Tony Parise (Madeline Kahn’s Production of Hello, Dolly in 1992)
Hello, Dolly happened for Tony Parise because of Lee Roy Reams. They had worked in the original 42nd Street together and they remained good friends.
When the summer tour of Dolly was being put together built around Madeline Kahn, Paul Blake of St. Louis’ MUNY Theater had a lot to do with putting it all together. Because of Tony’s connection with Blake, the MUNY, and Reams, it all came together.
Tony had heard all kinds of things about Madeline Kahn prior to this production, both good and bad. Therefore, he was a little excited and a little scared. He had no idea what he was going to encounter.
Immediately, however, she was a lovely, lovely person. She was not crazy as he was led to believe. She was very sane, very smart, very funny.
What he got her to do within the choreography were nods to her classic films.
There were moments honoring Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. They were just “little kisses”, little moments. It was absolutely wonderful. At the end of the Dolly number, she turned to one of the dancing waiters and said “Hello, Cowboy!” (a nod to Blazing Saddles). In her brilliance and in her genius, in the reprise of Hello, Dolly, she figured out that Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life goes perfectly over the tune of Hello, Dolly.
She sang it as an obbligato and Tony thought it was the most wonderful thing. She kept it in period. She was not breaking down that fourth wall since Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life is of that period. It was a perfect fit matching who Madeline Kahn is with her screen persona. It was genius.
The most wonderful day of Tony’s theatrical life for Tony was at Jerry Herman’s townhouse on the East side. Lee Roy and Tony were sitting on the sofa.
Jerry was sitting at the piano. Madeline was at the crook of the piano.
Jerry and Madeline were picking keys. Of course, Madeline doesn’t sing in Carol’s keys. They went through the score and the play methodically and would try all the keys.
Tony just got to sit there and be the “fly on the wall”. It was like going to theater heaven.
The biggest change in the business that Tony has seen since then is that now the “tail is wagging the dog.”
Tony believes that the t-shirts, the mugs, and the memorabilia are thought of and designed and built long before the show. The commercialism is leading the way.
When the money leads the way instead of the art, you are in deep trouble. That is Tony’s opinion.
Tony had first heard the score when he was a kid.
He was four when the original cast album came out.
The original cast album of Hello, Dolly was probably one of the first musicals he had an album of.
Tony has always loved Hello, Dolly! He also loves Jerry Herman. The show was always iconic for Tony. It was a thrill to be asked to recreate it. They don’t write them like that anymore: so to the point, so poetic, so romantic, clever, and singable. Tony longs for Jerry Herman. He could listen to him every day of his life.
Tony’s thought on why the Dolly number ALWAYS stops the show is all those men! Again, it is the simplicity of Gower Champion. It is black and white, block shaped. Then throw in those great male harmonies and Dolly in that iconic red dress. It is such a work of art. It is not just waiters fooling around behind some crazy woman. It is all such a piece. It is placed at exactly the right moment in the show.
Working with Lee Roy is just pure fun according to Tony. Lee Roy knows Dolly inside, out, backwards, and forwards. There’s not a problem there! Lee Roy was THE guy. He has such an association with Carol Channing. Tony just felt lucky to be there. He was there to support Lee Roy.
The show is pretty sacred to Tony. There are some things that are pretty sacrosanct to him. The Hello, Dolly number is one of them.
Tony also loved working with John Schuck as Horace Vandergelder. “What a love.”
John is such a great guy. He is a lovable curmudgeon. He totally captured both sides of Vandergelder.
Tony doesn’t think this production had a significant impact on his career. He does think it looks nice on his resume that he choreographed Hello, Dollystarring Madeline Kahn for as long as that will hold. It enriched his life.
Tony’s thoughts on Dolly have not changed over the years. He thinks it is a wonderful book. Michael Stewart was a friend of his because of 42nd Street, as well. Tony thinks Dolly is one of the best books of a musical that there is. Tony is now the artistic director of a theater education company called Camp Broadway. Last year, Tony did Dolly with the kids. He thought the kids should know about Jerry Herman and a classic they might not hear about in any other way.
Dolly is still very dear to Tony’s heart.
At one of their earliest run throughs, Tony saw the magic. This production was perfectly cast. In the old days, they used to say, “If you don’t have a show in the rehearsal hall, without the sets and costumes, you don’t have a show.” In the rehearsal room in just jeans and T shirts with nothing else, they had a show.
This production and tour was spear headed by the MUNY and Paul Blake.
They rehearsed and opened in Atlanta.
They then went to MUNY, and from there, they went to Dallas and Kansas City. Each place had its own little personality. It was as if they were readjusting the show each time.
The show was the show for the whole tour.
It is so hard for Tony to say what the future audiences of Dolly will be.
As Tony has already said, it has such a great book, it’s a great story, and it is so romantic. He feels that our society has lost what romance is all about. In the current climate of Broadway, he’s not sure how it would fit. He thinks it needs to be done, keeping the integrity of it, of course. He does feel that it needs to be updated as far as the presentation is concerned in order to keep it “current”. He cannot explain that any better than that. He feels that there is a place for that; it just needs to be rethought a bit.
Doing Dolly just reinforced what Tony already knew of the genius of Gower Champion and his simplicity.
Tony has done Hello, Dolly at other places including Trinity High School starring Rudolph Giuliani’s daughter, Caroline! The simplicity that was Gower’s genius hits home with Tony. All of this supposed choreography nowadays which is very callisthenic and kills people right, left, and center is completely not necessary. Trust the material and do the absolute right amount of movement is what it should be all about. There aren’t many people choreographing today who have learned that lesson.
Dolly is certainly among the top five shows of Tony’s career. It is among the tradition of good old fashioned Broadway. What Gower did was absolute genius, but now, Tony thinks of what Gower would have done with today’s technology and how things are presented. Tony can re-imagine what Gower would do now. Tony would honor him by bringing it forward to give it a new life.
He feels that the person to do a new revival would be Bernadette Peters. He thinks it would be a better fit for her than Gypsy.
As stated earlier, Lee Roy knew the show very well. Tony had never done it. He had only seen clips of it. What Tony, therefore, brought to the production was giving Madeline Kahn the confidence to take on Dolly, to bring the outline of the character combined with presenting Madeline Kahn in her own special way as Dolly. It was a concept that she was very reluctant to do. She wanted to play a part and leave Madeline Kahn at the stage door. Both Lee Roy and Tony convinced her that people were coming to see Madeline Kahn IN Hello, Dolly!She actually told both Tony and Lee Roy after she won the Tony Award in The Sisters Rosensweig that there was no way that she could have done that show without the experience she had with them in Dolly the previous summer. It gave her the confidence and permission to be Madeline Kahn within a role.
Tony did not continue to tweak the show after it opened. Of course, they were on a tour. Madeline insisted that Tony go on the tour with her. He was the only choreographer that was allowed to go along. She really felt more secure with him there. Of course, they had to tweak it for outdoors and expand it for indoors when they got to Atlanta. They had to pull it in a bit. During their tech rehearsal, the passarelle was not attached properly. In the middle of the tech run through, it bolted and shook and Madeline hit the deck and crawled off the passarelle. She said she was not going back out there. It was opening night and the audience was already arriving in the lobby. Tony had to go out there and walk through the number on the passarelle and did the Dolly number for her after they secured the passarelle so that she felt safe enough to go back out there. At the MUNY, there were two giant Percheron horses that pulled the streetcar across the back of the stage. One of them had to relieve himself. Madeline had to step over a river of horse urine and not get it on her crinolines. Those were probably the worst experiences Tony had with this production.
In St Louis, Tony’s hometown, the guy who played Rudolph got sick and could not do a couple of performances. There of course were no understudies in summer stock. Because Tony was there and knew the show, he got to play Rudolph at the MUNY. He had been out of Actor’s Equity for years since he was now a choreographer/director. It was kind of fun. He had the insider’s view as well.
Tony stayed with the entire tour as choreographer, which is highly unusual. As stated earlier, Madeline refused to let him go. Lee Roy did not continue beyond Atlanta. Tony took it into all the cities.
Tony did see Carol Channing play Dolly in one of the revivals. That was amazing to see, to witness. He hasn’t seen that many other Dollys, to be honest.
The closing was not a surprise. It ran its allotted course. Closing night was very celebratory. It had been a wonderful experience for all that were involved. Madeline knew that she was going to be going on to do The Sisters Rosensweigby then.
Tony keeps going back to “I’ve lost everything: my job, my future, everything people *think* is important, but I don’t care – because even if I have to dig ditches for the rest of my life, I shall be a ditch-digger who once had a wonderful day.” Tony, too, had a wonderful “day” with Madeline Kahn!