If you ask someone what Carol Channing is noted for and they know anything about Broadway, they say that Carol Channing is best known for creating the role of Dolly Levi in the musical Hello, Dolly! The show premiered in New York at the St. James Theatre on January 16, 1964. Hello, Dolly! was produced by David Merrick and the musical was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. It won 10 Tonys, including one for Channing and another for Best Musical. Although there were many other fabulous actresses who played Dolly after Carol Channing, including Pearl Bailey in the all-black cast, Channing will always be associated with the role. It is her signature character.
Before originating the role of Dolly Levi, Channing was known for creating the character of bombshell Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) on Broadway. (Marilyn Monroe would play in the part in the movie.) Still, there was something about Dolly Levi that was special and went well beyond anything else Channing had done. It was, when all was said and done, the manner in which Channing played her. Some actors are simply right for a role and that was certainly the case with Channing and Levi.
One thing about Channing, her comic timing is impeccable. Timing comes down to a performer having a clock inside them that simply tells them when it’s the right time to say the next line, do the next bit of stage business or simply do nothing at all to either get or set up the next laugh. Some people say you cannot teach it and they may be right. You can tell an actor when to do something but if they don’t have that innate comic clock they won’t be able to adjust what they are doing to get the best reaction possible on a given night. You see, an actor’s comic timing in live performance is partly predicated on the audience chemistry on a given night. Often times it needs to be adjusted in small ways to garner the maximum reaction. As a comedienne Channing certainly had that sense, which she used to her benefit in performance and when making public appearances as she did on the clip from What’s My Line.
Perfect Look and Manner in Every Way
Channing seemed to be made to play Dolly Levi, the meddlesome widow who is become a self-appointed matchmaker in her favorite big city restaurant. Still, others were first offered the role. The original choice for Dolly was Ethel Merman. After Merman turned it down, Mary Martin was asked to play the role. She too decided against it. At that time, Merman and Martin were legends on Broadway and two of the biggest stars The Great White Way had known. Nancy Walker was considered for the role but was not offered it. Channing, the fourth in line, was offered Dolly and scooped it up.
Channing’s long, elegant form, her big beaming eyes and her then wispy, semi-coarse but captivating voice all fit the role well. Yes, she could be pushy, direct, manipulative and, perhaps most important, extremely charming. That charm made Dolly Levi a captivating character, perhaps in a way that no one else, not Merman, Martin or Walker, could.
National & International Tours
While Hello, Dolly! was still running in New York, and it would for a good six years and 2,844 performances, Channing was touring the U.S. in the road show and also playing internationally. Hello, Dolly! was sold out everywhere and Channing became a beloved celebrity. Although she was relatively well known before she played Dolly and would do many other projects afterwards, it was her Dolly Levi in what was one of the biggest hits Broadway saw in the ‘60s that would make her an everlasting star.