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Saul Schechtman

Saul Schechtman (Musical Director for original run of Hello, Dolly!)

Broadway conductor Saul Schechtman’s life changed when he received a call from the Merrick office saying that they desperately needed him to go out to Chicago ecause Betty Grable’s company was in trouble. This was a tour that had started out in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They were getting bad reviews. Saul initially told the Merrick office that he didn’t want to go on the road. Saul had a previous history with Merrick, having conducted Carnival!

When Saul received the call from Merrick’s office, he didn’t get into what the issues were. He just wasn’t interested in going. EVERYBODY was unhappy with what was going on. A friend of Saul’s, Samuel “Biff Liff”, was Merrick’s production man and he asked Saul to please go out and take care of it. Saul agreed to, but ONLY for that show. This was the national company. As preparation for Chicago, Saul was asked to see the Broadway Company starring Ginger Rogers at this point. The show was almost three years. A three year old show starts to show its wear and tear. It’s losing its popularity and so forth. When Dolly first opened and the cast album first came out, Saul was in Europe. Therefore, he was not familiar with its score until he saw it at the St. James. He went a couple of times before embarking for Chicago. Watching the show in New York, Saul immediately saw what was wrong, there was no question about it. When he got to Chicago, it was the same situation. Everything was at sixes and sevens. Grable was floating around with not really knowing what to focus in on except that Max Showalter was a very nice guy and a friend of hers from long back. How much of Lucia’s input was not that apparent to Saul.

He knew what needed to be done. The show needed to be taken more seriously. The show, both on Broadway and on the road, had become a vaudeville honky-tonk atmosphere. He supposes it couldn’t have been avoided. Everything was now being done superficially, fast, but after three years, it becomes real haul. Everybody in the show was desperate for a change. Saul didn’t even speak to Grable before beginning work on the show. He just went in, rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He went onto the pit and started. You can imagine the first shock of Saul going into the show with a completely different tempo. It got everybody up on their toes. Betty Grable was open to anything. “She was a nice girl.” Saul was doing this as a favor to Biff and therefore had no contract. Saul also had no idea he would be there. He went in to the show the last week of November just after Thanksgiving. The show was going to close in Chicago around the fifteenth of January 1967. The tour would continue before many from this company would land on Broadway in November of ’67.

Saul just did this to help Biff and Merrick, that’s all. He did meet the conductor, there. They just shook hands and that was that. Next thing, Biff is in the pit conduction with no prior rehearsal! After the performance, everybody felt renewed. For example, one of the tunes in Dolly is Elegance. The show had lost whatever “elegance” it had. That was all out the window. On that element, the question was how to get that back? In addition to Betty Grable, Max Showalter was in this company along with Peter Walker, Danny Lockin, Harriet Lynn as Minnie Fay and June Helmers as Irene Molloy, very congenial people all around.  When they arrived in Wilmington Delaware, one of the reviews stated if the Playhouse production of Hello, Dolly! were “as good as the scenery, costumes and stage effects, it would be a smash hit.”

The first thing Saul did was to get the ensemble back in shape. The original company of Dolly lost their conductor within the first six weeks of the production. When you see the album of the original you’ll see a name that didn’t appear after the first six weeks of the Broadway run. All Saul can say is something wasn’t clicking. He wasn’t there and he never asked. Nobody ever told him and he can’t tell me more than that. Peter Howard later became their conductor, he was, at first, the dance arranger, rehearsal and pit pianist. He was the only one who really knew the show. It was his first job as a conductor. Peter had also worked with Saul on Carnival!  He was a great dance arranger. He came to prominence in the 1960s, serving as the conductor and dance music arranger for the original Broadway productions of Hello, Dolly!, 1776 and Annie and served as the dance music arranger for the original Broadway productions of ChicagoThe Tap Dance Kid and Crazy for You.

The original conductor was Shep Coleman. Shepard Coleman won a Tony Award for musical direction of the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Mr. Coleman was a graduate of the Juilliard School. A cellist, he performed in chamber music ensembles during the 1940′s and also played with the New York Philharmonic and staff orchestras of radio stations WQXR and WMCA. He was a pit musician for Broadway musicals from 1946 to 1960. He had never done a show prior to Dolly.

Peter stepped into Shep’s shoes; Shep had been the vocal arranger. The vocal arrangements had been Shep’s for the first three years. All of the arrangements were done in what was called a quasi-modern style that is with thick chords. That was common in the fifties. There was no real attempt to do anything about stylization. You had a chorus of about sixteen to eighteen singers who were doing five part harmony. Nothing sounded good. Saul immediately cut out one of the voices. Overnight, it was like night and day. When they came out for Put on Your Sunday Clothes, it sounded good! It sounded exactly as Jerry Herman had originally imagined. Suddenly, you could see when they stepped out on the stage, Boy, something had changed! Saul didn’t meet Jerry here. He didn’t meet him until he was conducting Ethel Merman’s company. That was the very beginning. Of course, once there was something different happening on stage, it carried over to Grable. She suddenly became a “different” Dolly in the show. Saul Schectman has had a lifelong battle with orchestras not taking musicals seriously. Saul has been all over the world. It was always the same problem. These days, he doesn’t know. Musicians felt that way because the music didn’t seem to demand anything better. Musicians have a habit of thinking Musical comedy is lesser than Mozart, but when you play it well… they receive an arrangement from a musical comedy composer, and somehow the notes don’t seem important enough. Once they get the idea that it really is serious, there is a shift. That is what had happened to Dolly’s orchestra. Saul started pointing out little things. The original orchestrations were by Philip Lang. Philip Lang was also the original orchestrator for Carnival! Saul started his career. Here it was six years later. Saul knew Phil Lang very well and knew what his conception of the orchestrations was and that was not what he was playing. Saul tried to recreate what he saw in his mind of what Lang had originally created for these orchestrations and they were very good. Within the first week that Saul was conducting in Chicago, it was a totally different sound coming out of everywhere. You can imagine, the company responded immediately. They became so enthusiastic, that by the time they left Chicago, it was a totally different show. Then they started doing one week and two week stands on their way to New York. Everybody needs direction and Betty Grable was no exception. She took direction very well. She would do whatever was asked of her. He never had a problem with her. She was a very happy woman and very glad to be on stage. Even with the bad reviews, audiences were very happy to see her.

Saul promised Merrick that he would stay with the show until this company came to its end at the end of February. This was THE NATIONAL COMPANY of Hello, Dolly! This was a very serious thing. Merrick was very keen about Saul. Saul had a lot to do with Carnival! being Merrick’s first big musical hit. Saul was returning the favor in kind. After Chicago, they played cities like South Bend, Evanston, and so forth, and the show started to get raves. EVERYBODY was very happy at that point. It opened The Mechanic’s Theater in Baltimore. That was a brand new theater and probably the largest venue they played. Biff Liff had expressed to Saul how happy the Merrick office was what he had done with this company because they were also going to do the Ginger Rogers tour. With Rogers, this company would tour the west coast. This would take place when she left the Broadway Company in February of 1967.

With Rogers, everything was one unit, her looks, her talent, her legend, and she knew it. She had a very firm knowledge of whom and what she was. With Grable, the voice was not always there. She moved well, naturally, but she was less at home in dialogue. She relied quite a bit more on the people around her on stage than Ginger needed to have. Grable still had a very strong personality. She would have stood out even if she was in the ensemble. It was just the technical things that she was or was not doing. She was someone who could have used a very strong directorial hand. The good news is that when this tour ended, there was a very tight ensemble ready for Rogers.

Saul had a very good rehearsal pianist. He had been with the company and had been in the orchestra since Saul arrived in Chicago. Those weeks of touring, he had become a big fan of Saul’s. When they started with Rogers, he started rehearsing with her the way he had been on the entire company. She got really upset. She was accustomed to something much faster. It was much more Vaudevillian without the weight of the element that Saul was bringing into the show. He wanted to make it more important than people were making it. He had made it a more solidified orchestral sound. Ginger complained that it was now being done differently from what she was accustomed to in New York. The Merrick office sent Peter Howard, who had conducted for Ginger in New York, to report back to them. He told them everything was fine. They all wanted to know what she was complaining about. They had a week of rehearsals in Denver. She didn’t complain anymore. She took everything as it was and was reassured by the Merrick office that everything was fine and that it was sounding very good, indeed. The reviews with Ginger Rogers were much better than the ones Betty Grable had received. The Merrick office was pleased and Saul never heard anymore about it. If you were to compare the original cast recording with what Saul first heard when he heard Hello, Dolly, it was night and day. It was not the same show at all. In the West Coast tour, this was not a Broadway pit orchestra, this orchestra was huge. They opened in Denver and it was the Denver Symphony Orchestra. In Los Angeles, it was the Philharmonic, and so forth and so on. They had a huge sound with a large string section. The very things that had been applied to the Grable Company were being applied to the Rogers Company. It WAS the same company. The only change was the leading actress. Saul was applying the same sound and ambiance. Everything continued to move along and click very well. When they got to Los Angeles, following Denver, two weeks later, they had an even larger orchestra in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. They picked up Saul’s direction on how to play that particular music. Saul played the entire tour. As this tour was coming to a close, Saul had no idea that he would be taking over the Broadway Company. He was very happy doing the tour because they were doing great performances. They performed for six weeks in Los Angeles doing sold out houses. They then went on to San Francisco with the same kind of business. To give you an idea of what was going on, at the last performance in San Francisco, Saul walked into the pit for the second act of the show, and the orchestra gave him a standing ovation. Afterward, the stage manager came to him and said, “What was that noise I heard in the pit when you walked in for the last act?” Saul told him it was the orchestra giving him a very nice hand. He said, “Well deserved.” That was what Saul was experiencing so far. While they were in San Francisco, Saul got the first inkling that Merrick had something else in mind. Someone from Merrick’s office said to Saul, “Don’t think you’re going to get any more money when you get to New York.” Not being in New York, Saul was not hearing anything regarding what Merrick had in store for him in New York. He felt very good about it and they went on to Seattle for two weeks and then on to Fresno for the final week or two of performances.

Peter Howard was still conducting the New York Company. Evidently, by this point, unbeknownst to Saul, Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway had already been signed for Dolly about the same time he was finishing Rogers’ West Coast tour. Saul doesn’t believe that anything was said to Peter about these changes to be made. Peter did not work on the Bailey/Calloway Company at all.

When Saul arrived in New York, he received a call from Merrick’s office and to start conducting the Broadway show which was now headed by Betty Grable. This was the end of August of 1967. While working with the Grable company, Saul had no idea of the Bailey/Calloway Production of Dolly. One morning the telephone rang and Lucia Victor was on the phone. She said, “Well, Saul, are you ready for Pearl?” He said, “What!?!?!” She said, “Yes. We’re going into rehearsal next week.” He was bowled over. He had no idea something like this was going on. He took it in stride and the following week went into rehearsal with the all “Negro Company” while he was still conducting the New York Company. Saul had never met anyone from Bailey’s company prior to that first day of rehearsal. He had not prepared any music for any of them. He had not auditioned any of them. He took what he had been doing and brought it to this company. The atmosphere at first was very cautious on the company’s part. There was no doubt about it that there was a determination to do this right. There was no sense of doing this differently. They were simply going to take the material that had been done steadily on stages around the world. These people were going to do it to the best of their ability. Of course, one couldn’t help, with the commotion of the civil rights movement that they were into something that could be momentous. As they rehearsed day after day, Saul could sense that enthusiasm and an outright and physical energy that was being directed at the task at hand. When they finally finished rehearsals in New York and went to Washington for the first try out performances at The National Theater, there was unquestionably electricity in the air. It was a lot of kids in that show who had never had a chance to be on a big stage. They were getting their chance. The first thing that happened that really shook things up was when he started rehearsing the cast with the orchestra inside of the theater as opposed to a rehearsal room. The company was invited to the orchestra rehearsal to hear what it was going to sound like. The first time they heard the rehearsal of the Hello, Dolly number, Saul could see the kids walking up and down behind him and hitting their elbows together and high fiving it and getting extremely energized. When they opened for the first performance at The National, it was like an explosion. The public reacted consequently. It was an amazing scene. People were applauding, crying, you name it. It was also the first time that a President of the United States had joined a cast on stage to congratulate a cast and company. That was President and Lady Bird Johnson.

Dolly opened on November 12, 1967 on Broadway.  In his New York Timesreview, Clive Barnes wrote that Bailey “took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa.” The Broadway production ran for two years, before Bailey’s health problems forced it to close. She toured with the show after her recovery, and again in the mid-1970s. Cab’s daughter Chris Calloway was also in this production.

Don’t forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. This was five months after the Baily Company had hit Broadway. It was a Thursday. Just as the cast and crew were arriving at the theater, they were just getting word that Dr. King had died. Miss Bailey made the decision for the show to go on. The evening went on as if it was any other night in the theater. There was nothing notable at the theater. That night, there was no “third act.” After the performance, after the curtain came down, Cab Calloway called the entire company together for a few moments and spoke to them about the whole situation. Saul is not aware of what was said, he was still in the pit.

Phyllis Diller followed Pearl Bailey. The Merrick office tried to engage as many as possible from the original company either in New York or the several road and Vegas companies to come back and do the show. There wasn’t much need for much rehearsal except to brush up. There were just a couple of days before that cast had rehearsed and taken over the Pearl Bailey Company. There was a feeling of jubilation from the original company members because the sound was exactly as it had been when the show had first opened. There was also a certain feeling of competitiveness to surpass the success of the Bailey Company.

The public expectation for what she would do in the role was that madcap crazy haired comedienne married to Fang. Of course, being in a theatrical production doesn’t allow that much leeway for her doing that well known act of hers. She felt a little bit intimidated by having to tailor her persona to the demands of a book character. She wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. The audiences, unfortunately, wanted something else. It affected the box office tremendously. He never detected the slightest notion that she was unhappy, however. Everyone knows that there was a passarelle that went around the pit. That is a very important element in this show, particularly in Phyllis Diller’s case. It gave her a chance, in particularly in the well known scenes in which she speaks with her departed husband, Ephraim, to show her serious side and her acting abilities. She was one who definitely benefitted from that stage device that detached all the Dollys in a solo moment.

There was also a drama that occurred with the earliest days of Dolly. When they were out of town, someone fell into the pit. There was a very bad accident. As a result of that accident, the pit was then covered with netting thereafter. It involved a dancer. It made it prominently in the papers at the time. Carol fell several times, Carleton Carpenter had a very serious accident in London resulting in a broken pelvis, and Madeline Kahn almost fell off of the passarelle because it wasn’t secured in Atlanta.

A month into Phyllis’ run, there were rumors that Ethel Merman was the next Dolly.

When Merman came into the show, there was no need to do anything, the company was in place. The stories of her opening night are legendary. Saul remembers that when she came down the stairs for the title number, they couldn’t go on; they had to stop, because of the shouting and the applause. He had to stop the music; he tried again and still couldn’t go on; finally, it all became peaceful again.

Closing night was a repeat of opening night. There was a huge emotional outpouring from the audience. As she descended as the last in a long line of Dollys for the last time down those famed stairs at the Harmonia Gardens, it was tear jerker time. Once again, they had to stop and wait for the applause to die down in order for her to go on.

For Saul Schechtman, when Hello, Dolly ended, he had no energy to do another Broadway show. As a matter of fact, this was the last show he ever conducted on Broadway. He consciously made the decision not to pursue any more activities in that line. Also, the prognosis of the future of Broadway in the next few years after Dolly closed didn’t look too good for Broadway. As we know, it was a sense of the end of an era and Saul had no desire to get involved with anything that was not really unusually exciting or interesting from a musical or theatrical point of view. It wasn’t that exciting to him and he wasn’t interested in just another job.

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