Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.


9 thoughts on “Growing Old With Dolly Levi”

  1. Change a few of the details, and you told the story of my passion for Tevye’s “If I Were a Rich Man”. I saw him perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I was twelve, in the eighth grade. Having skipped the fifth grade to be in grade eight at twelve years old had already left me feeling like an outsider. Trying to talk about this song and its meaning, with my peers, cemented those feelings as a matter of destiny. I was beginning to cherish the solitude of the soul.
    And I understand and share completely your disdain for people who prefer their “music” to be nothing more than convenient background noise. It’s Zen. It’s too much training in the martial arts. It is Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) from “The Karate Kid”: “Focus, Daniel-san!”
    And I grew up listening to my parents’ music (WWII generation), of course, which here in the south was mostly country, jazz, and big-band. I was growing up with that new “rock’n roll” of the ’50s and following as well as “soul music”. But along the way, I found a passion for classical music. And the story of my first marriage which ended in divorce tells that tale of why, when, and how I fell in love with the music of Barbara Streisand.
    Now that I am old, retired, grumpy, cynical, and bitter, it is the music that predates me that I enjoy the most, that big-band music and classical music and, oh yes, that “lounge” music of, just to pick a name, Mr. Louis Armstrong.
    And just like that, because you had to go and talk about it, I think I’ll pop in the DVD of “Hello Dolly” starring Ms. Streisand and Mr. Louis Armstrong.
    A thought I had never bothered to think before: I wonder if Mr. Armstrong got his inspiration for “What a Wonderful World” from that wonderful poem, “Desiderata,” the 1927 prose poem by American writer Max Ehrmann?
    A great piece, James, about both the curse and magic of getting old.
    Stay safe and be well.

    1. Last night I wanted to play my Blu-ray copy of Hello Dolly! and couldn’t find it. Drove me crazy. I was looking all over for it. We’re the same age if you were 12 in 1964 too.

      You made me go play “What a Wonderful World” and then read “Desiderata.” Strangely, it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous commence speech. See:

      But I love this recording of it:

      1. I just watched Mr. Vonnegut’s speech…and the tears won’t stop.
        It is that curse of getting old, you know, that there is a history, a story, behind, well, almost everything.
        I was working at my sixth full-time job since graduating from high school, Friday 06/06/69. But I was also working part-time at a local ma-and-pa store, Charlie’s Market. Charlie and George had “given” me my first taste of working for a living, part-time, of course, when I was fourteen, after school and on the weekends. Well, they needed someone to work a few nights a week along with yet another new young lad and…and you simply don’t say “No” to people to whom you owe so much.
        So it was slow and I wandered back to the two racks of paperback books in the store. One was popular fiction, including a few of the latest releases. The other was all “adult” paperbacks. When I was a kid, I would stand and read those titles…for at least as long as Charlie and George would indulge me. Eventually, of course, was the “If you’re not going to buy something, get outta my store.”
        And there was a new novel, something called “Breakfast of Champions”.
        I read the thing that night. I had never heard of Kurt Vonnegut. I had never laughed so hard in my life. Now I have bought and given away dozens of copies of that book throughout the years…but I still have that first copy.
        I wrote the following, as dated, in my journal:
        Definition of Capitalism
        Friday, July 03, 2009
        Capitalism: A theory of economic activity that correctly warns people of the dangers of wanting more than they can afford but remains strangely silent regarding the dangers of wanting more than you need, a system which refuses to answer the question “How much is enough?” [end]
        Why am I not the least bit surprised to learn that Mr. Vonnegut said it ten years before me?
        Thanks very much for the link.
        And now I am hearing Ms. Streisand singing “Memories” and the tears won’t stop….

  2. I like to listen to music, too. In fact, I try to listen to a music CD every day. I’m a fan of HELLO, DOLLY and have seen it four times. The traveling version of HELLO, DOLLY is coming to Buffalo on March 15, 2020 (we already have tickets). And, I have the Broadway soundtrack.

    Speaking of music, today’s WALL STREET JOURNAL had a interesting article on Korngold’s music:

    I’m getting the urge to dig out my Korngold CDs and give them another listen.

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