A new Dolly? Bette on it

Bette Midler has been wowing audiences on Broadway for weeks now in the much ballyhooed revival of “Hello, Dolly!” Now, starting today, we on the left coast get a chance to hear her sing the famed title tune on all digital platforms, including iTunes.

After listening to the new version, I decided to rank some well-known Dollys in terms of that song:

1. CAROL CHANNING: No matter who comes along, even the Divine Miss M herself, can surpass the gravelly tones of Channing, for whom “Hello, Dolly!” became her signature tune. Her rendition of the song is simply baked into my perception of the essence of Dolly Levi. I remember as a kid listening to the Channing-as-Dolly recording and thinking: “But she can’t sing!” As the years went by, I began to realize that singing for the musical theater isn’t always about technical perfection but about character and distinctiveness. Adding some loyalty points for me is the fact I got to meet Channing when she performed in Fresno years ago.


Bette Midler in Broadway’s ‘Hello, Dolly! Photo / Julieta Cervantes

2. BETTE MIDLER: Yes, it’s Bette, all right, in all her glory. But for those expecting a va-va-voom blast of Midler, the title tune comes across as more relaxed and carefree than I would have expected. Unlike Channing, whose sheer force of personality is enough to bowl the average listener over, Midler plays it more on the coy side, even a little reserved. I like her interpretation a lot.


3. CLYTEE RAMSEY: I only got to see Ramsey perform as Dolly just one time, in a CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre production. She’s best known for playing the role for Good Company Players a whopping three times, and from all the local theater lore I’ve absorbed through the years, she was superb in the role. What I loved about her when she sang the title song in the Clovis production was how her character’s fussy and endearing personality showed through in every note.

4. BARBRA STREISAND: OK, she was horribly miscast in the movie, and I always feel a little sorry for Channing when I think about how Babs snagged the big-screen role that should have been hers. Still, the song itself is a blast, from Streisand’s pudding-smooth vocals to the orchestra’s enormous brass section. (And you even get a cameo from Louis Armstrong himself.) In the end, it’s the age thing that bothers me most about Streisand in the part. She’s far too young to play Dolly. But it makes me think: If there were a movie remake today, would I be more accepting of a much older Streisand in the part? (Then again, has she really aged? Or has she thrown in her lot with some superior race of lizard aliens so she can remain forever young and soon subjugate us all under extraterrestrial domination?)

5. SALLY STRUTHERS: Remember that so-so tour that came through Fresno a couple of years ago? Struthers tried her best, but listening and watching her was almost painful. She was stiff and mechanical, like a rigid dowager empress enacting a proscribed court ritual. Goodbye, Sally.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (6)

  • Patty Bennett

    I cast my vote for Hayley Galbraith, Roosevelt School of the Arts circa 2002, directed by Fred Bologna. Hayley inhabited the role 24 hours a day, starting as soon as she was cast.

  • Donald: I think you are having too much fun in your new role!
    And your audience benefits!

  • Kathy Morrison

    We saw Channing in a revival in SF in the 1980s — at that point she could have done the show as a solo and still filled the theater. She was having fun and so were we. Most memorably, we spotted her pal and fellow legend Mary Martin in the audience afterwards.

  • Emily A

    One of the good things from my first college roommate (and there were only a few) was the introduction to Bette Midler’s singing. Off to the interwebs to listen to the recording!

  • Brandon Weis

    Susan Kehler was absolutely brilliant as Dolly many years ago for Center Stage. She commanded the attention, and the hearts of those that were lucky enough to see her and share the stage with her. Her voice was top notch, and her acting was personal, yet carried the bravado that has become signature for the role. As a past student of hers, it was even more impressive and inspiring to see your teacher go into every rehearsal and every performance with such passion, energy and professionalism.


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