“You grabbed a sandwich and your pickle and went home." - Sondra Lee
Sondra Lee received the call from Gower Champion in the summer of 1963 when she was performing in Rome that would change the course of her life. He wanted her to play Minnie Fay in Dolly Levi: A Damned Exasperating Woman, the musicalization of Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker…and for the next two years Sondra Lee WAS Minnie Fay.
At one time there was even a song called Dolly Levi: A Damned Exasperating Woman! Songs came and went. But that is the natural course of a musical.
At the start of our interview, Sondra told me up front that I could not trust her for any form of chronology; she only has emotional memories of her time in Dolly. She doesn’t think that way. Including her age. She has no sense of her age or anyone else’s, for that matter.
She feels that her time in Dolly was FOREVER!
She was young and naive and was FORCED to sign a two year contract. Eileen Brennan’s was for 18 months. She still doesn’t know why she signed a two year contract.
She was coming back from Europe at the time. She was also very tired. Again, Gower offered her the role. She never had to audition. He sent her a script. She called him and said “I can’t find it.” He said what do you mean? She said “the character”. He said, “That’s why I’m calling YOU.”
In addition to Carol Channing, Sondra did Dolly with Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, and Martha Raye. She adored Bibi Osterwald. She doesn’t remember Bibi ever going on for Carol. Carol was NEVER sick. Even if she was, she would go on anyway.
As far as the differences of the Dollys she appeared with, Sondra says they were all remarkable women.
They were all different “actors”. They all were different Dollys. They all wore the same costume. But beneath the costume was a different person. Both on and off stage.
Speaking of Barnaby, there were so many Barnabys before they settled on Jerry Dodge that it was heartbreaking to see these guys come and go. Before Jerry, there were two other guys during the rehearsal process.
One of them was the younger brother of Christopher Walkin. For some reason, they were either not ready or who knows why. In all the shows that Sondra ever did, she never got involved with the “politics”. She was too busy having a good time working very hard. It was the first show for each of the prior Barnabys.
Sondra says that out of the Dollys she appeared with, Martha Raye was the most “available”. Sondra went to Vietnam with Martha’s Dolly company. Martha was a Green Beret. Sondra said Martha had a heart that showed. For Sondra, Carol was an enigma. She felt the same way about Mary Martin (Sondra did Peter Pan with Martin).
She felt that Gower’s approach was unique. Not so much as a director but in his casting choices.
That’s how Sondra ended up in Dolly.
You were hired because of your unique physicality or your unique approach as an actor. Sondra and Gower came from two different schools of dance. Sondra came from a much more serious school of dance, Jerome Robbins and the “serious” world of ballet.
What Gower was was a wonderful choreographer.
Ginger and Gower.
He choreographed like an abstract painter. Gower, for Sondra, did not convey text in his dance. He didn’t tell the story in dance. His was a much broader spectrum. They very often disagreed on musical “accents”. To Sondra, he was a wonderful “conceptualizer”. More like a painter.
Sometimes he just let Sondra bring what she wanted to to the part of Minnie Fay. In other words, like the end of “Dancing” she went to Gower to discuss when Minnie Fay dances around Dolly/Carol, she had a need to “touch her”. He said, “No, don’t touch her.” Sondra didn’t mean to physically touch her, but to “touch her” on an emotional connection. To touch Dolly with Minnie’s gratitude, Minnie’s vulnerability. It was the first date Minnie Fay has ever had. Gower said to Sondra to make it up. Sondra said Gower was very gracious in that way. Sondra even suggested to Gower that she felt that she could get a huge laugh in Mrs. Molloy’s hat shop after walking away from the closet and realizing what she saw. Gower told her to go for it. He was very open to suggestions.
As she watched Gower’s work, she discovered he had a very tactical directorial gift. Very practical. Marge also made enormous contributions to Dolly. She didn’t feel that he was a “genius like Robbins” but rather, that he had a very practical way of making numbers work. He wasn’t “organic”.
She never really had any interactions with Jerry Herman at all. She dealt a lot with Michael Stewart because they were dealing with the text. Since she didn’t have that much to sing, she never had to discuss the lyrics with Jerry. Because Charles Strouse and Bob Merrill were around, no one was sure of whose songs were whose (Both have denied writing ANYTHING for Dolly!)
Her experiences with David Merrick were a joke according to Sondra. She said that with every Merrick show she ever did, at some point she would be in his office crying, “I’m sorry Mr. Merrick. I just can’t do this.” He would always say, “Ah! Sondra’s here!” Sondra did quite a few Merrick productions. Sondra said she was so wracked with insecurity and low self esteem that she can’t even remember the legendary aspects of his office. There was always this “monster” guy there by the name of Jack Schissel. Jack actually turned out to be a “pussy cat”.
In the early stages of Dolly, there wasn’t enough money.
The show was in danger of shutting down. Sondra borrowed money from a friend and gave a check for $2,000. And it was “lost” or perhaps “they didn’t want someone in the show to have money in the show”. She would be a rich lady today!
I asked Sondra what she missed about the Broadway of “then” verses Broadway of “today”. Sondra says there is no “today”.
The lowest point of her Dolly memories is the night President Kennedy was assassinated. That was one of the most extraordinary personal experiences that still resonates today.
She still has images and visions that are still very strong. She remembers the entire company gathered around a radio as if they were surrounding a pot belly stove. Eileen had big pink curlers in her hair crying. Sondra remembers what, for her, was a bizarre moment. Carol Channing was on the phone talking to Johnson and the Johnson family. Carol kept telling Johnson, “We’re going on. We’re keeping on.” Sondra just felt that it was bizarre that in the midst of what was going on that Carol was speaking to the man who was going to be the next President of the United States. Sondra remembers calling James Baldwin on the phone who happened to be a friend and his advice to her was to go out and get some groceries. “Be kind to yourself.” The show was postponed because of Kennedy’s assassination but they went on the next night.
Carol’s focus, as far as Sondra could see was on the show.
She refers to Carol as a unique “cypher”. Sondra said she never felt she had a moment where Carol really saw “her”. Carol still refers to Sondra as Sandra Dee. Sondra says that she thinks Carol is one of the last of the monstreuse (eccentric show girl) of the theatre. She HAD to be in the theatre. She found the right place for herself. Sondra says she doesn’t even know who Carol is outside of the “Channing persona”. After reading Carol’s memoir, “Just Lucky I Guess”, she still didn’t know who Carol is. She said being with Carol was always as if they were at “Carol’s eighth birthday party”. It was always the same either on or off stage. Sondra said she was always respectful to Carol because she was the star. Carol was a lot sharper than people give her credit for. Her clothes and tastes were top of the line.
Very well thought out. Very well carried. And the two sides of Carol didn’t jive. Sondra walked into Carol’s dressing room once and she was there without her wig. Sondra was in shock because Carol’s hair was brown and it “looked like burlap”. Her hair was damaged because of all of the peroxide during Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She would go to sleep with the peroxide on. She eventually sued William Dasher for a grand sum of money. THAT’S why she always wore the wigs. “The hand that went into her bag knew EXACTLY where it was going and what it was TAKING out.”
The presentation was that she didn’t know. THAT was her persona.The thing she learned from Carol and all the other legendary stars that she appeared with is “If you take out a number, you replace it with another number.” When a show revolves around a star, that’s what the name of the game is. None of the other stars, however, could handle the role as Carol did. It WAS her role. She was who she is. Her favorite Dolly was Martha Raye from a very specific point of view. She could REALLY sing those songs. What a shame that there is no recording of that!
Each of the Dollys was unique to what they brought to the table. Sondra has never seen any other Dollys other than those she shared the stage with. That is also true of ANY show she has ever done. She has no desire to see any other interpretations. It is too personal.
Charles Nelson Reilly, Jerry Dodge, Eileen Brennan, and Sondra were inseparable partly because they were individual show stopping personalities and they were never given “that thing” to do, to stop the show. They really had to depend upon themselves to make their scenes work.
They had no payoff. There was never a “button” that any of them ever had. They sort of hung around together at the theatre. Not much socializing when you work in a Broadway show. They were protective of each other…because they felt they had so little to work with. The characters are sort of “cartoony”. Sondra did her homework and went to the original source material, The Merchant of Yonkers and The Matchmaker. “You grabbed a sandwich and your pickle and went home”. She remembers Jerry Dodge as being an adorable person who had a unique voice and energy. He was fun to play with.
The cast really didn’t see Carol that often outside the show.
Even during the rehearsal period, in those days, the book was rehearsed in one room, the dancers in another, and the singers in yet another. Occasionally, the “twains” would meet. Marge worked a lot with Carol on developing the persona of Dolly Levi.
She remembers Charles Karel and David Hartman sharing a dressing room.
Charles Nelson Reilly was a unique individual.
He was lots of fun both on and off stage but he stuck to the script.
Eileen was a little inebriated with whatever she was drinking on stage. One night as she was singing Ribbons Down My Back, the hat fell off her head. She didn’t even notice! Sondra LOVED working with Eileen…but it was dangerous.
David Burns was the dirtiest most delightful person she ever met. She said he was FILTHY! If there was a hole in the scenery, be careful! You never knew what might be poking out!! Pat Carroll refers to him as “Mr. Naughty”. Sondra said he was down and dirty, not naughty. But that he was a very serious “technician”.
Opening nights at The Fisher in Detroit, The National in DC, and the St. James in NY are all the same for Sondra. She is just a worker.
She knew where the laughs were and she knew how to make them work. Gower referred to her and Reilly and Brennan, and Dodge as the Avon Comedy Four. Gower had a friend, Jess Craig, a wonderful playwrite who Gower would seek out advice and feedback from. They were school chums.
In the “old days” there was no structured rehearsal process like there is today. The unions didn’t care as much.
Once again, Sondra was under a two year contract. She said that by the end of her stint, she felt like she should be institutionalized except for “crazy Martha”(Raye) who she idolized.
Sondra tells me that working with Ginger Rogers was better than working with Betty Grable. She refers to Grable as a “neanderthal”. The legs were there but the mind was still in kindergarten. Ginger was a “good egg”. She forgot her lines and told the audience. She would say, “I forgot” and then walk to the wings for prompting. Audiences LOVED her!
The last performance Sondra gave was in San Francisco with Ginger Rogers. During the curtain call speech, Rogers announced to the audience that it was Sondra’s final performance. The audience gave Sondra a standing ovation and she remembers weeping and weeping. She knew at that moment that her emotional attachment to Hello, Dolly! was gone.