello, Dolly! at Ford's Theater in Washington DC in 2013.

Broadway favorite and Tony nominee Nancy Opel will star in the title role of the Ford's Theatre's upcoming production of the classic Jerry Herman musical Hello, Dolly!, which will play the Washington, DC, venue March 15-May 18, 2013. Dolly is a delectable treat for the whole family, filled with some of musical theatre's all-time greatest showstoppers

When the curtain rises at the Ford’s Theater on March 15th, 2012, this will be the first time Dolly Gallagher Levi has made a major appearance in the Washington DC area since Carol Channing last played the Kennedy Center in 1995 prior to what would be the last Broadway revival to date and Carol Channing's last harrah as the irrepresible matchmaker.  Hello, Dolly has a rich history with Dolly. It was at the National Theater that Hello, Dolly first played in 1963 before taking Broadway and the world by storm. Pearl Bailey’s company also played the National and created history by being the first truly non-traditional cast by having an all African-American cast in a show that prior was ALL Caucasian.

The show has been revived three times on Broadway:
November 6, 1975 - December 28, 1975, Minskoff Theatre - Starring Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels in an inter racial production (42 performances)
March 5, 1978 - July 9, 1978, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre - Starring Carol Channing and Eddie Bracken. (147 performances)
October 19, 1995 - January 28, 1996, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre - Starring Carol Channing and Jay Garner (116 performances)

Director Eric Schaeffer speaks to the company of Hello, Dolly! at first rehearsal. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Although many actresses have played Dolly, depending upon which age bracket one falls in to, they think of either Channing or Streisand.

That may be about to change. A new Dolly is about to emerge in a complete new re-thinking of Dolly in a joint effort of the famed Ford’s Theater and Signature Theaters.
The production is being directed by Eric Schaefer and his goal is to present his version of Hello, Dolly! Don’t expect to see Channing’s Dolly. THIS Dolly belongs to Nancy Opel!

Nancy Carol Opel is a singer, actress, and teacher. She grew up in the communities of Prairie Village and Leawood, Kansas. She graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School and later trained at Juilliard. Next stop, Yonkers!

Nancy started out working in a couple of professional theaters in Kansas City where she hails from. She became friends with a man named Tom Helm who is still very active and doing amazing projects.

Tom is also from Nancy's hometown. He was getting ready to do Carnival in Darien, Connecticut. They did not have a Lili. Nancy was still in school but off for the summer. Tom called her and asked her to play Lili because they were willing to take Tom’s word that she was terrific. She was told she would get her Equity card. It was handed to her!

Hello, Dolly happened for Nancy Opel the usual way. She got an appointment for an audition. She went in with material for the show and auditioned and nailed it with ONE audition. She had never auditioned for Eric Schaefer prior to this.

Rehearsals started on February 12th. This interview took place prior to that. There will be a follow-up interview after the show closes.

Hello, Dolly was the very first book musical Nancy was ever in. She was sixteen and it was the Johnson County Park Players in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. She was in the chorus.

Helen Hayes winner Edward Gero as Horace Vandergelder

What will Nancy be bringing to Dolly? She has done a lot of comedy over the years. There have been all kinds of singers who have played Dolly over the years. She is looking forward to singing this score which fits perfectly with her voice. Out of the Dolly’s, she will be using Mary Martin’s keys.  She has found out that there are several sets of keys floating around. In terms of all the comedy and language, Nancy feels very comfortable with it all. As far as comparisons to the Dollys that have gone before her, she has no clue as to which one she will be the closest too.

The only Dollys that Nancy has seen are Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey. The great thing about the way this role is so well written is that the actress playing the part can be herself deep down inside. The timing of the language is so perfect. When it is done right, it is so perfectly times.  Nancy doesn’t feel that there is anybody, unless they grew up somewhere outside of the United States, who don’t immediately see Carol Channing’s face in their mind’s eye when they hear her name or Hello, Dolly!That does not scare or intimidate Nancy at all. Everybody is who they are when they do a play or musical. If everyone was the same, there would never be revivals of anything. Nancy says if there was never any reason to see someone try something, we’d never see new interpretations of great works.

There are some that are so attached sentimentally to a particular interpretation that they find it difficult to accept anyone else’s.

Nancy describes Pearl Bailey’s interpretation as “maple syrupy buttery warmth.” Carol is also warmth but in a uniquely comedic way that no one could touch. This interview was conducted on Carol’s ninety second birthday.

Even though rehearsals had not begun at the time of this interview, Nancy was already working on the role. She has read The Matchmaker at least a half dozen times over the years. The goal for Nancy is to be as off book as possible when she walks into that first rehearsal and really KNOW the show as much as possible. Not only is there so much, it has to roll trippingly off the tongue.

Dolly does speak to Nancy on a personal level. They both are women who arranges things. As an older woman and as a single woman, Dolly also speaks to Nancy on those levels. The person that both Dolly and Nancy rely on in their professions is themselves. There are definite parallels and Nancy understands.

Nancy hasn’t quite reached the level of “hand to mouth”, thank God, but she does understand the need of taking care of herself.


Nancy feels the key ingredient to be a very good Dolly is good timing. If that aspect is not in place, the show will run away from the actress playing Dolly. That is the main reason that Nancy is hell bent on knowing her lines before the first rehearsal. One of the key elements is moving the show along quickly. Horace Vandergelder should be married to Dolly before he even realizes what hit him. It is important for Dolly to be ahead of everybody. That adds to the humor of her handing out the cards. That is complete evidence that she is ahead of everybody.  Keep it moving. It has to be brisk. The other part of it is that she has a very big heart. It is not just manipulating and maneuvering people into the positions she desires them in. She has to express a great deal of kindness. She’s determined to marry Horace, but she’s going to make him happy. Part of her real desire throughout the piece is to get everyone happily settled in this life.

There are so few, what Nancy considers to be, well-made shows and musicals. She can probably count them on one hand. Hello, Dolly is one of those shows that has been divinely ordained to be practically perfect. With such good music, such an amazing book, great characters, everything about it is perfectly made. It is not surprising to Nancy that it has always been widely popular. Of course, the story line transcends the era in which it was written. It doesn’t feel like a musical of just the ‘60s. Looking back at some of the big hits that have performed time and again over the years, some of them don’t withstand the test of time. Hello, Dolly always did and always will.


When Nancy was sixteen and appearing in the chorus of Dolly, she understood that it was funny.  It was her understanding at the time of the humor and sentimental aspects of the show that all of the characters found themselves in. When she was younger, she was much more intrigued with the characters of Barnaby and Cornelius in terms of understanding what they were going through, with them falling in love and all of that. Now, as an older woman, she really identifies with Dolly.

It makes sense to get to a point in one’s like when they say, “You know, I’ve done this on my own long enough. Now, it’s time that I re-enter the human race. “

The advice that Nancy would give to someone desiring to embark upon a show business career is to work really hard at it. She does a lot of talk backs with theater groups after shows. That is one of the inevitable questions that come up. She tells them that when they desire to audition for something, they must practice very hard so that they feel that their skills are as good as they can make them, both acting and singing.

At each individual audition that an actor may have, they need to be as good as they can be. Nancy does a lot of coaching work and she has a lot of clients, even seasoned professionals, who come in to work with her and they haven’t spent very much time on their material. It especially happens with scene work. Often, they will practice their music but not their scenes. Nancy can guarantee everyone that the muse will not come down and beat them over the head when they are in the rehearsal room auditioning for something with brilliance. She is not saying it never happens but it happens very rarely.

An actor or actress must really be prepared when going to an audition. It is not just knowing lines. They must know what they are doing with them and to the best of their ability being completely prepared. Nancy finds that sometimes they go in, not necessarily unprepared, but haphazardly. It is not always out of laziness.

It is mostly out of fear. It is harder to accept “If I try as hard as I can to do a really good job at an audition and I am not cast and they did not love me at my best.”  The mark of a mature performer is being able to say “I worked as hard as I could and they said ‘no’.” When an actor can walk out of an audition and say, “I did my best. It was the best I could do. I gave them the best I had and it was their decision to pass on me and what I could bring to them.”  This is something that Nancy has learned not only from her own experiences, but from observing others. It is easier to say. “I was tired. I was busy.  I was sick. I was overwhelmed.

It wasn’t the right key. My agent messed up my time.” There is so much they can do to deflect the singular responsibility that the actor has to go in to an audition and be as prepared as they can be. It IS scary to give them the best one has and they can still say ‘no’.

That is also great advice in terms of dealing with critics. Nancy hasn’t read reviews in practically thirty years. One horrible offhand remark can ruin an actor for months, if not years. There also is no praise that is high enough. That’s just the way it is. It’s just better to leave it alone. If it means anything to the people who will buy tickets, fantastic. Critical reviews are not for the actors. Critical reviews are for people to sell a show. It’s for the press people and the consumer. To say that a review in any way helps the actor, they don’t. The only people who help the actor is the creative team…hopefully and God willing. Criticism in a newspaper does nothing for the actor but mess with their head. When it is a great review, we know what that does to their head!

When it’s not so good, that’s pretty bad too.

With Hello, Dolly on the horizon, Nancy cannot imagine this not coming her way. This will take her to mid-May.  We will revisit Nancy at that time.

“Hello, Dolly!” cast members examine Wade Laboissonniere’s costume designs. Photo by Gary Erskine.

She is very excited to wear the clothes. She is ready. She has been preparing for this. If she didn’t have this prep time, she probably would be scared.

I hope to also interview Eric Schaeffer on his take on Dolly.

The kind of crazy thing about playing Dolly at this point in her life, there is much that is parallel. She hustles for work just as Dolly Levi does. People who know Nancy know that she, like Dolly, is a Jane of all trades. She is always knitting and sewing and drawing and painting and learning Chinese and doing crazy stuff like that. She has that same eclectic energy that Dolly has. This will also be her first time in a Jerry Herman musical. She is excited!

So am I! I will be cheering her on on March 15th!