Last Updated on 2nd December 2019
Ray Rackham examines whether the news of Imelda Staunton’s casting of Dolly Levi is tantamount to a monopoly on leading lady roles.
Another year, another Imelda Staunton lead musical revival. A fine actress, with a talent for comedy and song, Staunton seems to be veering very close to joining the Dames Plowright, Atkins, Smith and Dench as a bonafide “National Institution”. In the musical theatre alone, in six short years, Staunton has given us her Nellie Lovett, her Madam Rose and her Sally Durant Plummer, all created in part by the Godfather (some would simply say God) of the American musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim. We learned last week that in 2020, Staunton will move away from the work of America’s greatest living musical theatre composer to put on the red-feathered headdress of another iconic female lead, written by America’s other greatest living musical theatre composer. The composer, of course, is Jerry Herman. The role, of course, is Dolly Gallagher Levi. The show, if you hadn’t already guessed, is Hello, Dolly!
There had been much speculation that Bette Midler would be binging her Tony Award-winning show to London since Broadway celebrated the show’s triumphant return in 2017. Indeed the rumour mill was circling that Bette has been looking for an English actress to fill in (rather like two-time Tony award-winning Donna Murphy had during the show’s recent Broadway run). Furthermore, Staunton’s name had been attached to those rumours as the possible alternatives. Now it seems, however, that a diminutive Dolly in Imelda’s image will be back where she belongs, matchmaking young sweethearts and causing a comical ruckus at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre; once Waitress has danced interpretively around its last pie before embarking on a country-wide tour. For a limited, thirty-week engagement Staunton will reunite with her Follies Director Dominick Cooke, and be joined by Jenna Russell in the part of Irene Malloy. Staunton’s Dolly looks set be the jewel in the 2020 theatrical crown.
On hearing the news I asked, almost immediately, is there no other living actress of a certain age capable of playing a strong female lead in a West End musical revival? Are we entering the theatrical version of that late 1990s cinematic period where Maggie Smith played almost every role not first offered to Judi Dench? Will Staunton look to replenish her trophy cabinet in abundance, in the way Dench won almost every major screen award, including an Oscar for sixteen minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love? What is our obsession with seeing the same person in almost ever major revival? And, importantly, why?
I suppose my first question should really be is this a Staunton only theatrical phenomenon? The answer, quite clearly, is no. Staunton seems to be the British (or West End) version of the Patti effect. Yes, I’m talking LuPone. Patti LuPone. Bizarrely, LuPone gave us her Broadway Nellie Lovett and Madam Rose in the exact same time frame (three years between 2005 and 2008), but just a few years before Staunton embarked on her forays into Victorian London and the dying American vaudeville respectively (2011 and 2014).
Both started their Sondheim Broadway/West End adventures elsewhere, with Patti singing almost every leading Sondheim lady role at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival (including Desiree in A Little Night Music and Fosca in Passion) before creating versions of the roles that would take her back to Shubert Alley; and Chichester’s Summer season giving Staunton the chance to try out before a West End engagement. The only difference it seems is that Sondheim adores Staunton, and LuPone herself has claimed he hadn’t always felt exactly the same about her. Perhaps this is why Staunton played Sally in the RNT’s production of Follies (it’s alleged upon Sondheim’s insistence) even though she was arguably as right for the role as LuPone was; LuPone obviously not being very right at all, which is evident as when Follies recently made it to Broadway it was another Sondheim favourite – Bernadette Peters – who played the former showgirl.
I pointed out Staunton’s odd casting as Sally, the former Zeigfeldesque showgirl, in Follies on social media, and was informed that I had to be wrong as Sondheim approved of her, and apparently that’s enough. But, is it? I’m not alone in questioning at least some of the changes in the 2018 West End production of Company, which were fully and very publicly endorsed by the composer-lyricist (in case you’re wondering, I loved the changing gender of the lead, but disliked almost all of the script and lyrical changes). Cole Porter wrote many shows (five actually) for Ethel Merman, but for every successful Anything Goes, there could be a wing-waiting Red, Hot, Blue (Porter’s Merman lead follow-up, which closed after only six months). The acclaimed Mary Martin also played a variety of roles during the Golden Age of Broadway that would arguably raise an eyebrow of a 2019 casting director. Closer to home, Julia McKenzie enjoyed a lengthy period where she became the undisputed British interpreter of Sondheim’s canon of work; originating lead roles in the original West End productions of Follies (1987) and Into the Woods (1990) as well as retiring from the leading lady mantle in what many believe to be the definitive Mrs Lovett with the RNT’s 1993 revival of Sweeney Todd. And of course, there is the First Lady of the West End, Elaine Paige who – before her iconic radio show tune show for the BBC – procured almost every leading lady role during the 1980s and 1990s. This suggests that longevity is partly down to the relationships composers have with their leading ladies. For Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, it was Merman or Martin; for Lloyd Webber it was Paige; for Sondheim, it seemed to be a transatlantic sing-off between McKenzie and Peters; and now has swung to Staunton.
There is also the fact that Hello, Dolly! will be directed by Dominic Cooke, who last teamed up with Staunton on Follies, and is the hugely successful ex-Artistic Director of the Royal Court. Cooke is renowned for changing the face and fortune of that theatre, overseeing a tenure that brought a fresh dynamism to the company through staging an eclectic 130 new or reimagined plays and readings, refocusing the aims of the theatre, and in turn receiving nominations for 210 major awards (winning 59). After the phenomenal success of the Cooke/Staunton pairing for the 2017 RNT Follies (remember, the 2019 remount without Staunton did not sell a well or as speedily) it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Producers of Hello, Dolly! want to recreate that magic. But (yes, there is always a but…) Hello, Dolly! is not Follies; the former being a star-lead, comedy vehicle, the latter a musical of almost Chekhovian intensity. Cooke may well decide to take the musical back to the original play upon which it was inspired, Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. But if that is to be the case, will the show then still be Hello, Dolly!? Whether the magic returns in the re-teaming of Cooke and Staunton remains to be seen, however with Staunton’s name above the title, it’s a safer bet than a lesser-known actress who might be better suited to the role.
Maybe it’s the role of Dolly herself that has ultimately lead Staunton to Yonkers. In many ways, the character of Dolly Gallagher Levi is almost the musical theatre equivalent of what the character of King Lear represents in the dramatic world. It seems every dramatic actor reaches a certain point in their life where the King comes calling. Sirs Gielgud and Olivier relished in it, Ian McKellan dreaded it, and it is reported Albert Finney ran a mile from it. In a sense, the same could be said of Dolly; from Carol Channing to Bette Midler (via Merman, Martin, Peters, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers and dozens of others) the list of those who have played the part reads as an almost A to Z of musical theatre leading ladies. In a neat contemporary twist, Glenda Jackson and Kathryn Hunter have donned the crown of weeds, whilst Danny La Rue gave us his Dolly in a decidedly “end-of-the-pie” affair in the 1980s. Interestingly, the nearest LuPone got to Dolly were a series of telephone calls with Jerry Herman in late 2010, long before Bette Midler hoofed her way through that iconic title number at the Shubert Theatre in 2017.
I’ve explored a variety of reasons why Staunton might be dominating the West End musical theatre scene but I’ve avoided one, so far. Maybe it is because she is a great actress who audiences love to see? The two are not necessarily co-dependent and certainly aren’t always good bedfellows; some of the greatest actors in history have not been populist crowd-pleasers, and the Weissler’s (the producing couple behind the likes of Chicago and Waitress) for example do not always primarily choose their leads for their acting abilities. But Staunton is, most definitely, that rare breed of populist talent. This could be down to the fact that Staunton’s early career was predominantly on the stage, with stints at the RSC, the National and the commercial West End. She then became universally known as a television and, later, film actress; securing a coveted lead villain role in the Harry Potter series, and devastating a nation as Vera Drake. In returning predominantly to the theatre, Staunton has certainly continued to delight screen audiences in new serial dramas and films alike, most recently giving Maggie Smith a run for her money in the high camp stakes of the Downton Abbey movie. Maybe, as a public, we grow attached to our national treasures and want to see them in everything; and the powers that be at producing and casting desks are simply responding to that need?
Whether not Staunton is right for the role of Dolly will be debated long after her opening night at the Adelphi, that’s for certain. What is even more certain is that one of our most beloved and hard-working actors will give it her all. Staunton has the comedy training and chops to pull off the slapstick, and you can hardly say Carol Channing was the world of peacock feathers and bugle beads answer to Maria Callas, so Staunton will be more than able to sing the part and sing it well. Here’s hoping even the most ardent, oh naysayers is surprised next summer, and none of us are regretting Producers didn’t go for a better “Bette”.