Melissa Hart is an actress, singer, and teacher. She made her Broadway debut in 1966 as an ensemble member in Jerry Bock’s The Apple Tree. As Barbara Harris’s understudy, she replaced the actress as the various heroines in that musical for several performances.
In 1969 she took over the role of Sally Bowles in the original production of John Kander’s Cabaret; a role she had previously performed in the musical’s first National Tour. In 1970 she created the role of Meredith in the original Broadway cast of Tom Mankiewicz’s Georgy; a performance for which she garnered a Tony Award nomination. She soon after performed the role of Fran Kubelik in the National Tour of Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises.
Melissa has also appeared in two productions of Hello, Dolly! Once in college at Boca Raton`s Florida Atlantic University which celebrated its 25th anniversary with Hello, Dolly in 1989!
The next time Melissa descended those famed stairs, it was as a professional actress, 1999, at Westchester’s Broadway Theater opposite Walter Charles as Horace Vandergelder.
When Hello, Dolly opened in the ‘60s, it was so much a part of America’s consciousness that it was impossible for Melissa not to be aware of it.
Out of the Broadway Dolly’s, Melissa only saw Ethel Merman. It would not be until the ’94 revival that she would see Carol Channing in the role.
More about that production later. Melissa was very aware of the show going in to see Merman’s production. Melissa had not performed it yet.
Melissa does remember the two “new” songs in the show, she songs that were originally written for Ethel but were cut when she declined to do the show originally.
Melissa thought they were wonderful.
Melissa moved to New York and worked on Broadway in the days before body miking, she studied voice with Ellen Falls at New York City Opera. Melissa was very interested in resonances and she was very aware, at the St. James Theater that Ethel Merman’s voice literally rang off of the back wall. Melissa was stunned and marveled by that. Melissa had been trained classically and was fascinated by Merman’s sound and presence. The show HAD been originally written for Merman. It was a really great treat. It would be twenty four years before Melissa would see Carol Channing in the role in her final tour.
The first time Melissa played Dolly, it was her Master’s Thesis Role at Florida’s Atlantic University which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. It is a huge institution with a wonderful theater department. She did a lot of research going back to when Thornton Wilder wrote The Matchmaker for Ruth Gordon. The ORIGINAL version was written for a valet, not a woman. Thornton Wilder wrote it for his friend, Ruth Gordon. He changed the valet to a woman.
In changing it to a woman who, at that period in history didn’t have a lot of power, a woman who makes her way in the world doing something that she has “cobbled together”, with great spirit, a widow, he gives her great heft. Then there are the love stories. They are parallel , funny, different. They are just grand. There is such optimism in the piece. Then there is the great music for which Melissa feels Jerry Herman has been underrated, although he finally got a Life time Tony Award AND a Kennedy Center Honor. The melancholy of Ribbons Down My Back sung by a young widow also contributes to all of this being a very universal story.
When Melissa portrayed Dolly in college, she was not a kid. She went back to school as an adult to get a Masters in acting/directing because she wasn’t being considered an actress in Florida, she was a “musical theater actress”. There were many factors that drove her back to get her masters. She had great tutelage with Zoe Caldwell with whom she had studied with for three years in south Florida. Melissa was a wife and a mom and a commuting student. Part of the research Melissa did led her to the original one act from 1835, the John Oxenford play, A Day Well Spent.
|Ruth Gordon as Dolly Gallagher Levi in The Matchmaker|
He was an English dramatist, from Camberwell, London, England. Melissa found the play in the fine arts library at the University of Florida. She was able to make a copy of that and include it in her master’s thesis. That was the groundwork from which all of this came. That was so fabulous. That one act is more about the two young men and the valet. Then Tom Stoppard’s version was called On The Razzle.
A big part of Melissa’s research also included screening the black and white film version of The Matchmaker starring Shirley Booth and Paul Ford. Her Dolly is so wonderful. There is so much about Dolly, the character, that is not often present in the musical form. Melissa drew from the straight play, especially Shirley Booth’s portrayal. She did the college performance in the midst of all this research. By the time Melissa did it in Westchester, she really KNEW this woman.
|Poster for the original Royal National Theatre production|
She was able to say to the costume designer, for example, that she wanted a boa that was really scrawny. She didn’t desire many costumes. It was perfect. Dolly doesn’t have any money. She lives from hand to mouth. There are all of these resplendent productions where there is no attempt to understand who this woman truly is. She can barely rub two nickels together. She keeps on keeping on with a great sense of humor. Melissa would love to do it again to emphasize these aspects even more so.
Dolly is a mover. She is Irish. She married a Jewish man. At that time, that was pretty heady. She is now a widow to a man who obviously had a great deal of wisdom. Melissa loves the entire speech to him where Dolly is saying goodbye leading into Before the Parade Passes By. There is a lot of depth in this script. There are all kinds of reasons why Hello, Dolly is still done. When it is done in a way in which the creative team really looks at who Dolly truly is, it is even more triumphant.
Westchester came about for Melissa the old fashioned way, she auditioned for it. Melissa feels that it is time for a Broadway revival. It has been seventeen years since it was last seen on Broadway. She thinks Judy Kaye would make a great Dolly. It also depends upon the director. It would be nice to see a director pull out the “not so beautiful” production. Melissa would really love to see a realistic production. Tovah Feldshuh’s Paper Mill Playhouse production went that route. Check out chapter on Tovah Feldshuh.
|Paul Ford and Shirley Booth in the film version of The Matchmaker|
What were used for Dolly/Melissa’s dumplings? Tissue over light bulbs.
As mentioned earlier, the only Broadway Dolly that Melissa saw prior to taking on the role herself was Ethel Merman. Although Melissa only saw her on stage once, her take is that Merman was always Merman. She was a force on the stage. “She wasn’t a great actress. She didn’t change. She was Merman.”
Melissa has also played Mama Rose. In order to play either of these roles, the actress taking them on has to have total stamina. At the time of Westchester’s Dolly, Melissa was dealing with some vocal technique issues. She was able to fortify what she knew about breath control when she was dragging Walter Charles as Horace around the stage during the Motherhood March. The Westchester Broadway stage is huge. The hat shop scene was relatively small in this proscenium house.
|Mary Martin, one of the many Dollys|
It was a three quarters thrust and Melissa is dragging her co stars around the stage.
It was very taxing. One of the things that Melissa has been doing for some time with both musicals and straight plays is to learn her shows on the treadmill!
When she was working on cruise ships, she would go down to the gym while people were eating and sing her show full out. On her days when she did two shows, she does a two mile power walk in Manhattan. This would help her to start to warm up vocally. She would then go up to Westchester’s Broadway Dinner Theater. She would do a matinee followed by a one hour power nap. She would get up, have some protein, and do another two mile power walk and warm up at the end of it.
That’s how she played Dolly Levi! An actress has to be physically fit in order to act and sing that show eight times a week. She doesn’t consider herself any different from any other actress. She just doesn’t have her personal trainer! She has approached all roles since 1986. She started power walking when she was down in Florida.
|Pearl Bailey as Dolly|
If she had her life to live over, Melissa probably would have stayed in New York the first time. It was an emotional choice and something she had to do at the time. In hindsight, she is grateful she did. As far as her instrument is concerned, she would probably do nothing different. She was very fortunate to have the voice teacher she did. Working with Ellen Fall was instrumental in Melissa desiring to teach voice and she has done so since 1985. She continued to study and work with Richard Miller at Overland Conservatory.
She was a part of the New York Singing Teachers’ Association. She has worked with wonderful voice researchers and healthy vocal people. Melissa is still interested in that and how people still sing on Broadway and healthfully. She was truly fortunate. She played 857 performances of Sally Bowles on Broadway in Cabaret. She never missed a performance and she was never unable to sing. In fact, she has never lost her voice or been unable to sing correctly.
The depth of Dolly was so interesting to Melissa because she comes from a place of “less than”, not less than psychologically or physically or emotionally.
It’s less than because of her economic situation. She has to find things within herself in order to survive. Therefore, she is resilient. She gets a lot of joy out of putting people together. She knows she is good at that. Working on her, Melissa found that everything that she turns her hand to is to help people and to help them find happiness.
Melissa continued to tweak her performance after she opened. She always does.
Melissa’s Horace at the Westchester Broadway Theater was Walter Charles.
See chapter on him. “He was wonderful!” He was so fantastic. He has a wonderful quality of being a lovely and loving curmudgeon. That is a very special quality. He has gone on to an incredible career since then. Being able to tease and cajole and play around with someone like that on stage is a lot of fun. It IS called a PLAY. She remembers working with him and thinking this is great fun.
|The original, Carol Channing|
The evolution of Dolly is an interesting journey. She became the central character for a number of reasons. She is a worker among workers. She is humbled in that way. As the song goes, She Puts Her Hand In. She makes things happen but she needs people in order for things to happen. Melissa has been fortunate to do a lot of work on stage.
One thing that Dolly and Melissa have in common is that Melissa, too, is a worker among workers.
Melissa will look people in the eyeball and work with them. Melissa has a desire to always be there for others.
Dolly reinforced that with her.
Melissa is constantly drawn back to the fact that Dolly is a survivor.
She is more a survivor than a manipulator. She’s a manipulator in a good way. She’s not a manipulator to hurt anyone. When she manipulates, it’s for their own good. Audiences are drawn to Dolly’s ability to laugh at herself.
|Ginger Rogers replaced Carol Channing on Broadway|
When she realizes that she needs to let go and to be let go from her late husband, which is a very important thing. A lot of people have had that life experience.
Melissa has worked in MANY dinner theaters. The worst part of that experience is slipping on the mushrooms when you are rushing through the kitchen to make an entrance.
As mentioned earlier, Melissa saw Carol Channing in the 1995 Broadway revival. Melissa was concerned for Carol as she watched that production.
She was concerned for her safety. Watching her, Melissa realized the legacy. She was and is respectful of that. Melissa needed to see her do it. It wasn’t her Dolly. Of course, it wouldn’t be.
It was really hard to have a free look at it because Melissa had a lot of concerns about the production.
As of this writing, Melissa just recently played Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Guthrie. She is hired in the Twin Cities more as an actress than a “musical comedy actress.” Because of the Guthrie’s position there, there is more straight theater than musical.
|Martha Raye replaced Ginger Rogers|
Melissa believes that Dolly is as grand and as pivotal and as iconic a character as Lady Bracknell, for example. Melissa doesn’t find any difference and her approach is no different with either medium.
These days, Melissa has a private studio.
She still explores a composer’s writings in terms of the subtext of a song. She is still very interested in all of this. In fact, as of this writing, she is currently involved in a reading of a brand new piece being presented in the Twin Cities. She is also developing her own piece about a torch singer.
Melissa feels that she has an obligation to the next generation to make them aware of the theater tradition that she came through.
She is now working at a Performing Arts High School having been a college professor in her “other life”. She has been at this performing arts high school in St. Paul now for four years. She is the chair of musical theater. These kids know her resume. She doesn’t let them forgot what came before. She teaches an introduction to musical theater. These are high school kids. They have to know the legacy. Theater students know that it comes from the Greeks. Musical Theater students should all know from whence it came. She wants these kids to know who the composers are, what they’ve written, and why it is so important.
|Betty Grable and Max Showalter led the third cast|
When Hello, Dollystarring Melissa Hart and Walter Charles closed at Westchester’s Broadway Theater, several of the ensemble received their Equity card. That was very important to Melissa.
When Melissa was in grad school, she was in Josh Logan’s last musical.
She worked with Howard Da Silva who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. It was a production about Huckleberry Finn. This actor played the King. He read a passage about “how this came to be.” This young kid playing Finn said, “Let’s just skip that.” Da Silva responded, “Absolutely not. You have to know what we fought for and why we are here.”
So when these new Equity members emerged from Westchester Broadway Theater, it was really important to Melissa. When she did Dolly at Boca Raton`s Florida Atlantic University , it was a celebration of this theater department. Over the course of her career there have been so many openings and closings that she no longer gets emotional.
|Groucho Marx visits Broadway’s sixth Dolly, Phyllis Diller|
That being said, both of these productions are very special to her. At the University, she had this wonderful costume designer who was superb. She had a huge hat with a bird on it. She hated to let go of that. Both productions are now in her memory bank.
Regarding both costume designers, Melissa knows and respects that they have a vision for the piece. Having directed, she is very interested in what their vision is. It is a very collaborative art form. When she went to the costume designer at Westchester and shared her thoughts on the look and feel of Dolly, it was amazing that he got that right away. It really helped her in playing the part the way she felt HER Dolly needed to be played.
Hello, Dolly, to Melissa Hart, was an enriching experience. That included the ability to play such a rich leading role in a musical in which the character is warm, supportive, and nurturing , and overcoming a lot of odds. Melissa dug deep in the text and research to pull everything out of this woman and out of the character that maybe the audience had not been privy to before and they were better for it!
|The only Dolly Melissa saw on Broadway, the one Hello, Dolly was written for, Ethel Merman!|