by Michael Portantiere
Tony Sheldon Says "Hello, Dolly!"
- Back in the day, the title role in the wildly popular Jerry Herman musical Hello, Dolly! was played on Broadway and elsewhere by almost every major female stage and/or screen star of a certain age, from Carol Channing to such other fabulous ladies as Ginger Rogers, Pearl Bailey, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller, Dorothy Lamour, Eve Arden, Yvonne De Carlo, Mary Martin, and Ethel Merman (for whom the part was originally written). The show had so long a run on Broadway that it sometimes seemed producer David Merrick might run out of Dolly Levi options, which led to the rumor that Jack Benny might take over and play the part in drag. For better or worse, that never happened, but the Irish-born British drag entertainer Danny LaRue famously did Dolly in Birmingham in 1982.
Since Tony Sheldon is best known in this country as the warm-hearted drag queen Bernadette in the Broadway musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the news that he would be starring in the upcoming production of Dolly! at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT may have prompted some people to guess that he'd been cast as Mrs. Levi herself. But no. Sheldon, who has built up an impressive resume of mostly non-drag roles in his native Australia, is Horace Vandergelder, the curmudgeonly "half a millionaire" whom Dolly -- played at Goodspeed by the wonderful Klea Blackhurst -- targets as her second husband. I recently spoke with him after a long day of rehearsal. (For more information about the production, or to purchase tickets, click here.)
BROADWAYSTARS: Hello, Dolly! is a pretty big show for the small Goodspeed stage. How's that working out?
TONY SHELDON: It's working out well. Of course, it's basically a dance show -- you know, the numbers are huge. I've decided that our choreographer, Kelli Barclay, is genius, because she's doing thrilling stuff on that tiny stage. I'm completely in awe of what she's achieved.
STARS: I don't believe you've ever done the show before.
TONY: I haven't, mostly because I wasn't the right age. Not for Horace. And the last time it was done in Australia, I was too old for Cornelius. So the show hadn't really been on my radar. But my mother [Toni Lamond] did the show in California, so it's in the family. She played Ernestina, and she was also the cover for Yvonne De Carlo -- and of course, with Miss De Carlo's history, mom went on quite a lot.
STARS: I imagine you saw that production.
TONY: No, I didn't. My mother had a 20-year career in America that I saw nothing of, because I was always working back home in Australia. The only show I ever got to see her do here was the first national of Annie. Other than that, I missed her entire career.
STARS: Well, that's too bad. But it's not just a hop, skip, and a jump to the U.S. from Down Under.
TONY: No, that's the problem.
STARS: What is your history with Hello, Dolly! as far as productions that you've seen?
TONY: I saw the first production in Australia, which was the first one after Carol Channing opened it on Broadway. We had Carole Cook, and she was only the second Dolly in the world, because the show came to Australia before London and before it started touring America. We got the full Broadway production recreated in Australia at the very beginning of 1965. I still remember flashes of it, even though I was a very small child. Our Vandergelder was an American actor called Jack Goode.
STARS: Whom I saw in the part on Broadway, with Merman.
TONY: Yes, that's the guy. And our Cornelius was Bill Mullikin, who later did the show on Broadway -- with Ginger Rogers, I think.
STARS: What other major productions have you seen?
TONY: They revived it in Australia in 1995 for one of our great musical theater stars, Jill Perryman, who had played Irene Molloy in the original production there.
STARS: Let me ask you about the film version, which has always been controversial in one way or another. Thoughts?
TONY: When it came out, I was like everybody else: "Streisand is too young." "It's so overblown." "Gosh, I wish they'd used Channing!" But with time, I've grown very fond of the film. And, when I look at it now, I'm surprised by how much of the script of The Matchmaker they used.
STARS: Good point. I remember in particular that Ernest Lehman [the screenwriter] went back to The Matchmaker for the first scene between Dolly and Vandergelder, when she reads his palm.
TONY: Yes, there's quite a lot of Thornton Wilder in the film. And there's all that beautiful dancing to Michael Kidd's choreography.
STARS: It sounds like you're pretty familiar with The Matchmaker.
TONY: The first thing our director, Daniel Goldstein, urged us to do was to get hold of the play and read it. "Go back to the source," he said. "It's all there." What I had felt reading the musical was that three of the main characters -- Dolly, Horace, and Irene -- are widowed, and they all want to marry again for convenience, but they all end up with a love match. Their original plans are left askew. Daniel pointed out a line in The Matchmaker which is his favorite. It's in one of Dolly's monologues, when she says you have to decide whether you want to live your life as a fool among fools, or a fool alone. That's the line he feels is the hook of everyone's motivation in the show.
STARS: Can you say a few words about your interpretation of Horace?
TONY: I think you can't stray too far outside of whom the man is -- a bad tempered, hard-as-nails grump. That's how he's described by the other characters, but I think it's an edifice that he's created. In his first little bit to the audience, he talks about once having been young and poor, which was "the most foolish thing of all," but now he's "rich, friendless, and mean, which in Yonkers is about as far as you can go." I suspect a lot of that is put on. And he's sort of met his match in Dolly, because she just ignores all his bluster to get what she wants, and that's how she breaks him down in the end. I think Horace also sees through Dolly; she tries to turn him away from Irene by hinting that she may have poisoned her first husband. Some people play Horace as if he believes all that, but I think he knows Dolly is bullshitting him. That's part of her charm.
STARS: It's interesting you quoted that line about Yonkers, because there's another version of it where Horace says that he's "rich, friendless, and mean, which in America is about as far as you can go."
TONY: Oh, really?
STARS: Yes. In fact, that's what Walter Matthau says in the film. But in the script you're working from, it definitely says "Yonkers?"
TONY: Yes, definitely.
STARS: Goodspeed does seem like the perfect venue for Hello, Dolly! in terms of the style of architecture of the old theater and the landscaping of the grounds. The place has a very distinct, late 19th-century feel to it.
TONY: Yes. And part of the joy of working here with Klea Blackhurst is that she and I are both theater historians, and there's that incredible library here, with the Max Showalter collection. Klea said she doesn't think anyone should be allowed to work here if they don't have a full appreciation of what this place stands for, what it represents. We haven't been let loose in the library yet, because we haven't had time. But once the show is on, I think we may disappear into the bowels of Goodspeed, never to be heard from again.
STARS: I was in the library once for only about an hour before a show, and I know what you mean. One has to be careful not to get sucked in.
TONY: It's true. They have every theater book, every album, every program, every magazine. It's a treasure trove.
STARS: There are several antecedents for Hello, Dolly!, even before The Matchmaker. There was a German play and a British play, though I don't remember which came first. And there was even an earlier version by Wilder, with a great title: The Merchant of Yonkers. Do you know if that's still accessible?
TONY: I'm sure it is, but apparently, it's not all that different from The Matchmaker. I think Wilder just decided to throw the play a bit more towards Dolly.
STARS: Well, thanks so much for talking. Anything else you'd like to say about the show before I let you go?
TONY: Only that, during rehearsals, I've been struck by what a solid piece it is. It doesn't date, and I find myself responding to it on a very emotional level. I get teary watching the numbers, like "Dancing." Maybe it's the innocence of the show. It's just a well-made piece of theater that hits the target.
STARS: Oh, one final question: Do you know if you're the first former drag queen to play Horace Vandergelder?
TONY: I am not. Gary Beach has played Vandergelder -- twice!
Published on Saturday, June 22, 2013
Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org