Hello, Dolly! “A Musical Comedy Dream” – Richard Skipper: Matchmaker Supreme
NYSMS Hosts 50th Anniversary Celebration
By Jerry Osterberg
Never before in the long annals of the New York Sheet Music Society has the hall been filled to overflowing capacity! Nor has there ever been such electricity, excitement and anticipation for a show without music! Every available chair was shoehorned into the room, aisles suddenly vanished, and still the people came. The turnout was large enough to virtually redefine SRO.
To mark the occasion of the Broadway opening of Hello, Dolly almost fifty years to the day, and with countless performers to choose from, Richard Skipper had assembled a marvelous company of alumni, several from the original cast and others from revivals and various touring companies. On the day that the doors of the St. James Theatre opened – January 16, 1964 – New York City was still in the grip of frigid weather following a blizzard that had dumped a foot of snow only days before. Eager to move out of the cold, New Yorkers and tourists alike slowly made their way in, blithely unaware of the extraordinary experience they were about to share.
During his professional life Richard Skipper has portrayed a singing sailor, a biblical king, a scheming suitor and an employee of a hay & feed store, the latter as “Barnaby Tucker,” a principal character in Hello, Dolly! But, without a doubt, Richard’s favorite role has been that of Dolly Gallagher Levi in the persona of Carol Channing.
Although the thoroughly outgoing and warmhearted Richard has a broad resume which includes performing, writing, coaching and producing, he is best known as a tribute artist. He’s been known to immerse himself in his subject with such abandon that when he first met Carol Channing, she exclaimed to her husband: “Oh, look Charles, it’s me!” (referring to her then husband, Charles Lowe). A highlight of Richard’s career was appearing in the lead role with a cast of 125 and a 25 piece orchestra in a special benefit production of Hello, Dolly!
As one of the most successful musicals of all time, Hello Dolly played 2,844 performances, staged three Broadway and three West End revivals, numerous national and international touring companies, and regional productions. Costing $440,000 to produce, modest by today’s standards, it grossed more than $60 million and returned a $9 million profit to its backers. Besides Carol Channing, the original production included David Burns, Eileen Brennan, and Charles Nelson Reilly. Except for one song on which his collaborator was Bob Merrill, Jerry Herman wrote all of the words and music. Michael Stewart did the book, adapting Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, Gower Champion directed and choreographed, and David Merrick produced. In spite of stiff competition from Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly! captured ten of the eleven Tony Awards it was nominated for in 1964, a record unsurpassed until The Producers in 2001.
A half-century later, Richard Skipper brought together many of the same people who had made it all happen, and the NYSMS audience couldn’t wait to meet them. From the original company were Sondra Lee, a graduate of High Button Shoes and Peter Pan, recruited personally by Gower Champion to play Minnie Fay while she was away in Rome; David Hartman, cast as Rudolph, the Prussian majordomo of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, and doubling as a stage manager; Nicole Barth, one of Champion’s trusted dance captains, who had a talent for keeping the director calm; Ron Young, a singer/dancer who was selected just days after arriving from his native Oklahoma; Paul Berne, a replacement dancer; Charles Karel, who later appeared in Dear World on Broadway and at the Metropolitan and New York City Operas; Jan LaPrad, and Joan “Buttons” Leonard.
Alumni from various domestic and international tours and revivals included Carleton Carpenter, who debuted in David Merrick’s first production in 1944, wrote special material for Debbie Reynolds as well as best-selling mystery books, and shared a gold record with Reynolds for “Abba Dabba Honeymoon”; Wayne Clark, who played ‘Louie’ the head waiter for two and one half years; Jeanne Lehman, a veteran of Beauty & The Beast, The Sound of Music, and cabaret performances with Peter Howard, Lee Roy Reams and Steve Ross; Bob Lydiard, who played Charlie Brown in the original off-Broadway production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, directed the Cosby Show and excels as a professional whistler; Megan Thomas, who eventually got to play the lead in a regional production of Hello, Dolly! is married to Bob Lydiard, although they never appeared in the show together; Lee Roy Reams, a Broadway regular – Sweet Charity, 42nd Street, Applause and more – and ubiquitous cabaret performer; Andrea Bell Wolff, singing and dancing since the age of four, and once a performer with a Greenwich Village based band Your Father’s Mustache; Spider Duncan Christopher, the son of a singer/bandleader, director, acting coach, and one of eight dancers chosen from among nine- hundred; and Johnny Beecher Sheridan, who, asked by Angela Lansbury what was his favorite show he had appeared in, was wise enough to give the politically correct response.
Richard did a magnificent job as the master of ceremonies and interviewer of three separate panels. After introducing John Anthony Gilvey, the author of Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical, who talked about the fascinating evolution of the story which inspired generations of artists to invest a bit of themselves, Richard’s enviable role was to stand back and let nature take its course. The conversations and anecdotes among the former colleagues and friends flowed effortlessly. They had participated in a legendary Broadway musical which had long since become an unbreakable pillar of theater history. Coming when it did for most, it was a life affirming experience they would never forget. The youthful enthusiasm these actors had brought to the iconic play was clearly just as fresh as if was yesterday. For the audience at Local 802, members and guests alike, the joy which lit up the stage that afternoon was contagious. Judging by the roar of the crowd, none of them anxious to leave, it was a day that they would remember fondly. The palpable glow which remained seemed a catalyst to resuming old friendships and forging new ones.
One of the sweetest moments of the day was when Richard read a letter from Jerry Herman to the Hello, Dolly! alumni thanking them for helping to create the greatest success of his brilliant career. Perhaps the best compliment we can offer to Richard Skipper in turn for the wonderful program is to let Gower Champion say it: “I think maybe we’ve got something!”
(reprinted with permission from the New York Sheet Music Society February 2014 Newsletter)