Broadway Leading Lady Carolee Carmello on Taking Over Dolly!

Hello, Dolly prepares for run at Bass Concert Hall

Carolee Carmello is probably the most prolific Broadway leading lady you’ve never heard of. She may not be a household name, but the lady has had a very busy career.

Carolee Carmello as Dolly Levi in the national tour of Hello, Dolly! (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

With 14 Broadway shows over the last three decades (including four years as Donna in Mamma Mia), several more shows Off-Broadway (including a year-long stint as Mrs. Lovett in the recent, acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd), some Broadway tours, and television appearances on her résumé, Carmello has a work history that few of her contemporaries can equal. It’s a testimony to her talent, versatility, and – certainly in the case of Mamma Mia – stamina. Now in her third month of a season-long national tour of the smash hit revival of Hello, Dolly!, playing Dolly Levi herself,Carmello is poised to see her star rising beyond the west side of Manhattan.

“I think anyone who works in the theatre is hard-working, whether you are playing leads or are in the chorus,” she said in a conversation from Cincinnati, where Dolly is making one of its many stops. “I don’t feel that I’m special, but I have been fortunate in some of the roles I’ve played.”

Carolee Carmello as Dolly Levi in the national tour of Hello, Dolly! (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Well, yes. Among her Broadway credits: Abigail Adams in 1776, Mother Superior is Sister Act, Lilli Vanessi/Kate in Kiss Me, Kate, Cordelia in Falsettos, Alice Beineke in The Addams Family, Ms. Pennywise in Urinetown, and Mrs. du Maurier in Finding Neverland. She’s gone from supporting roles to leads, back to supporting roles and then back to leads. Has she ever had much time off?

“When I had my first child, I didn’t work for a year and a half,” she recalls. "I have had stretches of nine months to a year where I only did a few things … maybe a reading here and there, or a concert. I definitely have had some lean years, but I’ve also been lucky. Which is good, because I have two kids to put through college!”

Carmello has originated her fair share of roles, but she has also been a go-to actress when a musical’s original female lead leaves a long-running hit and the producers are looking for a solid replacement. Mamma Mia stands at the top of the list for sheer number of performances, but Carmello also took over notable roles such as Lilli/Kate in the mid-Nineties revival of Kiss Me, Kate when the late Marin Mazzie left, and now she's taken over Dolly from Betty Buckley, who toured with the show last season. (Buckley’s the latest of notable actresses who have played Dolly over the decades, but more on that later.)

Replacing a cast member in show that has been running for a while can be a challenge. “The disadvantage at times is that you are stepping into a working machine," says Carmello. "Often, you’re the only one going in, you’re on a stage by yourself in the rehearsal room, and you don’t get to bond with the other actors during the initial rehearsal process.” But an advantage to this arrangement is that “the kinks in the show have already been worked out, and you just step in.”

And then there’s the whole issue of doing a show for a very long time. I mean, four years of Mamma Mia? That’s a whole lotta ABBA. “It’s never been a huge problem for me,” Carmello says, “because of the fact that you have new people in the audience every night. These people are seeing the show for the first time, and they deserve what the people on opening night saw. And things are always different because it’s live theatre. The audience reactions are always a bit different, and it keeps you fresh. I kind of enjoy the long runs, because you get to delve into the characters, and you really get to know the cast, get close to people in the show.”

Carolee Carmello as Dolly and John Bolton as Horace in the national tour of Hello, Dolly! (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

One show that Carmello certainly would have liked to have run longer is Scandalous, the 2012 musical about legendary 1920s and Thirties evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. With book and lyrics by a surprising Kathie Lee Gifford (music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman), the show offered Carmello the chance to originate the kind of juicy, larger-than-life leading character that could have been her Evita – a role she would be associated with forever. Alas, the critics were not particularly kind to Scandalous, although Carmello received strong reviews. Christopher Isherwood in The New York Times called her “a gloriously gifted singing actress … Sister Aimee certainly provides plenty of opportunities for Ms. Carmello to thrill us with the purity and power of her voice.” Unfortunately, the show ran for only a few weeks. That had to be a disappointment for someone who had worked on this show since its early workshop days.

“With new musicals, the gestation period can be so long,” she said. “Seven years with Scandalous. It does take up a chunk of your psychic energy. But I don’t look back with regrets. There were a lot of good things that came out of it. I got a Tony nomination for Best Actress. And I became good friends with Kathie Lee Gifford, whom I think is very talented.”

Then, as is the case with any actor or actress, there are the roles that got away. “I really wanted to do the revival of My Fair Lady 25 years or so ago,” she recalls. “In the Tyne Daly revival of Gypsy in the 1990s, I got down to final callbacks for the role of Louise, but I didn’t get it. I would have loved to have done Ragtime. Casting is such an unusual alchemy of things. A lot is up to the performer, but there are other factors at work as well. Still, I’ve certainly been lucky.”

Carolee Carmello and the national tour company of Hello, Dolly! (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

And also “gloriously gifted,” hard-working, and dependable. So it’s not surprising that Jerry Zaks, who directed the current Hello, Dolly! revival and worked with Carmello on both The Addams Family and Sister Act, called and asked her to take over the lead when Buckley left the tour. Even though Carmello has been fearless in the past about stepping into roles created by other actresses, Dolly Levi is a role that has been inhabited over the years by some larger-than-life performers – most notably Carol Channing, of course; Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film version; and Bette Midler in the 2017 Broadway revival, which is the basis for the current tour. How did Carmello approach making the role her own? Well, for starters, she never saw the Channing or Midler versions. She had seen the movie. “And I think I saw some touring version when I was kid.” When she was offered the show, she went to see the tour with Betty Buckley, whose performance was definitely more character- than personality-driven.

“There’s certainly a big responsibility to the role,” says Carmello, “as some audiences come in with their own memories. I feel a big weight on my shoulders to make Dolly believable, honest, funny, and all the things she could be. But the writing is so good, and this production so well put together … that is a big plus.”

For the uninitiated, Hello, Dolly! tells the tale of Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, a late 19th century New York City widow, who is both entrepreneur and matchmaker. And when she meets Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, “the well-known, unmarried, half-a-millionaire,” she decides to make the match for herself.

In 1964, Broadway legends Gower Champion (director and choreographer), Michael Stewart (writer) and Jerry Herman (composer and lyricist) adapted Thornton Wilder’s 1955 play The Matchmaker into what would become one of the most beloved shows in musical theatre history. They wrote it with another legend, Ethel Merman, in mind for the title role. But Merman turned it down, and the role ultimately went to Channing, who would go on to play Dolly in countless tours and revivals for the next 30 years. (Side note: Merman did finally play the role – the last in a long-line of middle-aged stars to succeed Channing in the original Broadway production, among them Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller (!), and Pearl Bailey. )

Carolee Carmello and the national tour company of Hello, Dolly! (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Interestingly, Channing gave her final performance as Dolly at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall in February of 1997, a factoid that Carmello was unaware of until this interview. “Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed. “We just played the Fisher Theater in Detroit, where Carol Channing played her very first performance as Dolly in the pre-Broadway engagement!” What goes ‘round …. (Another side note regarding this Touring show's stop at UT: It brings back to campus Blake Hammond, a 1980s graduate of the The Theatre & Dance Department. He plays Rudolph, the maître'd of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, where Dolly makes her entrance in the fabled title number.)

And what of the appeal of an old-fashioned show like Dolly in today’s musical theatre? “I think there’s room for both Hamilton and Hello Dolly! in the same world,” Carmello says. “Dolly certainly appeals to people of a certain age who have loved the show for years. But I also know that young people who have never seen the show before wait at the stage door to tell us how much fun they had.

“The show is still so relevant and funny. It’s about love, relationships, and second chances … the things that we all go through. And who can’t relate to that??”

Hello, Dolly runs Jan. 21-26, Tue.-Fri., 8pm; Sat., 2 & 8pm; Sun., 1 & 7pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, UT campus. For more information, visit the Texas Performing Arts website.

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