Jul 30, 2014

Hello, Dolly!: The First Gay Diva

In 1964, Jerry Herman, the gay composer who gave us the anthem "I Am What I Am," and Michael Stewart, the gay playwright who gave us Bye, Bye Birdie, sat down to write a musical comedy adaption of The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), a play by gay writer Thornton Wilder.  It was, in turn, an adaption of Einen Jux will er sich machen (He'll Go on a Spree, 1842), by gay Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.

The end product of this long gay legacy is Hello, Dolly!, the story of Mrs. Dolly Levi  (Carol Channing on stage, Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie), a professional purveyor of heterosexual romance in Yonkers, New York.  Actually, she claims to be a professional arranger of everything:

If you want a law abolished, jury swayed, or toenails polished, just leave everything to me.
If you want your liver tested, glasses made, or cash invested, just leave everything to me.

But in this musical, she's only involved in matchmaking, and she does quite a lot of it. Most musicals have two hetero-romances, one serious and one funny.  Here there are four.

I hated West Side Story, where Uncle Toms created an oppressive heteronormative nightmare out of just one hetero-romance, but for some reason I quite like Hello, Dolly, with its four.

Maybe because the first two romances come between Barnaby (Danny Locklin) and Cornelius (Michael Crawford), clerks of wealthy feed store owner Horace Vandergelder, who might easily be a gay couple.  They go out on the town in search of anonymous hookups as a sort of male-bonding competition:

We'll see the shows at Delmonico's, and we'll close the town in a whirl
And we won't come back until we've kissed a girl!

And because the third comes between fey artist Ambrose (Tommy Tune) and Vandergelder's niece, who is trying to establish her independence from her domineering uncle. They have perfectly mercenary reasons to wed.

The fourth is with Dolly herself.  She is approaching middle age (excuse me?  Barbra was 27), and worrying that  "the parade will pass by," so she sets out to land client Vandergelder (Walter Matthau). I don't know why -- their personalities are polar opposites, and she's closer in age to Barnaby and Cornelius.

Maybe because he's quite wealthy?

We know why Vandergelder wants to get married: for the housework.

In the winter she'll shovel the ice, and lovingly set out the traps for the mice
She's a joy and treasure,  for practically speaking, to whom can you turn when the plumbing is leaking?

So instead of a claustrophobic "One Hand, One Heart," we have an entire roomful of male camaraderie, and one gay diva:

I feel the room swayin', while the band's playin'
One of your old favorite songs from way back when
So take her wrap, fellas,  Find her an empty lap, fellas
Dolly'll never go away again

There was a lot of gay talent among the cast, too.  On stage, Cornelius was played by campy gay performer Charles Nelson Reily.  In the movie, Tommy Tune was gay, and Danny Locklin bisexual.  Both Barbra Streisand and Carol Channing were gay divas (although Channing took a few steps backwards recently with her insistence that the Bible condemns gay people).

See also: West Side Story