“Give me a musical about a lady who’s going to put on feathers and beads and I am in heaven. I am interested in theatrical subjects, in positive uplifting statements that make the audience feel better when they leave.” So said composer and lyricist Jerry Herman in the early 1970s.
That’s absolutely true of his glamour-filled hits, not least Mame and La Cage aux Folles. “I like shows with ‘up’ themes and ‘up’ characters,” he declared.
Herman’s celebration of ‘positivism’ makes him an unexpected choice for director Dominic Cooke. His most recent CV spans his yet-to-be-released 1960s spy film Ironbark starring Benedict Cumberbatch, films of Henry IV parts I and II and plays by Caryl Churchill, Christopher Shinn and Tarell Alvin McCraney, none of whom are bywords for froth.
Yet, had Covid-19 not intervened, this week would have seen the start of rehearsals for Cooke’s production of Herman’s greatest hit, Hello, Dolly!.
In a classic case of there’s nothing new under the sun, Herman’s runaway 1964 smash – it won 10 Tonys and ran for a record-breaking 2,884 performances – was an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s 1955 play The Matchmaker. That was already an adaptation of Wilder’s own 1938 farce The Merchant of Yonkers.
If that weren’t enough, the latter was an American adaptation of Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen (loosely, He’ll Have Himself a Good Time) by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, whose play was adapted from John Oxenford’s 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent.
The production was in the formidable hands of producer David Merrick – there’s more than one reason why his biography is entitled The Abominable Showman – but little went according to plan. Merrick wanted Bob Merrill to write the score. Merrill had made his Broadway debut writing New Girl in Town (at one point entitled A Saint She Ain’t) and had gigantic hits including How Much Is That Doggie in the Window. But Merrill turned him down. So did Ethel Merman, whom Merrick wanted for the title role. Likewise Mary Martin, the other reigning queen of Broadway.
With Herman now on board, Merrick cast Carol Channing when the show was called Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman. Yet the song Hello, Dolly! was in place when the show opened in pre-Broadway tryouts in Washington where one review was headlined “Goodbye, Dolly.”
What’s odd is that the show, one of America’s most beloved musicals, has had relatively little exposure in the UK. The last major appearance was Timothy Sheader’s spry, delightful Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production with Samantha Spiro. Maybe the role was jinxed by the previous (brief) West End revival in 1984 which, bizarrely, featured the popular female impersonator Danny La Rue.
Jenna Russell has been singing Irene’s number around the house
Given the unusually powerful drama Cooke brought to his astonishing National Theatre revival of Follies – his musical theatre debut – it’s no surprise he has intriguing ideas about a fresh approach.
This is not a directorial whim. Like many directors with a secret wish list, it has been top of his list of shows he wanted to have a crack at, having known the score since listening to his parents’ LP of the original cast.
“I love the carnival aspect of it, but I had this thought that underneath there’s something serious going on about what it means to come back to life after loss. Three of the main characters, Dolly, Horace and Irene, have all lost spouses. They’re not living properly, not being alive.”
He points to the lyric where Dolly sings: “I went away from the lights of 14th Street / And into my personal haze.” In other words, as you’d expect from a new-writing expert, he knows the numbers are embedded in a play. He’s alive to the show’s potential joys but keen to reveal not just the text but the subtext. It’s that, he argues, which exemplifies the difference between British and US approaches to classic musicals.
“There are exceptions of course, and it doesn’t always work, but generally on Broadway they either stick to original productions or rewrite the shows. Here we trust the text.”
Nothing is fixed, but he and the producers are hoping to mount the show in 2022 after his Dolly, Imelda Staunton, finishes her stint in The Crown. And if anyone can bring out the subtext, it’s her. She’ll be matched by her Irene: Jenna Russell, who, like Staunton, is one of the few actors allowed to be as at home in straight drama as she is in musicals.
Russell is sad but pragmatic about having to delay working with Cooke again – they met near the start of their careers at the Royal Shakespeare Company about 30 years ago. She’s been singing Irene’s number around the house. She says: “I cannot think of anything more joyful to come back to theatre with.”