With its bouncy musical numbers, explosions of color in the sets and costumes, and an effervescence that rivals the finest of champagnes, Hello, Dolly is one of those shows that has delighted millions across more than five decades. Revived on Broadway four times since its 1964 opening, and performed across the country on tours and by everyone from professionals to community theater troupes and high-schoolers, it’s pretty easily described in one word: classic.
But can a nearly 56-year-old musical about a matchmaker in Yonkers, New York at the turn of the century still teach us anything? You bet, says Analisa Leaming, who plays Irene Malloy in the show.
“This is a show that really resonates with all of us,” she says. “No one wants the parade to pass us by,” she elaborates, echoing one of the musical’s signature tunes.
With a score and lyrics by Jerry Herman, who died on Dec. 26, Hello, Dolly won a record-setting 10 Tony Awards in 1964, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for the legendary Carol Channing, who would become synonymous with the role of Dolly. The 2017 revival with Bette Midler as Dolly would win another four Tonys, and garner praise for its “sparkling, old-fashioned popular entertainment” (The Hollywood Reporter) and be called a “smashing, kick-ass revival” by Rolling Stone.
Hello, Dolly is based a Thornton Wilder play called The Matchmaker, and tells the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow known for her matchmaking and otherwise “putting her hand in.” She’s been enlisted by wealthy Horace Vandergelder to find him a wife. He has his cap set for Irene, but Dolly wants him for herself—and Irene, while she might be interested in marrying again after the death of her own husband, is much less interested in marrying Vandergelder.
“For her time, Irene is a forward-thinking woman,” Leaming says of her character. “There are those in town who think she’s some kind of wicked woman for working, but she’s over it. She pushes the envelope. I like to think I’m like that.” She laughs. “But maybe not.”
In previous productions of the musical, Irene has often been cast—and played—as an ingenue. But Leaming, who understudied and performed the role in the Broadway revival, says that when she auditioned for the part, producer Scott Rudin gave her permission to approach the role differently. “She’s flirty and sexy,” she says. “And I don’t recall Irene being so spunky, even as she’s grounded in her timeframe. She’s a lot of fun.”
Leaming says she’s loved hearing the reactions from audiences across the country as she’s traveled with the show. Whether people have seen the show before or are coming to it for the first time, Leaming says the repeated themes are about how much fun they’ve had at it, and how happy they feel when the curtain comes down. That, she feels, is the lasting legacy of the show. “With everything happening in the world today, of course it’s great to have two-and-a-half hours to laugh your face off,” she says. “And then you get to cry happy tears over wonderful couples coming together.”
Runs Jan. 7-12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $35. Go to https://houston.broadway.com/shows/hello-dolly/ for more information.