Nicole Barth first started taking dance class for health reasons, although her mother said she always “jiggled around.” Her family moved to New York from France during the war. She was a very nervous child, threw up a lot, etc. The doctor said to give her some exercises to get her hunger up and that’s when she started dancing. She didn’t like her first teacher because she was always telling her she wasn’t doing it right. Luckily enough, she had a cousin working in Woolworth’s, who was almost like a father to her. Rita Moreno’s mother was also working there.
Nicole came back into Dolly just as they were readying Ginger Rogers for Dolly
That’s how Nicole found her first dance teacher in New York. The bug bit immediately. She had found the right teachers. Jack Stanley and Jack Pottinger were their names. Nicole started in tap. Jack Stanley told her that if she desired a career in dance, she also needed classical ballet training, so she started ballet classes. She did four classes a day on Saturday and two or three classes a day during the week.
Then she went to the High School of Performing Arts. She did summer stock when she was fifteen after graduating and then went on to college. Her first summer stock job she calls “The Stupid Prince” (The Student Prince). It was a gorgeous production in Hyannis in theater in the round.
The first night that she had to perform, they dimmed the lights, she couldn’t see and never got on stage in the first act! She kept going up and down the aisles. In the second act, they got her on stage. It was a great summer. There were a lot of people from City Opera performing there. They also did The Wizard of Oz that summer. Julius Rudel from City Center was the conductor that summer.
She got her Equity card that first summer. Things were a little different then. Nowadays, there are different requirements to get an Equity card.
She went back to New York and started auditioning and eventually got her first Broadway show, Take Me Along in 1959, based on the Eugene O’Neill play Ah, Wilderness, with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell. This was produced by David Merrick.
It starred Walter Pidgeon and Jackie Gleason. Also in this cast was Valerie Harper. She and Nicole have remained friends to this day. That was also Valerie’s Broadway debut, as well. Valerie then went into L’il Abner as a replacement.
Nicole loved Pearl Bailey’s Dolly
After Take Me Along, Nicole went into Carnival, again with David Merrick and Bob Merrill. Right after that, she did a show called Nowhere to Go but Up. Joel Craig was also in that cast. She thinks it would work today. Ron Field was the choreographer. Michael Bennett was the assistant choreographer. The cast also included Martin Balsam and Dorothy Loudon and Tom Bosley. It was a fun show with a lot of fun people. That happened just before Dolly.
Also before Dolly, Nicole was doing a summer replacement television show. She went into Dolly almost on a fluke.
Nicole was already established as a Broadway gypsy when Hello, Dolly! came along. Nicole was called to come in for the final call. In those days, when the choreographers knew the artists, they would personally call them in. These artists rarely went to the initial calls. They would come in for the final calls. That’s how she heard about it and she was cast immediately as part of the ensemble.
The cast, as we now know it, was in place except Barnaby. There were two other actors in place before they got to Jerry Dodge.
Nicole had met Carol prior to Dolly. She was one of the guests on the summer television series Nicole was on, The Keith Purcell Show. Streisand also appeared on that show.
They had a lot of fun people. It was sponsored by Jackie Gleason.
Nicole grew to respect Carol more and more as they continued to work together. Nicole remembers observing how she stood. It was like a little girl. She also dressed like a little girl, with short skirts etc. She was interesting. Nicole remembers thinking that Carol was a very unique person.
Nicole had also seen her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Once rehearsals started, Gower spent so much time working on The Waiter’s Gallop and the title number, that there was a lot of sitting around for the rest of the company just twiddling their thumbs. There was a lot of shushing going on from Gower. She knew from Carnival that NOBODY stood behind him when he was working. He didn’t care who it was. He just didn’t allow it.
Nicole loved it when they were standing around the piano with Jerry Herman. It was very exciting.
They rehearsed for six weeks at the Mark Hellinger Theater before heading to The Fisher Theater in Detroit. That was the standard rehearsal period. Contrary to various reports, Nicole never thought the show was ever in trouble. She also feels that the rest of the company felt the same way. She knew there was tension going on between Merrick and Gower, but she never felt the show was in danger there.
It was a short rehearsal period in Detroit, not like today. They rehearsed for one week. She knew nothing about Charles Strouse and Lee Adams being brought in until Gower lost his temper. The first public performance of Hello, Dolly!, two new songs were going in that were “not Jerry’s”.
That was the “rumor” circulating. The rumor was that Bob Merrill had written those two songs, Elegance and The Motherhood March.
Their first performance in Detroit was November 18th, a Monday night. On Friday afternoon, November 22nd, President Kennedy was assassinated. She very clearly remembers that day. They were in the basement of the theater.
Bonnie Schon (ensemble) broke the news to the cast. Everything shut down. Nicole remembers watching the news coverage with Lowell Purvis and Ed Kressley. There was no show for several days. They did have a rehearsal the evening of the 22nd.
The Kennedys were supposed to come to see the show at The National Theater in December of ’63. Because of the mood of the nation, the Hello, Dolly! Company did not know how they were going to be received in Washington. It almost felt doomed in a way.
On New Year’s Eve, just before midnight, Gower told the Company he had a surprise for them and played Louis Armstrong’s recording of Hello, Dolly! which had just been recorded earlier that month.
Nicole was not a huge fan of the movie, Hello, Dolly!
Two weeks later, they were at the St. James Theater in New York City. They teched in the theater on Tuesday, January 14th. They did a matinee and evening performance on January 15th, and officially opened on Broadway on January 16th. That was pretty much the norm. The first time that Nicole had a long preview period was when she did Sugar.
It was a very exciting old Broadway type of opening. The reviews were mostly raves. In the Dancing number, Nicole had a bit that was a favorite of hers.
There was a trio step that was also one of Gower’s favorites. She remembers one of the reviewers said in that number that the dancers looked as if they just skimmed across the floor, that they barely touched the ground. Nicole was thrilled that the reviewer got it.
When the show opened, there was a number after the Dolly number called Come and Be My Butterfly. Gower was never happy with that number. In what is unprecedented, he kept trying to make that number work. When Gower started getting the Mary Martin Company ready, he replaced that number with the Polka Contest. That is still in the show till this day. The Polka Contest also went into Carol’s first National tour. Nicole was one of the Butterfly girls and loved that number. It was such a mixture of the beautiful wings going back and forth and all the colors.
Then there was the comedy in which David Burns, as Horace, got caught up in their wings. David would mutter under his breath, “Get out of here you dirty moths” in a stage whisper bringing down the house. It was a fun, playful number. They rehearsed it so many times.
Nicole remembers saying as they were going to rehearse once more, “Not again!?!?!” Unbeknownst to her, Gower was standing right behind her. He was playful about it all. Also on opening night, Nicole got pregnant! There were severe snow storms in New York and Nicole lived out in Cedarhurst at the time.
She was a little bit afraid of being stuck out there so she came in and stayed at The Hilton. Because of this, Nicole only stayed with the show for five months initially. She hid it as long as she could. One night, she heard that someone had gotten fired from the Bye, Bye Birdie Company due to pregnancy. She was having such a great time in Dolly. It was like going to a party every night.
She just loved it and everybody in it that she didn’t want to tell anyone of her situation because she didn’t want to leave so soon. She kept it very quiet; in fact, she started out wearing a corset with padding in the back to give a certain look especially in the Dancing number.
As she started showing below the belt, she would stand a certain way to make up for the fact that she stopped adding the padding. When she was dancing, no one could tell but she would get pretty breathless.
One night, in Before the Parade Passes By, her dress split right on stage. She had to let them know. Her dresser was Bob Fitch’s wife. She knew before Nicole told her. She even told Nicole that she owed her a thumb after she almost lost it trying to zip her up!
Nicole was terrified to go to Gower but he told her to stay with the show for as long as she could do it. She stayed into her fifth month. Her baby was sitting on a nerve and Nicole could no longer move as much.
The Kennedys were scheduled to see Dolly at The National Theater Christmas week of 1963
She also fell on stage. They knew by then and she could hear an audible gasp from the company. It was at the end of the Dancing number when Nicole and Paul Solen fell. Everyone was moving in one direction as the set was moving in another.
Nicole and Paul were going out on the ramp. They were running around and waltzing.
Their timing had to be just right; otherwise, they would be stuck behind the set. She fell, but that didn’t stop her. She just got right up and continued.
Once when she arrived at the theater, coming all the way in from Long Island, there was a sign on the stage door, “Stay away, Nicole! There are measles!!” Someone in the company had contracted measles and they didn’t want her to be exposed.
When she left, she was out of the show for six months before returning.
When Nicole returned, Carol was still in the show but they were getting ready to put Ginger Rogers in the show. Nicole thought Rogers was OK in the show. In the Dancing number, from the moment the chorus came on, Nicole never stopped. She did almost every step of that number. Gower told Nicole that he had to take some of that away from her. The same thing happened to Sondra Lee regarding her dance around Dolly at the end of that number.
It was modified to put the focus on Dolly/Ginger. Nicole was distraught. It was one of her favorite moments in the show.
She thought she would never again find something that was so fluid and so much fun.
Ginger did it for one or two nights and could not do it, so Nicole got everything back. She was just too out of breath for it. It was a non-stopping dance number in which Ginger would have to waltz out of one wing and waltz back in the other…seemingly to never stop. Nicole stayed on with Ginger for about a year and a half.
She left the show prior to Betty Grable coming in.
Nicole was offered the opportunity to come back as the dance captain when Ethel Merman came into the show. Nicole thought she would be a better dance captain if she was not in the show. They were not interested in just that scenario. Nicole was involved in other things at that time and didn’t want to go “backwards”.
Nicole did see Pearl Bailey as Dolly.
She found her interesting. Bailey brought a whole new element to the show.
It was very entertaining. Carol was Carol when she did it and the same could be said of Pearl.
Nicole also saw Phyllis Diller play Dolly.
She could not compare it to either Carol or Pearl. It was an interesting portrayal, however.
Nicole is such a Streisand fan but feels the movie was so wrong. The movie became “too big” even though it was Gene Kelly. It just didn’t have the excitement or the theatricality of the stage production.
Gower Champion had such an eye for detail.
He was a painter on stage. Everything was really, really specific. Sunday Clothes worked anyway, but it wasn’t as breathtaking as when everyone was angled in the way he staged everyone.
Also, in Dancing, he always stressed that when the dancers glided, they didn’t bounce. When they ran, they flowed with it, when they stood in their plie, they were taught to cover the ground.
Nicole attributes Dolly’s staying power to Gower’s staging and original intention. It was all in the details. She feels that he is so underrated. He had a flow as a director/choreographer. There is more of an innate sense of timing when you have a director/choreographer as opposed to having two people to cover that, depending upon the talent, of course. Gower had such a sense of timing and style that the combination just worked.
Nicole thinks Dolly should eventually return to Broadway, but not so soon. She hopes that whoever brings it in will pay as much attention to detail as Gower did.
What did Nicole like most about being in the show?
“The dancing.” She felt a freedom working with Gower. She felt that on all the shows she did with him. Everyone had to dance together when they all danced together, but they were all individuals.
He always stressed that his work was simple. What made it work is what each individual brought to the stage.
Nicole felt very free and also felt that she was in on the creativity of the shows she did with Gower. Whatever she felt when she was dancing, he accepted. He was not a cookie-cutter. Even when he was choreographing, she could almost feel what he was going to do next. There was a certain circular thing that the female dancers did in Dancing that had to go at a certain speed.
Gower got behind Nicole and chased her to make the circle go even faster. He was very keen on angles. The dancers were staged in a way to create certain tableaux on stage. Nicole watched Gower like a hawk.
She felt she danced “differently” after working with him.
The only low point for Nicole during her Dolly days was President Kennedy’s assassination.
The wildest thing that happened to Nicole on stage happened in Detroit. It was during the transition of the set from the Hay and Feed store on to the next scene. Paul Solen and Nicole were waltzing around the stage during the transition. There was supposed to be a step inside the Hay and Feed Store for Nicole to step on to and do a well-timed leap. One night, they forgot to set the step! She was determined to do what she was directed to do and she did! Gower and Lowell teased her for a long time after this.
Working with Freddy Wittop, this was the second time for Nicole. She thought he was great and he was so nice. She remembers his mink-lined fur coat! She felt his costume designs were wonderful.
Hello, Dolly! is so up. It is very stylized. It is a wonderful vehicle for a leading lady.
Speaking of leading ladies, Gower was very hands-on with Carol. In addition to Marge, Ed Kressley also worked with Carol a lot.
Nicole adored working with Jerry Herman. She felt like a little kid in a toy store. He was so sweet and so enthusiastic. She remembers when they first met. He had done a show off-Broadway called Parade. He had written a song, Your Hand in My Hand.
It’s Today!!! News! and links to current productions jerryherman.com
She didn’t know it was him. When they started working together on Dolly, she realized that he had written this song that she loved.
She remembers loving that song from the moment she heard it and still believes it is a wonderful song. She also feels that he is so cruelly underrated with all that he has done. It took way too long for the Kennedy Center Honors.
There have been legendary varying versions of the night Carol fell off the stage into the orchestra pit. Nicole’s recollection is that she never stopped.
She fell off of the stage right side. She was getting ready to cross over to stage left on the ramp and she missed but she continued!
She climbed back up and ended up on stage left. The audience response was amazement.
Nicole does not recall her closing night but she does recall her closing day due to her pregnancy. They gave her a “closing party” at a restaurant called El Soma.
She was happy/sad going home. She was excited about giving birth to her daughter but she hated to leave the Company. Her husband picked her up laden with gifts. She recalls this huge teddy bear in the car. It was a wonderful send-off. Gower sent a note saying that he was sorry that he couldn’t be there.
When she finally left the show, she immediately went into rehearsals for an industrial. She needed a change.
Hello, Dolly!, for Nicole Barth, is extremely personal. She loved Broadway since she was a little girl and never desired to do anything else. She started out as a ballet dancer but that way of life seemed very restrictive to her.
The moment she heard an overture she was hooked. She enjoyed the other shows of her career but LOVED Dolly! She loved going to work every night. It was such a hit show. It was like wearing a special suit. When people found out she was in Hello, Dolly!, they reacted differently.
This article is based on an interview conducted on December 18, 2012. Nicole Barth passed away on December 22, 2014 after battling lung cancer for six years.