William Mead (Replacement Dancer in Carol Channing’s First National Tour of Hello, Dolly! 1965)
At the age of 11, William Mead Martin Jr. (AKA Skip Martin) was discovered on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and became a Solo Guest Artist at Radio City Music Hall. At the age of 14, he was again discovered by Nico Charise and cast in the movie of Bye, Bye, Birdie!
When he was 17 years old, Will discovered Gower Champion, when he heard the original cast album of Hello, Dolly in Houston, Texas, he thought, “This is the show! Gower is my guy!” He felt that this man knew something he also knew.
There was some kind of kindred spirit or something. He just desired so much
to be in this show. While still in high school, he went to New York with his parents and tried to get tickets to see the show.
It was a difficult show to get tickets for at that time. They went to the theater and Will went backstage at the St. James Theater and said to the stage manager, “I’d like to see Mr. Champion, please.” The stage manager laughed and said, “Mr. Champion is not here.”
Will explained to him that they were from out of town and were having trouble acquiring tickets. The stage manager
suggested that he stand in front of the theater, somebody might be selling tickets.
This was early on in the run of ’64 and Channing was still leading the cast. Sure enough someone was selling one ticket and Will ended up seeing the show from the balcony. At the St. James, when Channing would go out on the passarelle and do the monologues, he couldn’t see her because he was in the nosebleed section.
He thought it was an extraordinary show. When he went to LA to go to college, Will read that the road company was going to LA. He didn’t know how to get an audition. He didn’t know anything.
In the movie of Bye Bye Birdie, the girl who played Ursala, Trudi Ames (her real name was Trudi Ziskin) had a take-charge stage mother. Will knew her very well and told her that he wanted to get this audition and she arranged it
for him. She got Gower’s home phone number! Will called the number and Marge answered. At that time, he still went by the name, Skip Martin.
When Marge answered the phone, he said, “Hi! I’m Skip Martin. I’m from Houston, Texas, and I’d like to be in Hello, Dolly! I’d like an audition.” She said, “Well, honey, there’s an audition coming up at The Playhouse Theater downtown Los Angeles. Show up at ten o’clock on this date.” Will showed up. He had never been to a Broadway type audition before.
He was on stage with approximately forty or fifty other guys. This was new to him. He usually showed up with his portable record player and did a routine. Assistant Dance Captain Lowell Purvis was on stage. He told everyone that this a tour and to please NOT audition if you were not able to go out on tour. Will was just about to start college and he thought, “I’m not going out on tour.” So, he left. He went off with his mother and they had tea. He came back by the theater and Gower was sitting in the theatre.
Will decided to go up to him and request an audition. Will explained that he couldn’t do the tour but that he still wanted to dance for Gower. Gower thanked him for coming down but that he had to focus on this tour and he just couldn’t. Will went up and got his big bogan record player with its old
fashioned speakers and with his mother and her fur in tow and proceeded across the stage to exit the theater. Gower shouted up at the stage, “What is that?” Will’s response was “It’s my record player.” Gower said, “Oh, go ahead.” Will blew him away. Gower said, “Where did you come from?” He did his dance teacher’s dance
routine from Vaudeville which was an acrobatic soft shoe with ariel walk-overs and illusions and butterflies. He also did this routine on The Hollywood Talent Scouts hosted by Art Linkletter. Ann Miller had introduced Will Mead on The Hollywood Talent Scouts two months prior to this audition. He did two routines to old Danny Hoctor records. One of the routines was to Irene. Every bit of this was right down Gower’s alley.
Gower said to Will, “I don’t know if I could ever use you in a show.
You would stop it cold. I couldn’t have that.” Will thought he was extraordinary and incredible. Will told Gower that when he went to New York, he saw a lot of shows but Hello, Dolly was the only one that didn’t disappoint him. He blanched and told Will that when he first went to New York and started seeing Broadway shows, he felt the same disappointment. Gower ended up being very generous with his time. Will thanked him for his time and left.
Will went on to do MelodyLand, Carousel, and several other theater in the round productions. In the fabulous 60’s, the big musical theater fad in Los Angeles was theater-in-the-round. In the LA area there were three venues – the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim (an empty gin bottle’s throw from Disneyland), the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills (later to become the home of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Carousel Theater in West Covina (gateway to the Inland Empire). The productions would circulate around between these, usually for two-week runs, but using original choreography and often the original stars. Will did back to back West Side Story with Pat Boone and Can-Can with Chita Rivera. Chita dancing in her thirties was incredible playing the Gwen Verdon role. Gower came out to see Chita and saw Will in the show. Hello, Dolly was about to open in Los Angeles. The guy playing Stanley came down with appendicitis. They didn’t have a replacement for him. They flew John Mineo in to replace him. However, they needed Mineo back in New York. Gower called the producers at MelodyLand and asked if they would let Will out of his contract .
The night before he was to start rehearsing, Gower wanted him to come in and see the show. The show hadn’t officially opened yet. Will sat next to Gower and watched the final dress rehearsal with Carol Channing and Horace McMahon, who Carol Channing did not like or get along with at all.
What was unique to Will was that everyone on that stage was an individual. First of all, Gower didn’t want what Michael Bennett used to refer to as faceless “merry villagers” where everyone was
happy and they were all doing the same thing. Gower always wanted individual characters and he looked for someone who had an individual body and spirit to carry this kind of joy and performance. Carol embodied that as well.
He went into the show with only twelve hours of rehearsal under his belt. It was Will’s first really big show. David Merrick was so cheap that during rehearsals, Will worked with no props, because that would cost money, no
sets, and with no other people. They didn’t give Will a “put in”, nothing. It was just Will and Lowell. Lowell taught him what he had to do in twelve hours and he was on. It was about a day and a half of learning everything. The Waiter’s Gallop is no melody, there is just a driving beat of dum dum dum dum…You have to count and constantly be counting backstage. You have to get your props, get ready, and come in on the right count. It is really quite an extraordinary thing. Lowell taught Will It Takes a Woman the day of the night he was going on. He knew the cue of when to go on but he didn’t really know what to do once he got out there. He made his entrance on the upper level of Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed but was absolutely at a loss as to what he was supposed to be doing there.
Also that night, at one point, as he was going up the stairs to get to the stage for one scene, someone asked, “What are you doing in that costume?” “Stanley” is in all the musical numbers in the show, albeit, different characters.
He wasn’t in Sunday Clothes. All of those guys are mostly chorus singers. It Takes a Woman was his first number on stage in the show. He also appeared in the Dancing number as part of the “Avon Comedy Four”. With a Gower Champion show, with these Irish tap rhythms, the dancers would leave the show with more energy than they had when they arrived at the theater.
Horace Mahon’s days were numbered. As stated, he and Carol did not get along. Will thinks he was fired because, although he was a well known movie character actor, he was not funny like the hilariously dead-pan David Burns and Carol missed those particular talents.
He was astonished to be on the stage with Carol, singing to him, “Lose some weight, Stanley?”
His dream came true. He still remembers the energy of her gaze and generosity of playing to him, not as a big Broadway star, but as Dolly Levi, who truly cared about him. It was glorious. Will always wanted to be in that sacred space created by Gower and that happened…and it WAS sacred.
When Gower cast this company, it was the first time he had cast a new company since first doing the show on Broadway.
They opened in San Diego prior to Los Angeles Gower was in San Diego for all four weeks of rehearsal. He wanted his handprints on that production.
Usually, by this point in a show’s progress, it is usually the stage manager or the assistant director who puts the company through its paces.
Then the director comes in the last couple of days before the show opens.
Gower did not do that. He wanted to be there for the entire rehearsal process and there was a reason for it.
The love affair between Gower and the cast was amazing. Will hoped that he one day would work with Gower again.
Two years later, Will appeared in a few movies including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Hepburn and Tracy. He played the delivery boy. He had a scene with Isabel Sanford. He also did the TV version of Carousel with Robert Goulet. Robert Goulet was in his glory days. Emmy Award winner Paul Bogart directed it. Bob Mackie did the costumes. Edward Villella choreographed. They wouldn’t pay Agnes de Mille for the choreography. Fortunately for her, Agnes De Mille had copyrighted the story line of the ballet. They had to pay her for that. Everything else was re imagined.
When the film version of Hello, Dolly was announced, neither Gower nor Carol were named. Instead, Gene Kelly and Barbra Streisand were given the honors by Hollywood.
When the film was auditioning, Will thought that he just had to be in the film.
He had a private audition for Gene Kelly. Kathleen Freeman helped Will write some special material for his audition. He had a drummer! After that, hhe was invited to a dance audition with Michael Kidd’s assistant.
After that, he was invited to a dance audition with Michael Kidd’s assistant.
It was a dance audition. They were casting Barnabys and Minnie Fays. Will didn’t do an actual screen test. At the final call, it was just Lockin and Will. Danny had the perfect look for the film. He looked like a farm boy. He had the big ears, he was cute, he was blonde. Will looked more Mediterranean with dark hair and an emerging dark beard. He had to wear make-up to hide the shadow. Also, Will had never had ballet training.
In Houston, there were two dance teachers. Patsy Swayze, Patrick Swayze’s mother, (she was also Tommy Tune and Debbie Allen’s dance teacher). Then there was the other teacher, the one Will worked with, Maxine Asbury. Maxine is the one who taught all the acrobatic stuff, the stuff that nobody had ever seen.
If you know the glories of Gower’s Hello, Dolly, the Gene Kelly version pales in contrast. Will was not able to enjoy the movie at all.
Will saw Ginger Rogers play Dolly but one Dolly that he did not see that he wishes he had was Phyllis Diller. Gower hated Ginger in the show. She would
come down the stairs and hike up her dress and do high kicks as she made her way down the stairs. It wasn’t period and it certainly wasn’t what he had choreographed and staged.
Will did not enjoy Rogers in the role for the same reasons. He knew it was totally wrong what she was doing.
When Will didn’t get the movie, it was a blow. Up till this time, everything seemed to be coming very easy for Will. He also didn’t get The Happy Time,
which he had auditioned for, and he didn’t get the film of Dolly. He felt that it was his fault, that something had gone terribly wrong with him. Then Danny Lockin, in addition to getting Dolly, did a TV show with co-star Tommy Tune, it was a variety series.
Danny’s demise was/is a sad story. It was also around this time that Will got rid of “Skip Martin”. To him, Skip Martin had become a plastic commodity.
There was another Skip Martin in the business who was an arranger/orchestrator. Later on when Will (or William as his Equity union card says) was doing Shakespeare and more classical fare, he didn’t think Skip Martin was befitting a name going in that direction. Child performers also have issues about growing up. You don’t who you are as you’re growing up. As the lyric goes, “I am my own creation.” He desired to get rid of “Skip”. He couldn’t see himself growing up and being a man with that name. In the fifties, that was a name for a dog. After going through various name choices, Will (his father was Bill) Mead stuck.
Years later, in 1976, after an impromptu lunch date, Will was surprised to get a call from Gower requesting him to be Gower’s assistant on Annie Get Your Gun starring Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell at Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. What to do with this old war horse? Gower created a seventeen minute ballet around There’s No Business like Show Business that no one has ever seen. Will has it on tape.
When they were creating Annie Get Your Gun, it was Gower and Will, alone in the studio.
Another dream come true.
One day, they were working on some choreography and Gower said that he did not want to repeat ANYTHING that he had done before. He said to Will, “You know, there are people who have seen ALL of my work. I just don’t want to repeat myself.” There are some choreographers who do the same steps in every show. Gower’s idea was to create a world and a language for each show and each show IS different. Tony Stevens was co-creator on that production of Annie Get Your Gun.
Gower gave Tony some things to stage and it was unfocused. Gower got up on a chair and said, You come in here, YOU come in here, and YOU come in here and this is what we do here…” as he started directing entrances on a number. The rehearsal room was electric because you knew something was happening. It was magic. It was perfect. It was uncanny how extraordinarily perfect it was. It wasn’t hocus pocus but when you walked into the theater with him, this calmness would happen. It was joy and it was off-hand and easy. All of these other choreographers ruled fear. It was always these “mean queens” who if you stepped out of line, you were fired. Gower could fire anyone like that, too. But he actually ruled with this “Help me make this wonderful” thing and people loved him for it. And he loved them back. There was this extraordinary event that really happened. He used to hire people who could do that. There was this extraordinary event that really happened. He really had X-ray vision.
He was X-raying people to see their hearts, whether or not they had joy. He always cast young people who had enthusiasm and a kind of joy.
A Chorus Line has a lot of Gower Champion in it. The only choreographer to audition in slacks and a sweater was Gower.
Gower was the choreographer who had affairs with his leading ladies…like Zack. At the very audition that Gower was ever at, he had all of the dancers line up in a line.
Will doesn’t know where the line thing came from, but they all lined up and he would walk down, look at each other and every dancer, and then he would walk to the next one. Will is convinced that Michael Bennett auditioned for Gower at one time or another.
It’s really like that spotlight that goes down the line in A Chorus Line. It’s Michael, of course, who wants to know, “Where do you hurt? What button can I push?” Gower would never have gone into that zone. Many people got their Equity cards with Gower Champion musicals. When he saw a girl’s audition sometimes, Will saw a competition you could cut with a knife with those girls.
When Gower started picking out the younger prettier girls, there were quite a few girls who would let out a breath, roll their eyes sometimes with an “Oh, God” attitude. That’s exactly what Gower didn’t want, that kind of cynicism. He would not have that in the theater. He grew up in a Christian Science household. Marge was Christian Science. So was Carol Channing. Not that Gower ever practiced any kind of religion like that. Marge is still a Christian Scientist. Will doesn’t know if she goes to any kind of a church currently. It’s a world view that was a very big deal in Hollywood. When Mary Baker Eddy came on the scene, it was very powerful. People were healed of ailments. Carol’s father, George Channing, a newspaper editor and renowned Christian Science lecturer, worked with Mary Baker Eddy. Will worked with Joel Soloman Goldsmith, an American spiritual author, teacher, spiritual healer, and mystic. He was a practioner who left Christian Science to create his own religion called The Infinite Way.
Doris Day was also part of this movement. Christian Science teaches that there may be obstacles but this is not a hostile universe. You don’t have to fight and scratch and knife the person next to you so you can get what you desire for yourself. Ultimately, harmony must appear.
That is what happens in Hello, Dolly!
Fosse could not bring himself to do a happy ending. That is why Sweet Charity is so difficult. The end of Nights of Cabiria, upon which Charity is based; there is this incredible moment at the end that Fosse could not bring himself to capture. He wanted something darker. Will just recently saw a production of Fosse’s New Girl in Town. It is a hard show. Champion’s Bye Bye Birdie, on the other hand, ends with a soft shoe. This harmony seems to appear and happens. It’s not West Side Story where Robbins wanted people to clash. He enjoyed watching the fireworks between people. He would pit understudies against each other. He loved to see the fireworks, loved to see the drama, the backstabbing stuff. Gower wasn’t like that at all. It came through in his work. Hello, Dolly is the perfect wind-up musical. It works like a little mechanical device. It is absolutely perfect. He continued to work on it after it opened. That rarely happens. He worked until he got the polka number to replace the Butterfly number. That number went into the show when Ginger joined the company on August 9th, 1965. From that point on, it was part of the show as we know it today. It went into Mary Martin’s international company and Carol’s first national tour. It’s a perfect show and yet there is always something taking your attention while something else happens. It’s like something coming down from the heavens into the theater and bubbles up unconsciously. Audiences may not even be aware of why they are feeling so joyous. It’s not just about what is going on onstage, it is about something else going on. It happens in Shakespeare too, this incantation. The actors start reading these lines, and this spirit comes down into the theater and it has its own trajectory. Every one of the Shakespearean plays has this movement. Each one is a little different.
Gower always talked about each individual number, how it takes off and how it lands. It is so important how you get into a number and how to get it up into the stratosphere. You have to get it back down to Earth eventually and back into the show without a break. Otherwise, you get this feeling of “sugar blues.” Gower was very conscious of that. He was very conscious of the audience strapping in to Dolly and taking this ride. It was seamless. He meant it to be seamless. He meant for the scenery to be seamless.
He meant for the staging to be seamless. Of course, it was his background in movies. Ironically, Gower never got to recreate his works on film. There is none of Gower’s real work on film except Gower’s work as an actor/dancer, of course. Thank God, that is there.
At one point in the Annie Get Your Gun rehearsals, Gower told Will that David Merrick had offered Hello, Dolly to several other choreographers, including Jerome Robbins, who all turned it down before it was offered to Gower. Gower said that every other choreographer especially hated the Hello, Dolly song and all agreed that it had to go. Gower said that when he heard the Hello, Dolly song, he said to himself, “If I can’t make this song into a showstopper, I should get out of this business.”
Will believes that the emotional quality that Gower infused into that number is the universal longing to finally come back home.
Gower’s version of Annie Get Your Gun was a huge success; however, Gower continued to tweak his productions after they were up and running. When they were working on Annie Get Your Gun, the first act was pretty much perfect. The second act, if Gower had taken it to New York, he would have done something about it. He and Will talked a lot about would be done with it if they continued with it. Debbie Reynolds, the star, did not desire to go to Broadway
at that time. She had done her nightclub act in New York on Broadway and got panned by the New York critics for bringing a nightclub act to a Broadway Theater. She felt at this point that she didn’t need Broadway. If Gower had gone back into rehearsal and fixed what needed to be fixed, this would have worked on Broadway. Tony Stevens had created this square dance number in the second act. Dancers saw it and said that it was right out of Michael Bennett’s Turkey Lurkey from Promises,
Promises! Gower just rolled his eyes. He focused on the structure and the most essential elements of the show, making the numbers work.
After Annie Get Your Gun closed, Will auditioned for Michael Bennett and the LA Company of A Chorus Line. He then performed the show with most of the original cast. Michael asked Will to take on the role of Mike (I Can Do That) for the opening of the show in Chicago. In Chicago, Will worked with both Bob Avian and Bennett for two weeks each doing the original encounter work in rehearsals. They flew in costumer Theoni Aldredge. They flew in lighting designer Tharon Musser. After two weeks of rehearsal with Michael, and Bob, he really experienced the genius of Michael Bennett. Will always thinks of Michael, who was brilliant and incredible, as Mordrid to Gower’s King Arthur. He was the dark force that was the illegitimate son who, as extraordinarily talented as he was, there was a lot of darkness there.
Gower didn’t have that. Gower was actually a real magician. He really would, from what Will saw, go into a state where he would see something and match people into the pattern he was seeing. It would come through him. He would not allow anyone to talk during rehearsal. Usually, things may be going on onstage as little clusters are going on about the theater. Dancers are doing their thing. Gower desired everyone absolutely still. No talking. The reason he allowed Will into his process was because Will understood what was going on. A lot of people were annoyed sometimes by Gower’s process, but Will understood it. He was actually listening. He had this entire aura going on behind him. He was in this extraordinary kind of state and he didn’t want “noise”. It was so important to him to get it RIGHT. Will considers working with Gower one of the top five experiences of his career along with the 1980 Broadway revival of West Side Story and A Chorus Line. Will knows Bob Avian and Bayork Lee very well and went to see the last revival of A Chorus Line. Michael fashioned the original company members, sorry for anyone trying to replicate that. He hid the weaker aspects of his cast and highlighted their strong points. The gestures, the tilt of their heads, everything was cast in stone down to their fingernails.
When 42nd Street was recast with Peggy Cass after Carole Cook left the show, although they were both older female comedians, Carole Cook is this big blousy glorious, bigger than life personality. Peggy Cass who is the original Miss Gooch is this whiny negative persona. The chemistry is then wrong for the show. It is meant for someone with a heart to sing those songs.
It also depends on someone with human nature and a higher nature with taste and a vision and not be too pretentious about all of it to be able to allow this kind of thing to happen.
It does work in the show. When Steven Schwartz lectures about the American Musical Theater, he is great. They do this thing where people who are writing musicals present their material before a panel of “experts.” Steven Schwartz is always talking about “the formula” of what you do with a musical.
It is Hello, Dolly he is describing. He always talks about the “I want” song, Schwartz talks about the big dance number in the second act.
He talks about the number leaving you hanging at the end of the first act. There was a structure to the musical that Gower worked long and hard on. This is now being taught in colleges. Then there is the epiphany number (like So, Long Dearie), the dancing and singing chorus calls, the star making her last entrance in a stunning gown. These are things that Gower created.
Years after Gower’s death, Marge told Will they eventually snuck into a showing of Kelly and Kidd’s film version of Dolly.
Will knew Michael Kidd, who choreographed the film. They did work together. Grover Dale, actor, dancer, choreographer, and theater director, put together in LA a workshop for choreographers and they got to work with Kidd and watch his films and question his choices. “Why does the camera move here and shift there?” Michael’s work is so athletic. L’il Abner is probably the best of Michael Kidd in many ways.
When Will did Can-Can, it was all the original Michael Kidd choreography as well. However, it was wrong for the period. “When you look at the Dancing number in the film version of Hello, Dolly, it is horrible. Look at Who Will Buy choreographed by Oona White in the film version of Oliver! It’s glorious! Merry townspeople dancing. The one in Oliver is wonderful. It has a feeling to it. The one in Dolly is dead. It’s just still born.” That all comes from Gene Kelly in this case. Will loved Kelly as a kid. This film, however, doesn’t have what Gower had. Kelly and Kidd could not pull that off.
After Annie Get Your Gun closed, Gower told Will that he thought his No Business Like Show Business ballet was his goodbye to show business. He thought he would never again do a show like this. He called Will once and said, “Let’s go out to lunch.”They went to Malibu. Gower loved the ocean. They had lunch and Gower told him that he had this disease and that he would never choreograph again. It was sapping his energy and that he would never have the energy to do another show. He didn’t seem ill to Will. He found a blood treatment that actually laundered his blood and gave him the energy to do 42nd Street. That year, he was planning on doing three shows. As soon as 42nd Street opened, he was going to do Sayonara. After that, he had another show lined up.
After you do your big opus, Hello, Dolly, what do you do? It is very difficult for choreographers to top their work because everyone is always comparing it to what has already been previously done. After you’ve written The Glass Menagerie, everybody wants another Glass Menagerie. Gower struggled to find something else to top Dolly. For years, he had an office in Hollywood at the Goldwyn Studios. Will would go by and ask Gower what he was up to. Gower would respond with things he was working on, a film of a live action Peter Pan, He had a wonderful film idea starring Liza Minnelli with a USO background and Nazi spies, he had a lot of projects that never came to fruition. Nothing was ever good enough. He struggled to find the next perfect show, the next show that would be bigger or more important. He had a string of flops, things that did not go well. Rock-A-Bye Hamlet, many people loved, but it didn’t quite work for many, a big flop. It was so big that he couldn’t take it out of town to work on it.
Hello, Dolly was so magical to Will that he used to stand backstage with a script, writing the blocking and trying to memorize everything. What he saw of Carol’s performance was so extraordinary. Years later, it was exactly the same, but it was still alive! She was in the moment. It was so extraordinary when Will saw Carol do Dolly again several years later in San Francisco. We are talking from 1965 to 1995. This was Carol’s last tour and revival. She was exactly erect. She was exactly like she always was. She did the exact same moves and the exact moves and yet it was not stale. It was absolutely fresh. It was a living extraordinary portrayal. When he saw her after the show, she was an “old lady.” He was shocked when he saw her backstage afterward.
Will did La Cage with Gene Barry at one point. La Cage is a copy of Gower Champion. Mame is a copy of Hello, Dolly. Will worked with Oona White on Bye, Bye Birdie. The big joke was that Gower, Fosse, Robbins all grew beards. It was the one thing that Oona couldn’t imitate. She shamelessly stole the duck walk and put it in Mame. She took a signature dance step and did it in another show. At the end of her life, she got the Academy Award. She would take her Oscar with her everywhere she went. She would sit it out on the table. That was Oona. She did steal and she did it shamelessly. What you didn’t do to Gower Champion was steal his steps. People try to do a Champion-esque thing and most don’t understand where it is coming from.
They think there is a technique to it or they think it’s about “cute” or it’s a certain kind of staging. It isn’t about that. That is important. But it’s about the spirit of it and you need someone who understands that. Someone who understands the emotion, not an emotion like “I love you, I hate you.” Something deeper and higher.
Will directs and choreographs and produces in LA. He is doing what Gower taught him, how to refurbish an old show. Will did the Gershwin show, Tiptoes. This particular show is three hours long. There is such a thing as an eleven o’clock number. These shows started at eight PM and by eleven PM, it was almost over. People didn’t think that they had their monies worth unless it was a three hour show. The early Gershwin shows were actually structured more like Cirque du Soleil where something happens and then you have a big number with twenty dancing girls coming on, one might play the ukulele or do something strange, then comedians come on and do about ten minutes of material, it’s not the way “we” feel musicals should go. Of course, the dance numbers have nothing to do with the plot or the characters. The principals don’t dance. When Will produces these shows, he first goes with the premise, “First, do no harm.” He really dislikes all this stuff where they take a bare plot and take all the songs from the songbook in. They don’t really belong there. They don’t belong with the characters. The characters are not really singing about anything. They are just kind of put in. Will found a way to have all of his principals dance. He finds a way to do the dance numbers so that something happens in a number and advances the plot which is not in the original. When you watch it, however, you feel that it was always there. Will feels that Gower’s choreography and theatrical invention is so ingrained in people’s minds and hearts that it will be virtually impossible to surpass or top that.
The same is true for West Side Story. Will dplayed Riff in a production of WSS in Zurich in which Jerome Robbins’ estate allowed them to do new choreography. You don’t do WSS without doing that choreography! You don’t do Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof without Robbins’ choreography.
There are people who teach this choreography and that is what goes with the show. You’ll never be able to top this. You’ll never be able to top Cool. There are choreographers who have done their own version of Dolly. Will welcomes them to it. Will, however, would not like to do his version of these musicals, but rather find the heart while recreating on stage what has been so brilliantly created. Will has worked with Peter Brook. There is a great similarity between Brook and Gower in that they both search for the heart of their productions. That takes someone special to find that. The one thing that Will learned from Gower that he has carried with him stems from a question and Peter Brook gave him the answer. When you create this perfect show on stage, there are some eggs that must be broken.
You have to say, “no, don’t do that.” When Will was in Dolly rehearsal, Gower came into rehearsal. The Ernestina was very funny. She was hysterical! She had this wild cackling laugh that was just infectious. The audience would roar. He cut everyone of her bits and she was in tears.
She went to Gower questioning his decisions. He had to say to her it was too much too soon. If it’s so funny at the top of the scene, everything after that is not as funny. Everything had to be set up leading to the eating scene between Dolly and Horace. Will has found in his own directing and choreographing that he has tried to emulate Gower’s formula. Everything was perfect. Everything was just right. Sometimes, people are hurt by these decisions. Actors sometimes have their favorite thing that they do on stage. Will has discovered that the show must go on and the show is more important than “you” are. Will asked Peter about this once. He said there is this thing when people sometimes have to fit into a mold. Sometimes, that may be difficult. Something might be good but it may not be right at a particular moment in a show because it might ruin the bigger picture.
Peter Brook said, “There isn’t anything but relationship.” What Will took from that is that there is, of course, the relationship between writers and the actors, the actors and the audience, the actors and the director. There is nothing but this web of relationships. There is no show. The show is a thing, it’s nothing. It is NOT “the show must go on.”
Gower understood that. When he worked, it was all about relationships. It was easy for people to get it.
Jerry Herman did not see Will during his five week run of Dolly. Will does, however, know Jerry very well. They would appear at the same dinner parties throughout the seventies.
Nobody writes show music like Jerry. It came so easily for him.
He would just sit down at the piano and write. At one time, he was contemplating a musical called Pip, based on Great Expectations. Jerry made so much money with his Broadway hits, and his interior decorating, that he wasn’t hungry anymore. Jerry wrote this incredible love ballads like It Only Takes A Moment, and yet, he never seemed to have that in his own life.
The biggest change that Will has seen since embarking on his career starts back with Dolly. In Dolly, EVERYONE was an individual and you could really see them.
What Michael Bennett did was change this mindset. Somehow, if you are in the chorus, you are a machine. If you are in the chorus, you mustn’t stand out. He manufactured that thinking with A Chorus Line. When Will saw the 1994 revival and tour of Dolly, Carol was as she has always been.
What was different was that the chorus kids had a sort of an “I’m just doing this show, I’m a machine and no one sees me on stage” whole other thing that was different from the first time around. You can stand out by doing outrageous things, kick higher than everybody else, sing louder; whatever it is …what’s missing is this human quality of what song and dance are all about.
Dancers and singers on Broadway are now turned into machines. There is something uninvolving about the ego and the heartlessness of performance these days. Watch So You Think You Can Dance. These kids are doing things that were previously not asked of dancers. It is a shame that they don’t understand how to be in that place. There is a piece of film of Gemze de Lappe, an American dancer who worked very closely with Agnes de Mille, doing the ballet from Oklahoma! Where there is the perfect balance between this kind of emotion Will is talking about, filling the body when the performer goes into that state. It is catching to the audience. That is why Dolly was so extraordinary. This magic would happen on the stage. The problem with the ’94 production is that Gower’s hands were not on it. It was like day old champagne. It’s always a little flat the next day. When Gower would show up for performances of Annie Get Your Gun, there was a feeling of, “Oh my God, we have to be even better tonight.” When Bennett would show up at A Chorus Line, the feeling was, “Oh my God! Someone’s going to be fired tonight.” There was this fear and terror with him.
Gower did not want fear and terror. He wanted joy and beauty and wonder. Gemze took Will to ABT when she was working on Fall River Legend. There is this one point where two girls are supposed to walk across the stage.
Gemze could not get them to talk and walk across the stage. They couldn’t just be human beings. Will saw Judy Garland before she went to Carnegie Hall. She did a tour that went through Houston. Will was eight. He vividly remembers her persona on stage. She had this sense of fragility and this very human quality. Everyone wanted to put their arms around her, to make it all ok, and she wanted to make it all ok. There was this extraordinary love connection between the audience and Judy. The ego doesn’t know how to do that. There is a world of narcissism when it’s all about “me.”
The Hello, Dolly number ALWAYS works because of its rhythms. Like in Shakespeare, it’s in the words, it’s in the lines.
There is this thing that gets called forth when you do it. The Gallop and the Dolly number was the first thing that Gower staged. Everyone who was a part of that could feel it.
At the end of Will’s five weeks, it was not sad. It did not feel that it was the end. He felt that it was the beginning of a friendship and a working relationship with Gower. He felt there was such a personal similarity and Gower felt the same about Will.
Lowell Purvis AND Lucia Victor, at Gower’s memorial, both told Will that a film exists of Hello, Dolly with the original cast shot from the booth where the follow spot was.
It was done to one day surprise Gower with. What wouldn’t all of us give to see this? That special quality that Will has talked about here should be seen.
Hello, Dolly to Will Mead is the ultimate theater experience. It was everything he ever hoped theater would be.
Like Brigadoon, it comes and it goes. It is not gone forever.
The opinions expressed here are those of Will Mead.