Ridgefield Playhouse celebrates 50th anniversary of ‘Hello, Dolly!’
I tell my sons, when we watch movies from years past, that any film should be viewed “through the lens of its time” to remember what else was going on when the movie was made.
Back in 1969, as change filled a turbulent world, few moviegoers seemed to care about the film version of a stage show about an engaging matchmaker named Dolly. While the musical was a big hit on Broadway, the lavish movie version seemed out of step in a year when “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” redefined what people expected to see on screen. But some movies get better with time and, 50 years later, “Hello, Dolly!” will be back on the widescreen when the Ridgefield Playhouse celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 11.
Based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” the film follows the irrepressible Dolly as she makes herself indispensable to everyone she meets in New York City in the 1890s. As she romantically pursues Horace, the “well-known half-a-millionaire,” Dolly also spends enough time meddling, singing and dancing to fill many a musical narrative. When this expensive (budgeted at a then-astronomical $18 million) “roadshow” film hit theaters that holiday season, critics slammed Barbra Streisand for being too young to play Dolly, producer Ernest Lehman for spending too much on the production, and director Gene Kelly for staging too many dances. Despite Streisand’s popularity, the film fell short of turning a profit and, at Oscar time, was only honored in technical categories, losing the Best Picture award to, no surprise, “Midnight Cowboy.”
Looking back, “Dolly” got a bum rap. Yes, at age 26, Streisand may, at first, appear too young to portray a middle-aged widow. But the actress makes her fresh approach work. From the opening moments, when she delights with a new song, “Just Leave Everything to Me,” Streisand commands the screen with her precise inflection and nuance. She’s alive, fresh, curious and fun, consistently celebrating the joy of the piece. This is not Streisand repeating her Oscar-winning performance from “Funny Girl” a year before. This Barbra submerges herself into the character to make Dolly an original creation. Seen today, Streisand knows exactly what she’s doing. At a time when such a story could feel old-fashioned, she makes “Dolly” relevant by making it her own.
As strong as Streisand’s singing (and Jerry Herman’s score has never sounded better) the actress is at her best in the dialogue sequences. Study her timing and expression when she first encounters Walter Matthau’s take on Horace. The rhythm is perfect. Look at her quiet moments — just before the Act One finale of “Before the Parade Passes By” — as the actress ventures beneath the surface to reveal the lady’s soul. And celebrate the delicious duet of banter between Streisand and Matthau at the Harmonia Gardens in Act Two. It’s a study in comic delivery. That Streisand was snubbed for an Oscar nomination seems surprising today given the weak competition. But it was the times.
Film Nutritional Value: Hello, Dolly!
Content: High. The magical world of matchmaker Dolly Levi magically transfers from stage to screen under the classic direction of Gene Kelly.
Entertainment: High. Kelly and choreographer Michael Kidd —and star Barbra Streisand — deliver a film that gets better with time.
Message: High. For any of us who love musicals, the film celebrates the pure joy of song and dance on screen.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity for a family to share a classic musical movie is always relevant.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children will have a lot of fun talking about this special journey into the movie past.
Yes, when my sons were learning everything about movies, the chapter on musicals highlighted “Hello, Dolly!” Years later, they still remember the film as an entertaining example of Hollywood’s commitment to craft. Treat yourself to a return visit this weekend at the Ridgefield Playhouse.
“Hello, Dolly!” is rated G and runs 2 hours and 26 minutes. For tickets to the Ridgefield Playhouse showing on Sunday, Aug. 11, call or visit the box office, 203-438-5795, or go online at ridgefieldplayhouse.org.