Gower Champion saw Will in Half A Sixpence right across the street at the Broadhurst Theater with Tommy Steele. Will was playing one of the three apprentices. Linda Otto and Joel Thurm had seen Will in the show and they brought Gower over. Charles Nelson Reilly was leaving Dolly after a year and a half. Will had played a small part in Sixpence and would be making the leap to a larger part in Dolly!
Will actually auditioned two or three times before the role was his. Also at this time, Carol Channing was leaving to take the show on the road and Ginger Rogers was stepping into her shoes. Therefore, Will had the benefit of actually having Gower direct him. Patte Finley was replacing Eileen Brennan as Irene Molloy. Ginger replacing Carol called for some restructuring of the show due to the fact that Carol and Ginger are such different types.
It was at this time that Will met Harvey Evans. They auditioned together but went with separate companies. Harvey, as Barnaby, went on the road.
Jerry Dodge, as Barnaby, and Sondra Lee, as Minnie Fay, remained with the Broadway cast. This was August of 1965. He would go on to do 941 performances , from August 1965 till November 1967.
Unlike today’s current crop of performers, Will never missed a performance. One night, he was struggling with his voice. So in the docket in the It Only Takes A Moment scene, Cornelius says, “Today, I’ve lost so many things, my job, everything that people think is important.” That night, he said, “I’ve lost so many things that people think is important. My job, my life, my voice.” It got a laugh. He comes off at the end of the show and the stage manager tells him that Miss Rogers would like to see him in her dressing room. He goes in and she says. “ About that little ad lib, our job is to perform the show every night, and as long as we feel we can get through it, we say the lines as they were written.”
Will says he felt like he was twelve years old. He walked out of there with his tail between his legs. That was the lowest point for him during his run of Dolly. It was a good lesson and he never forgot it.
His friend David Cryer was in Phantom of the Opera for twenty years. Will told David the above story and David said he was just grateful to have the job. Over the course of those twenty years, David said there were some who did not behave and they were let go. The production stage manager would be watching and if you were reprimanded and repeated something you were reprimanded for, you were out. The tendency is when you are doing the same thing night after night after night is to deviate from the script.
Yet the audience paid their ticket price (a first balcony ticket price in 1965 was $3.80!), and they have the right to see the best production possible.
However, she would join the Ethel Merman cast as Ermengarde. More about that later! Ethel Merman wanted Russell Nype to play Cornelius so Will wasn’t even a possibility.
After Dolly, Will would go on to do some television work and eventually stopped acting all together. He hasn’t acted in thirty-five years. Will says that Dolly was probably the most wonderful acting experience of his life. He was in it for a lifetime. It was sheer joy and he was born to play that part. Later on, he would play Chuck Baxter in the road company of Promises, Promises and had a similar response to that character. They are similar characters. They are both late bloomers. Cornelius is thirty-three and a half when he finally falls in love. Chuck Baxter, the “Jack Lemmon” character, is in his late twenties when it happens for him. Will says working with Gower was the thrill of a lifetime and this Broadway opening with Ginger Rogers was a once in a lifetime experience. Ginger had become a huge movie star and was making a Broadway comeback. The re-opening after Carol had been in the show a year and a half was huge. Will did not do the road companies. He was only Broadway except for a brief episode in which he went out to California to join Carol’s company for two months. This was shortly after opening on Broadway. He got a call asking if he would like to go out to San Francisco. Carleton Carpenter, Cornelius, had fallen off the ramp in London taking him out of that show. Garrett Lewis, who was in the Channing company was flown to London to replace Carleton.
They doubled Will’s salary and he went out to replace Garrett. Harvey Evans, as stated earlier, was playing Barnaby in that production. Charles Karel, Will’s understudy replaced Will for two months on Broadway! Charles was playing Ambrose and understudying Cornelius. Will says that Charles has an unbelievable voice that he did not have. Will says he (Will) was more like Charles Nelson Reilly.
Charles would have a great operatic career (still does).
He understudied Anthony Quinn in Zorba and he also appeared in The Most Happy Fella.
After San Francisco, the Carol company went on to St. Louis.
Will says working with Carol was a “total treat”. He says Carol was so fantastic. Ginger was wonderful in her own way. Ginger, however, was not the comic that Carol is.
With Ginger, the humor of the show didn’t really pick up until Horace, Cornelius, and Barnaby appeared. They were used to warming up the audience. When it was done with Carol, she was getting laughs right off the bat. In that instance, by the time Horace, Cornelius, and Barnaby appeared, the audience was in the palm of their hands. She was so gracious to Will. Everyone was going to go back to their original places once Carleton was better. As much as Will loved working with Carol, he was anxious to get back to New York. He was engaged to a young actress, Patricia Cope (they are still together, by the way!). She was doing Roar of the Greasepaint with Anthony Newly in New York and he wanted to be with her. Garrett was always “coming back to the show” once Carleton had recuperated, therefore, programs were never made up will Will’s name in the program. It was always an insert in the program. Carol took care of that by giving Will his own bow each night. When she came out for her bow, she would reach over and grab Will to take his own bow.
He says he was staggered the first time this happened. She would take him out and “bend him” to take his bow. She did this EVERY NIGHT. He adored her. After two months, he returned to New York and the show. Thanks to Ginger, business was still very good.
He remembers his opening night as vividly as if it were yesterday.
He loved Ginger. He says she did do a nice job with Dolly. When Ginger left, Martha Raye came in for a few months. And then with Betty Grable. Martha’s stint in the show was met with great controversy. Martha’s involvement with the Vietnam War was met with great dissention. She would show up at the theater in her Green Beret. There were constant bomb threats at the theater. The theater had to be evacuated a couple of times. There were times when they thought there was a sniper in the audience. People would write her threatening notes.
Business eventually started to drop off and after Betty Grable, the entire company was replaced for the Pearl Bailey company. Business shot back up and Pearl’s company would last from November 12th, 1967 until Christmas week 1969!
Will wonders if a brand new show like Dolly would succeed today. You don’t see many of those types of shows anymore.
How can you compare Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Wicked, Mary Poppins to Hello, Dolly!? Dolly was a family show but it was such a good show for adults. Will believes a large part of the success of Dolly was that it was taken from The Matchmaker. Same thing with Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady. Those tremendous hit shows were taken from hit plays.
In the New York Times this week, there was an article by Ben Brantley talking about the current production of Sweeney Todd in London. He wrote, “I have mixed feelings about this revival. But like most London critics, my fellow theatergoers gobbled it up with gusto. When the blood started spurting — and spurt it does, in big globular arcs — the audience roared like the Romans watching the slave-devouring lions in “Quo Vadis.”
Consider it an alternative for those who can’t score tickets to the 2012 Olympics.” A far cry from Hello, Dolly! It is a huge hit and that is what audiences want now.
Today, Will would like to see Bette Midler play Dolly. He did not like Barbra Streisand in the film. Gene Kelly came to see Dolly when he was casting the film. He saw the Martha Raye company.
Will said this tired old show snapped to attention. Gene Kelly and Ernest Lehman came and everyone knew they were in the audience. Will was the only one who got a call to meet with Gene Kelly. He didn’t have to do anything because Kelly had seen him in the show.
They were very complimentary of Will’s work and it was a thrill just to be called in. This took place at Carnegie Hall. Kelly was Will’s hero as he was for many. He was bald! He always wore a piece in the movies. Will almost didn’t recognize him till he smiled. The voice, of course, was there. He sat and chatted with Will for about twenty minutes. There was a rumor going around with Will’s agent that maybe this would be it! Michael Crawford got the part.
Charles Nelson Reilly, who originated the role of Cornelius, became a close friend of Will’s.
He and Will are very different types. Will feels that he was very believable as Cornelius . It was very close to his very own life. He got married later in life. Being a late bloomer, he felt everything that Cornelius felt. Arthur Hill played the role in The Matchmaker opposite Robert Morse. He feels that he probably would have been more like Arthur Hill if Arthur sang and danced.
I asked Will if he continued to tweak his performance as time went on. He said, Oh, yes! Wait till you speak with Harvey Evans!” Harvey knew that Will would eventually become a director. Around 1974, Will started directing a lot of stage and TV. Jerry Dodge left Dolly six months into Will’s run. Harvey replaced him and remained through the end with Will before closing to make way for the Bailey company. Harvey and Will were always driving Lucia Victor crazy. Will was always coming up with very funny bits. They were never out of character. They just thought of stuff to do. Once in a while, Gower would come back and would like what Harvey and Will were doing. Being a production
stage manager, Lucia’s job was to keep the show as originally staged. Will totally understood that. However, he did tweak! He got along great with Patte Finley and then eventually June Helmers took over as Mrs. Molloy. Sondra Lee stayed through Ginger’s run for quite a while. Alice Playten was still in the company for a long time. So many people from that production are now gone. Max Showalter took over from David Burns.
The one thing that Will learned from his involvement with Dolly that he carried throughout the rest of his career was the discipline of doing the same thing night after night. It also taught him professional respect. He learned the technique of being able to cover and still go on when you feel lousy. You go on even though your best friend is sick or has passed away. Years ago, Will read a story about Jascha Heifetz playing a concert at Carnegie Hall. In the review in the Times, it said that his mother had died the day before and yet he still played brilliant violin. The audience doesn’t care what your personal life is. When he got into television, he encountered very few that had had stage training. One little thing and they are out of the show. Will says that now when he goes to the theater, so many understudies are on. If someone has a bum leg or a hang nail or a tickle in their throat, they don’t go on. He doesn’t feel that today’s actors are as conscientious as they were in 1965.
Will even directed a production of Dolly at The Golden Apple Dinner Theater in Florida with Roberta McDonald who he says was wonderful. She and her husband, Bob Turoff, ran the dinner theater. Will had become a friend and they asked him to come in and direct. It was almost thirty-five years after doing the show and everything came back to him as if it were yesterday. He would often argue with the Turoffs because he knew the lines so well. Not just Cornelius’ and Irene’s, but Dolly’s and everyone else’s. When Roberta ad libbed a line that Thornton Wilder or Michael Stewart did not write, Will knew! He knew how to get her back on track.
Dolly is such a fantastic part. Once again, Dolly was brilliant. We all know now that it was written for Ethel Merman. Her turning it down initially is now legendary. Mary Martin also turned it down at first. Merman was exhausted from four years of Gypsy. Carol was several choices down the line and yet Will cannot imagine that anyone else but Carol could or would be the first Dolly. When ge got to do ir with her, he realized how perfect she was for the role. He never saw her as Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Ginger wasn’t as funny but she was so gracious and warm. Audiences loved her. Sondra Lee wasn’t so happy about one of her moments being taken away from her during
the Dancing number and given to Ginger. It was re-choreographed to feature Ginger. They emphasized more dancing with Ginger at the helm. Betty Grable was getting older but was still very sexy. Martha Raye relied somewhat on her low-comedy. On her opening night, she took a sip of water from the judge in the docket scene and did a perfect spit take and said, “It’s water!” and brought down the house.
Roberta McDonald was also wonderful down in Florida. In 1977, The Carol Channing/Lee Roy Reams tour went to LA and a group of the alumni of Dolly including Will went to see the production. They were all sitting in the mezzanine. They were all screaming and cheering. Will says it is a very hard show for him to watch because it brings back so many personal memories. It was a huge chunk of his life which also included him getting married. He had two and a half fabulous years with this show.
Will’s final performance took place on stage with Bibi Osterwald as Dolly. When Merrick decided to bring in the Pearl Bailey company, he wanted Betty to extend for two more weeks while he readied the Bailey company. Grable refused allowing Osterwald to have two uninterrupted weeks as Dolly! Danny Lockin had done the movie and he also came in for the final weeks as Barnaby. Harvey had left to do another show. Since the Bailey company was coming in, everyone was looking for jobs. Everyone knew they were getting fired. Since Will had nothing on the horizon, he stayed on. He remembers Danny Lockin busting into tears on that closing night. He had done it on the road with Channing, Grable, Eve Arden, Ginger Rogers, Dorothy Lamour, and Anne Russell.
It’s easy to see why everyone would be crying. It was the end of one chapter. Others were beginning!