A few weeks ago, my faithful reader Albert Koenig reminded me that a significant anniversary was approaching.
Now it’s here, for fifty years ago, on Sept. 8, 1970, The New York Times ran a story with this headline: “Dolly Replacing Liza as Fairest Lady: Show’s Matinee Tomorrow to Set Record.”
For more than nine years, MY FAIR LADY (at 2,717 performances) had held the record that had once belonged to OKLAHOMA! (at 2,212 performances). That Rodgers and Hammerstein classic had enjoyed being in first place (for book musicals, mind you, not revues) for more than sixteen years after it had surpassed IRENE’s 670 performances.
(Yes – back in the twenties, a showing of 670 – amounting to little more than a year and a half – was enough to make you the champ.)
The day after the record-setting performance, DOLLY’s producer, one David Merrick, took an ad in the Times that “Tickets on sale through January 2, 1972.” It certainly wasn’t the first lie he ever told and it would even more certainly not be the last. The figure was off by a year and six days, as DOLLY said so long, dearie to Broadway after the 2,844th performance on Dec. 27, 1970.
Another yardstick reveals just how big a hit DOLLY was. Has there ever been a musical that actually had FOUR cast recordings available while it was still on Broadway?
First, of course, came the original cast album with Carol Channing, who now and forever will be associated with the show. This album reached Number One on the charts, making it the last recording of a traditional-sounding great big Broadway show to hit that mark.
Next came the London cast album, which – most atypically – made it into U.S. record stores. Sure, many London musicals were recorded and released while the Broadway shows were still running, but they were only manufactured and sold in England. If you wanted to hear how a British cast fared with an American show, you needed an 84-Charing-Cross-Road relationship with a London record store or an indulgent overseas relative who didn’t mind shopping for you.
An exception, of course, was the 1958 London cast album of MY FAIR LADY. On the surface, one might ask why it was necessary; after all, Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway and Robert Coote were repeating their Broadway assignments. So why would Columbia Records and Goddard Lieberson even bother to spend more time and money when the Broadway FAIR LADY was already the best-selling album of all time?
Ah, but people who in the interim had bought stereo sets for their living rooms would buy the Lerner and Loewe classic once again. Stereophonic sound wasn’t yet widely available when FAIR LADY went into the recording studio on March 18, 1956. Lieberson gambled that musical theater aficionados would buy the score again if a sonically superior album were released in America.
Once again, he was right.
DOLLY, though, had been recorded in both monaural and stereo, so that wasn’t the reason for this rare American release of an original London cast album: Mary Martin was. Her performance as Mrs. Levi in 1965 is one of her strongest in a career filled with strong performances.
Although the title tune in abbreviated form opened the original album, it had become a big hit after that recording. So there was a much more generous cut that began the London cast album.
A third memorable recording was released when DOLLY was nearing its fourth anniversary on Broadway. Merrick had again made the show the hottest ticket in town by bringing in Pearl Bailey to head an all-African-American company.
This one started with a genuine Overture. “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Dancing” were included before the orchestra was able to convey “And here’s the one you’ve been waiting for” – the title tune, natch.
In late 1969, when DOLLY still had a year left on Broadway, the soundtrack was released. Sure, the film isn’t much good, it lost ten million and … you’re anticipating a sentence with the words “Streisand,” “too” and “young,” aren’t you? (And you just got it.) But having a star of Streisand’s magnitude interpret the role made for a solid soundtrack.
So four albums were all in print and available when DOLLY took its final bow on Broadway. And yet what headline did the Times offer the next day?
“Broadway Bids ‘Dolly!’ a Fond Adieu. ’Fiddler’ Waiting in the Wings.”
In other words, “The King is dead! Long live the King we’ll soon have!” Indeed, DOLLY, despite a 286-performance head-start on FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (which opened on Sept. 22, 1964), wouldn’t keep the crown for long.
At first glance, both musicals seemed to be star vehicles. DOLLY on Broadway always had a well-known headliner: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and (last but hardy least) Ethel Merman.
Merman was whom composer-lyricist Jerry Herman had in mind when he started writing. When she went in, so did two songs he’d written for her that hadn’t made the production. Years later, they became bonus tracks on the newest iteration of the original cast album.
After Mostel had fulfilled his contract, Harnick went up to the star at the goodbye party to say how sorry he was that he was leaving – although Harnick wasn’t. Like many, he felt that Mostel, infamous for improvising and adding “improvements,” was now hurting the show with his ad-libs and antics. Still, Harnick wanted to be gracious – “Zero, we’re sorry to see you go” – only to be answered ungraciously: “No, you’re not. You’re sorry to see the grosses fall.”
They didn’t, not precipitously. When someone named Paul Lipson can play the lead and audiences still attend, you’ve got a hit.
So a mere 250 days had to pass after DOLLY’s closing for FIDDLER to play its record-breaking 2,845th performance. It eventually had a 3,242 performance run that made it not only the longest-running musical in Broadway history, but the longest running show, period.
Never had a musical stayed at the top position for so short a time as DOLLY. No musical probably ever will. If CHICAGO reopens when Broadway resumes and if THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA chooses to stay shuttered, the Kander-Ebb-Fosse hit would need to run close to NINE years before ousting PHANTOM from its spot.
DOLLY has had four Broadway revivals, most recently in 2017 with its acclaimed production with Bette Midler (which yielded yet another recording – and yet another overture). In terms of revivals, here too FIDDLER beats DOLLY, for it’s had five – that is, if you count the 1981 edition that played the Lincoln Center theater then known as The State. (ibdb.com does).
The real question here: DOLLY or FIDDLER for the 1964 Best Musical Tony-winner if the awards were dispensed on a yearly and not seasonal basis? FIDDLER probably, being the more serious show and the one to open closer to the end of the year and thus fresher in the voters’ eyes. Channing again wins, but Mostel does, too.
DOLLY set another record of sorts. LIFE WITH FATHER and TOBACCO ROAD – the only Broadway attractions that as of 1970 had run longer – had moved to other theaters not once but twice. DOLLY stayed at the St. James for its entire run.
To celebrate DOLLY’s achievement, a plaque was attached to the front of the St. James Theatre.
It wasn’t there long.
Someone pried it off and stole it.
(All right, come on, whoever it was! Bring it back! Like the moon, it belongs to everyone.)
Now the list of the longest-running book musicals has HELLO, DOLLY! in seventeenth place with FIDDLER just one slot above. But, to paraphrase two lines, one from each show, they’ll never go away or be far from the home you love.