Ruth Gordon as Dolly
The Matchmaker is a play by Thornton Wilder.
The play has a long and colorful history. John Oxenford’s 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent had been extended into a full-length play entitled Einen Jux will er sich machen by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy in 1842.
In 1938, Wilder adapted Nestroy’s version into an Americanized comedy entitled The Merchant of Yonkers, which attracted the attention of German director Max Reinhardt, who mounted a Broadway production. It was a dismal failure, running for a mere 39 performances.
Fifteen years later, director Tyrone Guthrie expressed interest in a new production of the play, which Wilder extensively rewrote and rechristened The Matchmaker. The most significant change was the expansion of a previously minor character named Dolly Gallagher Levi, who became the play’s centerpiece. A widow who brokers marriages and other transactions in Yonkers, New York at the turn of the 20th Century, she sets her sights on local merchant Horace Vandergelder, who has hired her to find him a wife. After a series of slapstick situations involving mistaken identities, secret rendezvous behind carefully placed screens, separated lovers, and a trip to night court, everyone finds themselves paired with a perfect match.
The play was a success at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London’s West End before finally opening on Broadway on December 5, 1955 at the Royale Theatre, later transferring to the Booth to complete its run of 486 performances. Ruth Gordon’s performance in the title role earned her a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress; Guthrie won as Best Director.
The 1958 film version, adapted by John Michael Hayes and directed by Joseph Anthony, starred Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba) as Dolly, Anthony Perkins (Psycho) as Cornelius, Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment) as Irene, Paul Ford (The Music Man) as Vandergelder, and Robert Morse reprising his Broadway role as Barnaby.
In 1964, the play enjoyed yet another incarnation when David Merrick, who had produced the 1955 Broadway production, mounted a hugely successful, Tony Award-winning musical version entitled Hello, Dolly!, with a score by Jerry Herman and starring Carol Channing.