The year is 2011 and my college is doing our own production of the Henrik Ibsen classic tragedy, Hedda Gabler. I never read it in high school and this is my first time seeing it performed on the stage. For the last hour I’ve been stuck to my seat, captivated by the performance. In the show’s final moments, I am left with my mouth open as a gunshot rings, a piercing scream is heard, and the lights abrubtly fade to black. Show’s over. That’s it. What. The. Hell.
My most memorable moments with live theatre have come from shows that caused me to think a great deal, were wildly entertaining, and had really strong narratives. Hedda Gabler, in my opinion, is one of the most dramatic, complex, wildly entertaining shows yet. This may seem odd since, when the piece was first introduced in the late 1800s, it had horrible reviews. However, over time it grew on people.
Hedda Gabler tells the story of a not-quite young, very ambitious and controlling woman who enters a loveless marriage with the respectable but dull George Tesman to insure herself economic and social security. Completely driven to control any and everyone around her, Hedda finds the opportunity to wreck havoc on the lives of those closest to her.
When he wrote the play, Ibsen set out to do one thing; “What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.”
Hedda does that. The play touches on human psychology and should be any trained actress’ dream to play such a dynamic, often hated character. It’s easy to want to play a hero, but playing a villain that people can also sympathize with by the end is a real challenge. Who do I think can do Miss Hedda justice? Viola Davis would without a doubt murder (pun intended) the role of Hedda Gabler. The Juilliard grad has shown us time and again that she’s a force to be reckoned with. She can be dark, as evidenced by her historic Emmy-winning portrayal of Annalise Keating on “How To Get Away With Murder.” She can be passionate, as we have seen in her film roles like “Doubt.” We also know she can be everything in between, as we’ve seen in her Tony Award-winning performance in Fences.
It takes a special kind of actress to pull a role like this off. That’s why the last time this show was on Broadway it didn’t do all that well. Viola has already broken down barriers in the TV world. I have no doubt that she’d shatter the glass ceiling on the Great White Way.
Hello, Dolly! The Past, The Present, and The Prospective Future
A few weeks ago, previews began for the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly! over at the Shubert Theatre. Midler last appeared on Broadway in her hilarious one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last at the Booth three years ago, and Fiddler on the Roof in 1967, when the actress had last starred in a musical on the Great White Way.
This revival of Hello, Dolly! marks the fourth incarnation of the Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman musical since its first inception in 1964, starring Carol Channing. The original production played well, but after three years and a slight decline in ticket sales, producer David Merrick decided he needed to shake things up a bit.
What better way to achieve shock value than to recast the show and create an all-Black version with the amazingly talented Pearl Bailey as matchmaker Dolly Levi and Cab Calloway as Horace Vandergelder.
Nowadays, a stunt like this would surprise no one, but in the late 1960s –a time of war and protest, racism and hate– the casting was nearly unheard of. The cast, however, didn’t deter people from seeing the show.
In fact, Hello, Dolly! opened to glowing reviews on November 12, 1967, at the St. James Theatre. This new version would later close on December 27, 1970, bringing the total cumulative Broadway run to 2,844 performances, thus making it the longest-running musical of its time.
Due to popularity, producers released another cast recording with the all-Black cast and Bailey received a Special Tony Award in 1968. She would eventually reprise her role in a short-lived revival in 1975 with Billy Daniels.
After her successful run as Dolly, more opportunities opened up for Black actresses to step into the role of the meddling matchmaker including: Thelma Carpenter, who actually went on as Bailey’s alternate on Wednesday matinees and performed in over 100 performances, Edwina Lewis, and E. Faye Bulter — whose 1990 version included the cut song “Love, Look in My Window.”
Looking back on this amazing production, and with the revival set to officially open in April, we got to thinking: If we could recast Hello, Dolly! today, who are some Black actresses we’d like to see?
Check out some of Team BB answers below:
JHD: Jenifer Lewis. She can blow, she has sass, she needs to be on Broadway since yesterday. And she would absolutely make an amazing Dolly. She actually played the title role back in 2009 in a Seattle Regional Production. If not a Broadway reprisal, we’ll settle for a revival of Mame too.
Tristan: Whoopi Goldberg, Queen Latifah, or Vanessa Williams. Here for all three of them, though the Ugly Betty fan in me is truly here for a Wilhelmina Slater-inspired Dolly.
Who would YOU cast? Sound off in the comments below.
How Do You Solve A Hiatus Like Audra?
Taking over a lead role early in the run of a high cost, highly anticipated musical could be daunting for any performer. Taking over the lead role for an actress with more Tony awards than any other woman in history could be down right horrific.
So, no pressure to the sweet soul who will step into Audra McDonald’s shoes in Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed when the six-time Tony award winner takes a scheduled hiatus June 21 – Sept. 25 to fulfill a prior commitment. And OH, what large tap-dancing shoes they are. Here’s who we think has the chops to succeed the diva and thrill the masses while she’s away:
We have to imagine that production knew Audra would be stepping out for a few months before completing casting and thus prepared accordingly when adding this stunning performer to the Shuffle Along roster. This lady would be beautifully suited to assume the role of “Lottie Gee” in Audra’s absence. Warren, who is most known for her role in Bring it On: The Musical, is a strong singer, skilled dancer and versatile actress, as seen in her roles on shows like “Blue Bloods” and “Orange is the New Black.”
For those of you who haven’t seen Something Rotten, maybe you’re not familiar with this tap-dancing kid, but the Baptized by Broadway star is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she a hoofin’ fool, but a powerhouse belter who could definitely keep up with the likes of Savion Glover, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter. Something we’d LOVE to watch.
Vanessa Williams, Brenda Braxton, Adriane Lenox
Shuffle Along could take a page out of the After Midnight book and feature a rotating lineup of special guests over the three month span to appeal to audiences in the headliner’s absence. These three ladies are just a few of the guest entertainers who made After Midnight special and could definitely bring the same star power to the Shuffle Along stage. Williams with that velvety voice, Braxton with those flawless moves and Lenox…just being Lenox, would each make it a beautifully unique and exciting experience.
There have been no details as to what Audra’s “prior commitment” is, but with “Hello Again!” and the “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar” HBO Special in the works, it could be anything. McDonald will return to Shuffle Along Sept. 27, but we will be waiting with bated breathe to hear who she’ll pass the torch to and you know Broadway Black will have it first. Hopefully, they’ll take our suggestions into consideration. Stay tuned!