April 17, 1897– Thornton Wilder:
“99% of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.”
At this point, seeing Bette Midler as Dolly Levi, a role she was born to play, is out of my reach. How I envy my friends that get to see it. The combination of the 71-year-old indestructible star in the indestructible musical is just too perfect. It is just crazy that Hello, Dolly! is the first musical Midler has starred in with her name above the title. The whole project, with gay actors David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder and Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hack is like a love letter to musical theatre fans from openly gay producer Scott Rudin. Hello, Dolly! has the biggest advance tickets sales in Broadway history, topping $40 million, $9 million the first day!
One of my favorite roles was Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! at Seattle Civic Light Opera in the late 1980s. I also used a funny, grouchy monologue by the same character from the source material, The Matchmaker (1954), for auditions for a decade. It was a role that I was born to play: crusty, irascible, testy, vinegary, bearish, and unable to suffer fools gladly.
The Hello, Dolly! history is long, picturesque, and quite gay. John Oxenford‘s short farce A Day Well Spent (1835) had been adapted into a full length play entitled Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy in 1842. Both writers were homosexual. In 1938, Wilder Americanized the Nestroy version and changed it into The Merchant Of Yonkers. The Broadway production was a dismal failure, running for just 39 performances.
17 years later, director Tyrone Guthrie (not gay) commissioned a new version of the play for his friend Ruth Gordon. Wilder extensively rewrote the piece and made the minor character of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow who brokers marriages and other transactions, the leading role. Wilder named this play The Matchmaker. Gordon went on to have a smashing success in the play in London and when it moved to Broadway the next year, Gordon won the Tony Award for playing the title role.
The charming 1958 film version starred Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins (gay), Shirley MacLaine (loved by gays), Paul Ford, and Robert Morse.
In 1964, The Matchmaker became the Tony Award (what is gayer than a Tony Award?) winning musical Hello, Dolly! with a score by the very gay Jerry Herman, starring gay icon Carol Channing. In addition to Channing, the role has been played by Gay Icons: Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Ginger Rogers, Ethel Merman (in her last appearance on Broadway), and Mary Martin in London. A film version of the musical was released in 1969 starring Barbra Streisand (gays seem to really like her) in the lead role. Tom Stoppard (not gay, but very talented and smart) reworked the story once again, in 1981, as the farce On The Razzle. Did you follow all that?
Wilder’s version is my favorite. He won the Pulitzer Prize three times: for the novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey (1927), for the classic high school favorite Our Town (1938), and for his satire The Skin Of Our Teeth (1942) in which I portrayed a dinosaur in a college production in the 1970s. If I am not mistaken, Wilder is the only writer to win Pulitzers in both theater and fiction.
Our Town, in case your local community theatre passed on producing it, is best known for its bare set, its plain folksy dialogue, and its simplistic lessons about life. Yet, when the dead Emily Gibbs asks the Stage Manager if anyone appreciates the daily mundane aspects of life, the Stage Manager answers with the devastating: “Poets, maybe”. 78 years after it debuted, it is believed that not a day goes by that Our Town is not being performed somewhere in the world. It’s been produced for film, radio and television, and in the lead role, at different times: Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, Spalding Grey, Helen Hunt and Frank Sinatra. It has been adapted in to a musical three times, plus an opera and a ballet. Our Town has been translated into more than 70 languages.
Emily Gibbs in Our Town:
“Goodbye to clocks ticking… and my butternut tree! And Mama’s sunflowers and food and coffee and new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up! Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it every, every minute?”
I love this play so much. Inexplicitly, in the summer of 2012, I took my copy of the script off the shelf and reread it in a single sitting. I cried buckets that afternoon to the alarm of my two terriers. I never really got Emily’s speech until now, in my 60s. The play made me weep in ways that it never could when I was in my 20s, 40s or 50s. It’s something I’ve certainly taken to heart since almost kicking the bucket in 2014.
Our Town even has a gay character, Simon Stimson, the church organist, who is a sort of stand-in for the author.
The great theme of Wilder’s works is the lack of awareness about the daily comforts and tribulations of the short time we have on our pretty, spinning, blue orb. Put down your devices and recognize the beauty of all those tiny moments in life that are being passed by.
The Skin Of Our Teeth was considered highly avant-garde when it was first produced during WW II. It is the satirical story of The Antrobus Family battling the Ice Age and other apocalypses. The play has never been more relevant than now when we face climate change, terrorism and religious fundamentalism. The human race might survive global freezing, but maybe not global warming and Donald Trump and his merry band of looters.
Wilder never publicly addressed being gay, but his homosexuality was a well-known secret in theatre circles. He was discreet and passed himself off as “a confirmed bachelor”. His longtime lover was Samuel Steward who wrote very famous, well-received gay erotica under the moniker Phil Andros. Andros’ books seem tame now, but in their time they were scandalous stuff. Wilder was introduced to Steward by their mutual friend Gertrude Stein who had a correspondence going with both men (they were all from Oakland/Berkley).
Wilder had the coolest friends. He hung out with Dorothy Parker, Willa Cather, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead and Montgomery Clift. I would like to have been at that party.
Wilder left this world in 1975. He was 78-years-old, taken in that best way, asleep in his bed.
“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” – The Matchmaker