Hello, Dolly is over half a century old on Broadway alone, and based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 book, The Merchant of Yonkers. And that was based on an 1835 English play, A Day Well Spent. The setting of the work currently on Broadway is the 1890s. We’re not talking contemporary theater, here.
Bette Midler won the Tony for her lead role this year. (It also won Tonys for Gavin Creel as best supporting actor, best musical revival, and best costumes in a musical.) Near the outset of this run, the Wall Street Journal drama critic, Terry Teachout, eviscerated the show and Ms. Midler, while admitting it was going to make millions for everyone involved. I respect Mr. Teachout, but he must have seen Ms. Midler on a bad night (either hers or his).
The show is garish, over-the-top, and implausible—everything that makes for a great night of staging. But more than that, Broadway is no longer organized around great material filled by strong talent. Investors now find the great box office draw and create or revive the vehicle. War Paint, with Patti Lapone and Christine Ebersol, is an example of listening to two great divas sing marvelously, but around an exhausted and ridiculous story. It will end when they leave. So will Dolly when Ms. Midler leaves.
Ms. Midler is in fine voice. She’s circling 70 and sprightly enough. Her acting is brilliant, and some of her silent shtick with costar David Hyde Pierce (Tony nominated) is hilarious.
Today, the obligatory standing ovation has debased the currency of acting reward. However, the true mid-show-stopper is rare. When Brian Stokes-Mitchell sang The Impossible Dream in the revival of Man of La Mancha (in which we saw Richard Kiley in the original and felt no one would ever do it as well), he stopped the show and had people on their feet. When Paulo Szot walked on stage early in the second act of the revival of South Pacific and sang This Nearly Was Mine with an unheard-of 36-piece orchestra, the very wealthy patrons at the Vivian Beaumont Theater jumped to their feet, tears in their eyes, and halted the show.
Having experienced this twice, I thought myself lucky enough. But when, early in the second act, Ms. Midler descends the staircase for the title song, and the huge, extremely talented cast uses the entire stage (with Ms. Midler feigning exhaustion at one point) for a solid ten minutes, the show stopped, the music stopped, the traffic on West 44th Street stopped, and time stopped. We would still be there applauding on our feet if the conductor didn’t finally cue the music to pick up again.
The woman next to me in the second row center was a retired New York City public school teacher of 45 years. She had seen the show that night for the ninth time, never from farther than the third row. Her ticket, she told me, was $575. Do the math.
Our tickets, acquired just a few days before, cost more than the used GTO I drove to Rutgers. No matter. I’ll remember the play as fondly as I do that car: Once in a lifetime experiences.