Saturday, December 23, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" (from Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly!) My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Put on Your Sunday Clothes”
Composer: Jerry Herman
Performers: Charles Nelson Reilly, Carol Channing, Jerry Dodge and cast, original cast recording, 1964

Composer: Jerry Herman

Performers: Michael Crawford, Barbra Streisand, and cast, film version, 1969

Composer: Jerry Herman
Performers: Gavin Creel, Bette Midler and cast, Broadway revival, 2017

I’ve seen at least four theater productions of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, twice I believe with Carol Channing, once with Eve Arden in Chicago, and in Washington, D.C. with Pearl Bailey. I’ve watched the movie starring Barbra Streisand over and over throughout the years. My very first musical experience on Broadway was Jerry Herman’s version of The Mad Woman of Chaillot, Dear World! with Angela Lansbury. And, as I wrote in My Year 2005, I hosted a celebration for Jerome Lawrence at New York’s Algonquin Hotel in which Herman was one of the major performers, playing the piano with Michael Feinstein singing many of Herman’s best works before they invited up Burton Lane to play a song from Finian’s Rainbow.
      For all that, I can’t say that Herman’s compositions for what is certainly an entertaining musical are generally among my favorites. The rousing “Hello, Dolly!”, perfect as a way for the many leading ladies who strutted out to play Dolly Levi, is primarily a vehicle for the dance machinations of the head-over-heel-in-love waiters who celebrate Dolly’s voracious appetite. “I’ll be Wearing Ribbons Down My Back,” is a lovely paean to flirtatiousness. “It Only Takes a Moment” is a beautiful expression of love-at-first-sight. And, despite, the energetic aspirations of “Before the Parade Passes By,” we know that for almost all the actors who dared to take on the Dolly Levi role, the parade has already basically passed by before they set foot of the stage. That is, after all, what the musical is really all about: senior love, a last chance to find some human solace; and Dolly uses every charm in her aging repertoire of tricks to lure the grumpy Horace into her bed—or more particularly into the joys of the Harmonia Gardens.
     But the one song that catches in my ear is what catapults all the musical’s characters out of their Yonkers womb and puts them in the “slick” world of New York where they cheat, lie, and fall desperately in love. It is the one song from this joyful work that truly liberates its characters and the audience from the everyday world they inhabit to all the new possibilities of young—and yes, older—love. By the time they all return, stripping off their “Sunday” clothes, they have been completely transformed, speaking in voices they never before had dared to whisper, with Horace even repeating one of Dolly Levi’s former husband’s favorite maxims: "Money is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread about, encouraging young things to grow." The trip they take in their Sunday clothes leads them into a fantasy that is as magical as Dorothy’s visit to Oz in the Judy Garland movie.
      And Herman, employing bells, mandolins, trumpets, and almost every other instrument that he might grab, goes all out in this work to create a rollicking good train ride from “hick town” to “slick town.”
      Listening again the various recordings, old and new, I am still in love with Channing, but now find her voice a bit too harsh and chirpy, Charles Nelson Reilly’s Cornelius a bit too nerdy (that used to be his thing); the new Bette Midler version is just that, all Bette—although Gavin Creel does a credible job—but is not quite as glorious, at least in this song, as one might hope (perhaps you need to see her on stage, which I have not). For my money, you truly can’t do better than Barbra Streisand did in the movie, where she literally dominated the entire screen nearly every moment, just as Dolly Levi might. And then Michael Crawford’s creaky tenor voice is always so lovely to listen to. Jerry Dodge, who poisoned himself while performing in Mack & Mabel, while the show was premiering in Washington, D.C. (apparently while fighting AIDS; The New York Times of the day named it simply “a virus.”), is surely the most charming Barnaby Tucker.
     After listening to this delightful song in six different versions, I’ll be humming it for months.

Los Angeles, December 23, 2017

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