Luckily, “Dolly!” stopped at the National first.
“It was a makeover,” says Marge Champion, who was then married to the show’s director and choreographer, Gower Champion. (The two were an acclaimed dance team at the time.) “Really, I would say more than half the show was made over between opening in Detroit and in New York.”
A new production will parade onto the Ford’s Theatre stage Friday, and the co-producing team at Ford’s and Signature Theatre knows what Champion and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman proved: The show works.
“It all happened at the National,” says Herman, 81.
The tuneup was a triumph from the first night – Dec. 19, 1963, only a month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated — even though major changes were still being rehearsed during the four-week stand. In Washington, Champion devised new staging. Herman and book writer Michael Stewart continued to sand their adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” a charming comedy about a matchmaking widow who thaws the heart of the stingy widower Horace Vandergelder. “Before the Parade Passes By,” a big new number for Channing, was put in to end the first act.
The historic result was 2,844 Broadway performances, a record when the show closed in 1970. Also a record was the 10 Tony Awards “Dolly!” collected — a mark that stood for nearly 40 years. Winners included Herman, Channing, Champion, Stewart, costume designer Freddy Wittop, and set designer Oliver Smith, who would spearhead the redesign of the National’s interior 20 years later. (It’s the same design you see today.)
The prickly Merrick-Champion relationship continued through several more shows, ending when Champion died in 1980 (at age 59) the afternoon that his “42nd Street” opened on Broadway. Notoriously, Merrick announced Champion’s death from the stage during the ebullient curtain call, stunning the cast and audience alike. Merrick, a publicity-wise theatrical titan known widely as “the abominable showman,” died in 2000.
Nearly a dozen people involved on stage and behind the scenes recently took time to recall the turning point for “Dolly!”
Where he is now: Miami Beach
“In Detroit, I took a deep breath and realized how much work there was to do to straighten out pieces that were individually very good. The opening number was always very right, and of course the title song was a smash from the first time we put it on stage. There was wonderful dialogue by Mike Stewart that needed no help at all. But they were pieces. And at the National we were able to put it all together.
“Detroit was terrible. It truly was. That’s why the experience at the National was so extra wonderful, because we even softened David Merrick.”