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Klea Blackhurst

 When the curtain rose on Hello, Dolly! and Klea Blackhurst at the Goodspeed Opera House, it included two firsts. It was the first time that Goodspeed Opera House had produced this iconic musical. At the time, not only was it the 50th Anniversary of Hello, Dolly! but it was also the 50th anniversary of the Goodspeed Opera House. Another first was also Klea Blackhurst. It was the “perfect storm” of massive proportions!  

The show was staged by Daniel Goldstein (Broadway’s “Godspell”).

As if anyone could stop Daniel Goldstein’s whirlwind production of Hello, Dolly! at the Goodspeed Opera House, anyway. This one speeds by so quickly that it accomplishes one of those rare theatrical miracles: Act One seems ten minutes long and Act Two seems more like five. If this were a film on a continuous loop, here’s betting that the enraptured audience would stay for another show.— Peter Filichia, Filichia on Friday

There have been so many actresses who preceded Klea’s descent down those famed stairs of the Harmonia Gardens.

Klea drew on all of those that had gone before her for inspiration.

There were moments that she “gently” tipped her hat to a number of them. She didn't even tell the audience! When the audience saw those subtle touches, it was remarkable. It was just a gentle nod to those Dollys that are beloved. Every time she uttered, “wow, wow, wow, fellas…look at the old girl now fellas”, all that occurred to Klea was what Carol Channing brought to that moment in her mind’s eye.

Klea did see Carol in the ’95 revival. It was more in her head and her ear from the record. Klea really had not seen other Dollys other than Betty Marshall who was Dolly at Pioneer Theater many years ago.

It was also there that Klea finished her Equity apprenticeship as part of the ensemble. Klea can only imagine what Marilyn Maye and Ginger Rogers, for example, brought to the role.

What Klea does love is Shirley Booth’s portrayal of Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker.

Klea also loves the idea of Ruth Gordon in the role. There are all of these images rolling around in Klea’s head. There are VERY FEW pointed moments in which There have been so many actresses making Dolly their own…from the original guard on through the actresses of more recent memory.

It is a fabulous legacy and it is a fabulous part for women and others. It is ALL there. Klea also knows that she had to SHOW UP fresh!

Hello, Dolly! Goodspeed Musicals East Haddam, CT (Courtesy: Photo-by-Diane-Sobolewski)

KLEA BLACKHURST is an actress, singer and comedienne who is best known for her award-winning tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything The Traffic Will Allow. Among many accolades, this production earned her the inaugural Special Achievement Award from “Time Out New York” magazine and the recording of Everything the Traffic Will Allow was named one of the top ten show albums of 2002 by Talkin’ Broadway.com.  She has played several iconic roles of the Merman cannon including Mama Rose in Gypsy.

It is a well-known fact that Hello, Dolly was written for Ethel Merman. However, after appearing in Gypsy for four years (two years on Broadway and two years on the road), she turned Jerry Herman and David Merrick down. Jerry, especially, was crestfallen. The very first Broadway show he ever saw was Annie Get Your Gun starring Merman.

The bug bit and he always dreamed of writing a show for Merman.

When Dolly came his way, there was Herman's opportunity. The score was written with her mind. Not only did she turn them down, she didn’t even desire to hear the score for fear that she would either regret her decision or possibly change her mind. That decision, on her part, of course, led the ball rolling towards Carol Channing and a long line of Dollys! Merman finally gave in at the end of the run and came out of her “retirement from Broadway” and ended the run.

By her involvement, they were able to extend the record set by My Fair Lady and became the longest-running show. It had opened on January 16, 1964, at the St. James Theatre and closed on December 27, 1970, after 2,844 performances.

When the show opened, Carol Channing starred as Dolly, with a supporting cast that included David Burns as Horace, Charles Nelson Reilly as Cornelius, Eileen Brennan as Irene, Jerry Dodge as Barnaby, Sondra Lee as Minnie Fay, Alice Playten as Ermengarde, and Igors Gavon as Ambrose. Although facing competition from Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, Hello, Dolly! swept the Tony Awards that year, winning awards in ten categories (out of eleven nominations) that tied the musical with the previous record keeper South Pacific, a record that remained unbroken for 37 years until The Producers won twelve Tonys in 2001.

After Channing left the show, Merrick employed a string of prominent actresses to play Dolly, including Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey (in an all-black version with Cab Calloway, Mabel King, Clifton Davis, Ernestine Jackson and a young Morgan Freeman), Phyllis Diller, and Ethel Merman.

Dolly Levi (Klea Blackhurst) is welcomed back to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant after a long absence in "Hello, Dolly!"

When Channing took over Dolly, two songs that had been written for Merman were cut due to the vast differences between Channing and Merman. Those songs, Love, Look in My Window, a ballad, and World, Take Me Back, a rousing Ethel Merman showstopper, never were heard UNTIL Merman came into the show.

Merman wanted to hear those songs when she finally acquiesced. She desired to them and they were both added to her run without cutting anything else just adding another ten minutes to the show.

Because those songs are so closely associated with Merman, they are rarely done in any subsequent productions of Dolly. One or both songs HAVE been added to some productions, depending, of course, upon the actress playing the part.

Due to the association of Klea and Merman, there was much excitement among when Blackhurst was announced as Dolly that audiences would once again hear those songs making Klea’s Dolly very much like Merman’s Dolly. The first thing that people ask Klea about on this production is whether or not those songs will be sung. Comments and speculation started appearing everywhere.

(c) Diane Sobolewski 6-Klea Blackhurst, Tony Sheldon, Ashley Brown and Catherine Blades

The decision was made NOT to incorporate those songs into this production. As Goodspeed embarked on this production, it was never anyone’s wish to add those songs. Klea did not push or fight for that because the more she thought about it, she honestly felt in her heart that unless she WAS Ethel Merman, which she is not, coming to the role, seven years into the run, those songs don’t add anything for the “average” person.

Wow, wow, wow fellas! Klea Blackhurst is Dolly in Goodspeed

What Klea is hoping is that there will be a moment somewhere and somehow in the months ahead of her that she will be allowed to share World, Take Me Back, if not both of them, in some sort of other format.

Quite frankly, when Klea got this job, she auditioned for it, fair and square. She didn’t come to it as any kind of a person with a “persona” and this “expertise” she has.

Klea was being invited to audition as an actress. Therefore, she has no problem with not doing these songs. She loves them, of course.

Tony Sheldon and Klea Blackhurst in Goodspeed's HELLO DOLLY. (c) Diane Sobolewski

Klea says, “The real truth is that when you stop and really look at it, Hello, Dolly is perfectly crafted as it came to past with Carol Channing. Those songs are like an added bonus for those of us who care. But I don’t know that anybody really needs that from me. It is a matter of controversy. ”

There have been a couple of high profile Dollys in the past five years that Klea has had the privilege of auditioning for. At the time of each of these auditions, she was desperate to book the job. Over the course of the past five years, she has done a lot of reading and re-reading of The Matchmaker. She has also read of Dolly’s history and Jerry Herman’s point of view.

She also has the added layer of her love of Merman and doing her own show and having that whole angle on it.

When she didn’t get those jobs, she was crestfallen at the time. There is now no question in her mind that THIS is HER Dolly.

Klea says, “With the 50th anniversary at Goodspeed,they had never done it. I had never done it. I’m a little bit further along in my own path. I felt so right about this being where I was supposed to be at that time and had never approached it really in the nuts and bolts of it before.”

She couldn’t have been happier to march into the Drama Book Store and buy the score with that tax write off being a legitimate write off this year! She began by sitting down and making sure she had all of the lyrics correct in terms of what was actually in the score.

She started bugging Goodspeed immediately for her copy and a script a good six weeks prior to the first company read through.

She desired to be to be word perfect at the first table read. That is true of most actresses. A short rehearsal period lends itself to paraphrasing and the like. 

Klea got cast in February and when the curtain came down on this production in September, a good seven and a half months were spent with Klea inhabiting Dolly Levi and vice versa. She did Gypsy the previous year, another first for her.

Cathy Malloy, Klea Blackhurst, Jeremy Morse, Catherine Blades, Ashley Brown and Office of Governor Dannel P. Malloy.

It was heavy lifting, for Klea,  but it didn't weigh very much to her, whereas Gypsy felt like heavy lifting.

The main thing that Klea noticed is that in Gypsy, twenty years elapse. In Dolly, from start to finish, it’s one day!  

Klea adopted the fundamental message that Thornton Wilder started with. There is a message of jumping into life without knowing what the outcome will be, deciding to be fully engaged, deciding to be a fool among fools rather than being a fool alone. Hello, Dolly is a full affirmation.

Klea thinks how brilliant The Matchmaker is as source material. That alone really takes off and sings without a note of music.

The hope is also when there is a musical adaptation of a work, for it to work. Sometimes they just DON’T. It is an equation that needs some alchemy to really get these things to fly sometimes. Hello, Dolly is one of those projects in which Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman and Carol Channing and Gower Champion all coming together in that combination really created something magical that Klea feels so blessed to be part of.

“We tell ourselves to be in the moment; the past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet.”

Klea found that when she did this at her moment then, her life WAS Hello, Dolly!  She was under contract and obligated legally to have her lesson be this beautiful piece.

Klea stepped away from that summer and into the autumn with a huge gift that she had been given.

She was also given the enormous gift of a four week rehearsal period PLUS the week of tech BEFORE even unveiling what she was trying to come up with.

Almost anyone in the business now knows that that is a very luxurious thing! Klea was very grateful for that.

She was also grateful to run it for the span of time she had. They ended up adding additional performances due to demand. Hello, Dolly is a show where people sit up and take notice.

They don’t have to even know very much about who is their Dolly or Horace. They just know that they desire to go and experience Dolly once again. It WAS a good show for Goodspeed. It ended up becoming a huge part of Klea’s life.

It was not difficult for Klea to play as an actress. “Dolly Levi is a brilliant improv artist.  As a person, I wish I had a fraction of that absolute ability to steamroll through to get to the final goal. It is that indomitable spirit that Dolly has. ” Are there any flaws in Dolly or is it a perfect show? “When Barnaby counts his money in the first act, he has about forty-five cents less than he has in the second act! Who wrote that? I don’t know! In terms of the structure of the show, I really don’t think there are any flaws.”

Klea took the words and the music and what they say through the process of studying it all and then applying her process. Those were her hands and her legs and her voice and she had to act and sing it. Dolly's mannerisms should not be annoying qualities. Klea

Klea Blackhurst, the expressive Tony Sheldon, and the beautiful Ashley Brown.

brought a great warmth to Dolly and a realness that made this person genuinely likable and not just a “musical comedy force of nature”.

KLEA'S Dolly would HAVE to be different from all other Dollys because her Dolly coming through is such a unique woman.

Klea is beginning to realize the older that she gets that there is a canon of roles for women just as there is Shakespeare for a certain population of the acting profession. Some desire to visit Hamlet. Some desire to visit King Lear. Hello, Dolly is also one of those shows. As a kid, loving musical theater and being aware of it, it is one of the shows that is RIGHT THERE in the bull’s eye, There is really no chance in Klea’s experience that it would have escaped her eye. It feels to her like it was just one of those songs that she marched around singing those songs and that Jerry Herman thing happened to her and it means everything to her to now have the opportunity to sing these songs. She doesn’t know how, as a child of thirteen and fourteen, sometimes words and music work together in a way that she KNEW what they meant even though much of life, she had not experience. In the scheme of things, the true meaning of Before the Parade Passes By probably passed her by in the seventh grade and yet, somehow, it is on such a primary level that it delivered.

It just feels like one of those things that as an actress in theater and a lover of musical comedy in particular, and especially that era in our history, this is just one that most want to experience on either side of the footlights. When one is “worth their salt” and around long enough, the desire is for it to come your way. Klea feels blessed in her case that it is Goodspeed. When she heard Dolly was on Goodspeed’s roster, she went after it. Not to denigrate any other production, but she feels so blessed that HER Hello, Dolly, her first (if she is lucky, there will be others), is not a “three weeks in” and she is out! A week and a half of rehearsals and a week and a half of performing and she’s on to the next as is the case in most summer stock scenarios. This is a legitimate gorgeous production. All of her costumes are made specifically to fit Klea’s body. This is an unbelievable gift and Klea cannot believe her good fortune. Klea wishes that she could have seen Carol Channing in early ‘64 at the height of HER Dolly.

She thinks that would be a thrilling time to time travel. She, of course, would have loved to have seen Merman. She would have also loved to have seen Marilyn Maye. She would love to have seen Marilyn with her joy of life and her It’s Today persona. Klea has no doubt that Marilyn’s Dolly had a great deal of irrepressible joy in it. Klea would have loved to have seen all the Dollys, quite frankly. She would have loved to be able to offer an educated opinion of all the Broadway Dollys. Because of her love, that curiosity also extends to other women who have played Dolly. Because of where she is standing now, she is okay with having not seen too many of them.

Klea was also lucky to have an incredible leading man, Tony Sheldon. He was a good foil for her and she loved working with him. Gravitating towards him felt very natural. She also loved the foursome of Jeremy Morse as Barnaby Tucker, Spencer Moses as Cornelius Hackl, Catherine Blades as Minnie Fay, and Ashley Brown,(who created the title role in Broadway’s “Mary Poppins”),as Irene Molloy. They were fantastic and Klea also was in love with her Ermengarde (Brooke Shapiro). Klea is convinced she is going to grow up to be a Dolly in about thirty years! Klea told her that she is a classic character lady but that she won't get the opportunity to play this role for at least that amount of time because that is how the math works in this business.

The choreography was by Kelli Barclay (Goodspeed’s Hello, My BabyMy One And Only and How To Succeed…) Music direction was by Michael O’Flaherty. Orchestrations were provided by Dan DeLange, who has created the orchestrations for numerous Goodspeed productions.

 Klea feels that it is important that this legacy of Hello, Dolly SHOULD be written down and make sure that it is all there for her Ermengarde to grow up and play Dolly, that it exists and documented for future generations.

If Klea could be anyone connected with Dolly, past, present, or fictional, she would choose to be Gower Champion! What was it like to be in his head and have this show spring to life in the way in which it did and set everything in motion in this kind of a magical way? Ethel Merman also comes to mind. Klea loves that moment in her mind and the way that it plays out imagining her going down to Jerry Herman’s house and asking to hear those songs and the image that Jerry talks about oh him being in tears when he heard her sing them. It took him back to the time of a little boy seeing her in Annie Get Your Gun. That defining moment was what set Jerry Herman into motion. Klea loves that image so much. Even though Merman isn’t really an integral part of this story, she truly IS!

Klea Blackhurst and Don Pippin

The Merman connection is vital to Klea and what is riding to the earliest raw current and she feels that that is rather exciting.

The floodgates are about to open! Once the curtain rises on Dolly/Klea, it is a nonstop journey to the finish line of September 15th. It has become very clear to Klea already that she needs to treat her body like a first class athlete! She admits that in recent months she has put on a few pounds. She reached a point where she didn’t want to exercise, which was psychological in her head. She realizes that she is involved in a show like no other that she has ever experienced. Since she has been in East Haddam at The Goodspeed, she has had the added inspiration through Georgia Osborne, Klea has been continuing to go to Weight Watchers, something she began at the beginning of the year. She has been tracking her points, making sure that she is eating really healthy food.

What little Klea knows of Carol Channing, she knew how to eat well and maintain her stamina. She knew how to make her body run really efficiently, a real good pioneer in that area, Klea thinks. Klea is eating well, walking, and skipping rope! Klea has been in boxing training the last six years. She has primarily been off of that the past year, but skipping rope for three minutes is virtually impossible! She does it like a boxer. She skips rope for three minutes and then takes a one minute break. Adding the costumes is going to add both a literal and a psychological layer as well. It is just going to be exhausting. Klea learned from her run in Gypsy that when she is resting, just rest! She doesn’t need to feel bad about it. She doesn’t need to be multi-tasking. “When you have the gift of this kind of work, it is your duty and the theater is depending on you.” Klea is perfectly happy to take naps and get her stamina built up. This is very analogous to looking forward to a marathon.

Klea’s hope is that audiences who saw her Dolly rnjoyed themselves in a way that is deceptively simple.  Hello, Dolly was such a gift performing it and as an audience experiencing it that she hopes that she was able to convey goosebumps in the places that she feels they belong because she receives them herself.
The message of Dolly, for Klea, is what a gift life is and what an opportunity it is to stop and make the choice to engage in your life and make it happen and not just let it happen to you. She thinks the message inherent in this piece is so beautiful that she feels so privileged to be right where she belonged by being asked to be Goodspeed’s Dolly and being able to deliver it.