Angela Lansbury said that playing the character Mame Dennis was the most fun she'd ever had on stage. And Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi descended that red-carpeted staircase for more than 25 years. Now, two new leading ladies, Christine Baranski and Tovah Feldshuh, are demonstrating that this pair of musical-theater icons, in composer Jerry Herman's words, "are still goin' strong."
"Hello, Dolly," at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and "Mame," at Washington's Kennedy Center, have been playing to packed houses. These early '60s blockbuster Broadway musicals are being rediscovered, their central characters now viewed with more perspective.
"She is self-invented," explains Baranski, about the brassy, Pied Piper diva based on Patrick Dennis's book, stage play, and film, "Auntie Mame." "She has her own persona, and although she may seem at times overly passionate, she is often the smartest person in the room."
For Feldshuh, meddling matchmaker Dolly is a woman "both inspired by the promise of America, and one who suffered from its prejudices."
Feldshuh applied her analysis as a dramatic actor to the role, noting that "she's an Irish Catholic – she was born Gallagher – and she married a Jew, Ephram Levi. Both of them endured struggles in early 20th-century New York." Her Dolly has a lilting Irish brogue.
Paper Mill's charming, lavish production permits Feldshuh to move through her scenes effortlessly, allowing room and time for her comedic moments to emerge. And every musical number bristles with energy and anticipation, thanks to the remarkably inventive choreography by Mia Michaels, who takes familiar cakewalk and polka steps and builds an endless array of fresh steps.
At the Kennedy Center, Baranski's "Mame" benefits from many gifts, chief among them the casting of the fiercely hilarious Harriet Harris as bosom buddy Vera Charles. Their push-pull scenes together alone generate more laughs than many other entire shows. And the Center's well-documented high-production values enhance this riches-to-rags-to-riches fable with all the glamour any star-struck theater lover could wish for.
Though Mame and Dolly live decades apart as characters, what unites them is their lyricist/composer, Jerry Herman. "His work is very, very underappreciated," notes Baranski, who last starred at the Kennedy Center's revival of Hugh Wheeler's and Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." "Jerry's music is incredibly well crafted, and even the transitions are clever."
Feldshuh calls his pairing of words to music "a joy to perform. Not many can write a lyric that tells the story, and set it to a tune you can't get out of your head!"
Herman chose material with similar histories, each starting as a book or story, then moving through stage adaptations and film versions before becoming musicals. He teamed with book writer Michael Stewart to create "Hello, Dolly!" and chose Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee to pen the scenes in "Mame."
Feldshuh and Baranski have previous connections to their roles. Ruth Gordon, the original stage Dolly, was Feldshuh's maid of honor. Baranski played Mame in high school. Both stars find similar reasons why their heroines resonate today. "Dolly knows what problems are. She had to survive on her own when her husband died, and pulled herself together to be independent – no easy task for a woman in those days," says Feldshuh. "Still, she's optimistic and she chooses love over money, status, religion, or any other external characteristic in a person."
For Baranski, "Mame is a free thinker, a woman who is appalled by prejudice and uses her newfound wealth to build a home for single mothers. There is a message that talks about not letting fear take over your life," she says. "That is very relevant, indeed, in these times."