A Look at Five More ‘Dollys’ of Hello, Dolly!

Lists   A Look at Five More ‘Dollys’ of Hello, Dolly!
 
You asked, we answered: From Pearl Bailey to Ethel Merman, here are more of the many award-winning and crowd-stirring actors who have brought Dolly Gallagher Levi to life on stage and screen.
Pearl Bailey on Broadway
Pearl Bailey on Broadway

We received a lot of feedback that our recent “Which Dolly Are You?” quiz was missing some fantastic Dollys, particularly the erasure of Tony Award winner Pearl Bailey—and that was correct! While we typically have to limit our personality quizzes to around five possible results, excluding Pearl Bailey as a possible result was wrong. We apologize, we are addressing it, and are committed to doing better. We appreciate you calling us out!

The mistake also highlighted the need for a deeper dive into the actors who have played Dolly Levi Gallagher. For a start, here are five more of the talented and exceptional actors who have gotten to put their own mark on Dolly.

Pearl Bailey on Broadway
Pearl Bailey on Broadway

1. Pearl Bailey
The only actor—other than Carol Channing—to take on the title role in multiple Broadway productions of Hello, Dolly! is none other than film, television, and singing star Pearl Bailey. Bailey took over the role in November 1967, almost four years after the production opened originally. Bailey, who was African-American, was joined by a wholly new all-black cast when she came to the production, led by Cab Calloway as Dolly’s love interest Horace Vandergelder. The response to her performance was overwhelming, breathing new life into a then already long-running production. Bailey was given a special Tony Award in 1968 for her performance, and the entire cast recorded its own cast album as well—an unusual practice then and now.

The original production of Dolly closed in 1970, but Bailey came back to Broadway in the role for a new revival that was created expressly for her in 1975, this time appearing alongside recording artist Billy Daniels.

Mary Martin toured with the show and originated the role in London
Mary Martin toured with the show and originated the role in London

2. Mary Martin
The current revival is not the first time a line of Broadway legends stepped in to replace in Hello, Dolly!. Mary Martin, already beloved for her performances in Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific, toured with Dolly in the U.S. and Asia before opening the show’s premiere London production. Martin had actually turned down creating the role on Broadway, but ultimately relented when original stage Dolly Carol Channing made the show a giant hit. Like Bailey, Martin got to record her performance when the original London cast released an album.

Jenifer Lewis
Jenifer Lewis Photo by Curt Doughty

3. Jenifer Lewis
Best known now for her screen performances on TV’s Black-ish and such movies as Sister Act, What’s Love Got to Do With It, and Jackie’s Back, Jenifer Lewis began her career on the stage. Lewis appeared on Broadway in the original companies of Eubie!, Comin’ Uptown, and Rock ‘n Roll! The First 5,000 Years, also becoming a beloved fixture of the New York cabaret scene. Lewis got her chance at Dolly in 2009 when Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre cast her in a new production of the musical classic. Lewis’ trademark wit along with her formidable acting and singing chops led to a warm reception in the role.

Ethel Merman in Hello, Dolly!
Ethel Merman in Hello, Dolly!

4. Ethel Merman
Merman, known for her legendary comedic performances on Broadway in Anything Goes, Call Me Madam, and Annie Get Your Gun, may have seemed like the perfect Dolly. So perfect, in fact, that Hello, Dolly! was originally written expressly for her talents. Merman turned the role down (as did Martin after her), but ultimately Merman would be the final Broadway Dolly. When Merman joined the production, Jerry Herman reinstated two particularly Merman-esque songs that had been cut prior to the show’s opening night: “World, Take Me Back,” and “Love, Look in My Window,” making Merman’s take on the role a sort of “extended cut” version of the character. Though no recording was released of Merman singing the entire role, those two songs were released as a 45 single.

Leslie Uggams in <i>Hello, Dolly!</i> at Theatre Under the Stars
Leslie Uggams in Hello, Dolly! at Theatre Under the Stars TUTS

5. Leslie Uggams
The same year that Pearl Bailey won a Special Tony Award for her performance in Hello, Dolly!, Leslie Uggams won Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Hallelujah, Baby!, only the second black actor to win in this category (after Diahann Carroll won in 1962 for her performance in No Strings). She went on to become a household name mostly as a TV star, appearing in The Leslie Uggams Show, Roots, Fantasy, and Backstairs at the White House. Uggams got to take on the music of Dolly composer Jerry Herman when she was in the 1982 Broadway revue Jerry’s Girls, later taking over for Patti LuPone on Broadway in Anything Goes (a role originated by fellow Dolly Ethel Merman). Uggams got to bring her special flair to Dolly in 2008, starring in a production at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars.

Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research, and curator of Playbill Vault. @loganculwell

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