April 17, 1897– 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, for auditions for several years. It was a part that I was born to play: crusty, irascible, testy, vinegary, bearish, & unable to suffer fools gladly.
The Hello, Dolly! history is long, picturesque, & quite gay. John Oxenford‘s short farce A Day Well Spent, from 1835, had been made 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, Thornton Wilder Americanized the Nestroy version & 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 Ruth Gordon. Wilder extensively rewrote the piece & made the minor character of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow who brokers marriages & other transactions, the leading role. Wilder named this play- The Matchmaker. Gordon would win the Tony Award for playing the title role.
The 1958 film version starred Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins (gay), Shirley MacLaine (loved by gays), Paul Ford, & 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. 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 & smart) reworked the story again, in 1981, as the farce On The Razzle.
Thornton Wilder’s version is my favorite. He won 3 Pulitzer Prizes: for the novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, for the classic high school favorite Our Town, & his satire of the stage The Skin Of Our Teeth, of which I once portrayed a dinosaur in a production.
Our Town, in case your high school passed on producing it, is best known for its bare set, its plain folksy dialogue, & its simplistic lessons about life, yet when a 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”. 75 years after it debuted, it is believed that not a day goes by that Our Town is not performed somewhere in the world.
The great theme of Wilder’s works: the lack of awareness about the daily comforts & tribulations of the short time we have on our pretty, spinning, blue orb. Put down that cellphone & recognize the beauty of all those tiny moments in life that are being passed by.
The Skin of Our Teeth, highly avant-garde when it was first produced during WW2, is the satirical story of The Antrobus Family battling the Ice Age & other apocalypses. The play has never been more relevant than now when we face climate change, terrorism & religious fundamentalism. The human race might survive global freezing, but maybe not global warming, guns, & Ted Cruz.
Wilder never publically addressed being gay, but his homosexuality was a well-known secret in the theatre circles. His longtime lover was Samuel Steward who wrote very famous & well received, for the time, gay erotica under the moniker Phil Andros. Wilder was introduced to Steward by their mutual friend Gertrude Stein.
Wilder had cool friends. He hung out with the Dorothy Parker, Willa Cather, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, & Montgomery Clift. I would like to have been at that party. Wilder left this world in 1975. He was 78 years old.
“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” –The Matchmaker