Arts / Performing Arts

Dolly’s Broadway Magic Heads to Texas With a New Lead Matchmaker

Carolee Carmello Embraces a Legendary Role

BY // 12.24.19
photography Julieta Cervantes

Streisand, Channing, Merman, Midler, Peters and Buckley, such goes the list of the mega stars who have played one of the most iconic characters of stage and screen, Dolly Gallagher Levi. The queen bee, widowed matchmaker, who sets out to find her own love connection, Dolly first sang her way into Broadway hearts half a century ago.

Since then it seems every generation another legendary actress has danced into the role and another generation of audiences have once again welcomed her back with a Hello, Dolly!

As the touring production of the 2017 Broadway revival gets ready to high-kick its way into Texas (with high-profile stops in Houston, Fort Worth and Austin this January), PaperCity talked with the latest actress to put on Dolly’s fabulous feathered and bowed hats, Carolee Carmello.

The New Face of Dolly

With music and lyrics by the Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, the multiple Tony Award winner Hello, Dolly! easily became one of those classic musicals that has survived the test of cultural change. The zesty hero became the role of a lifetime for many actress, including Bette Midler who launched the latest revival

Tackling Dolly for the national tour, Carmello, a three-time Tony-nominated actress herself, says this line of iconic actress who came before her gifts her a kind of freedom to make the part her own.

“I think the fact that it has gone on some many different directions, actually takes a little of the pressure off,” Carmello says. “I don’t feel like I have to do Carol Channing’s version of the show. The show is so well written it works with a number of different takes on the role.”

Carmello’s “take” allows the audience to see nuanced sides of Dolly, not just the powerhouse woman whose personality makes her the star of any room.

“I try to bring as much vulnerability into it as I can. She’s a very fast talking, larger than life, manipulative person sometimes. The danger, in my mind, is to make that a little too cartoonish. I want to make sure she’s also a real person,” she tells PaperCity.

“There are those great monologues in the show that are taken right from the Wilder play. They really help to establish her inner life that’s not her public personality, which is so grand and fast moving. She slows down and has a real kind of heart to heart with her late husband during those moments. I think that’s an important part of the character.”

Love in Any Age

Debuting on Broadway in the mid-1960s, but set in the late 19th century, the musical certainly covers a range of sensibilities when it comes to finding and keeping love. After all, Dolly is the ultimate matchmaker. Yet Carmello thinks audiences love her not just for nostalgia sake but because many of the show’s stories still possess timeless and universal qualities.

“The whole theme that Dolly is having second change at love and life, I think really resonates with people,” she says.

“The great story has so many different characters that you can relate to. There are characters in their teenage years that fall in love, characters in there thirties, characters in their fifties. Everyone just wants to find love and connect with somebody. Those themes of trying to find the person you’re meant to be with is pretty universal, across centuries. Human beings will always be looking for that.”

Though Carmello has graced television screens almost as much as her time on stages, her heart does seem to belong to theater.

“The beauty of live theater is that it’s really a different experience each time,” she says. “You have a different audience and other actors and musicians that are doing something slightly different everyday and you have different things to play with.”

Carmello also finds that when it comes to live theater, musical comedies can be the most challenging art for any actor.

“I’ve always felt that comedy, though it seems fun and easy, is much more difficult than drama,” she says. “It’s a science. You can lose a laugh by moving your hand at the wrong moment or the way you decide to take a breath in the middle of a line. It’s such a precise craft to find where the laugh is. And musicals in general are more taxing. You use more energy to do the musical numbers.”

Hello, Dolly! 2020 tour (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
Dolly arrives in Texas January 7. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

While Carmello’s won much acclaim on Broadway stages, she says touring also adds another layer of challenge and excitement to the experience.

“Audience in different cities react so differently,” she notes. “The fact that we’re traveling to so many parts of the country and eventually out of the country, it’s interesting to see how people react to the show and character and how the response changes.”

21st Century Dolly

No matter how differently Houston, Fort Worth and Austin audiences respond, the commonality will likely remain a love for Dolly herself. Though a creature of the 1890s via the 1960s, she has withstood the test of theatrical time with a song. Still, we had to wonder what theater’s most famous matchmaker would think of trying to find a mate in the online, swipe-right, 21st century world.

“She just loved people connecting in whatever way possible,” Carmello says as she ponders Dolly living in the Tinder era with a laugh. “The way she’s written in my mind is that she’s a mover and a shaker. She does whatever it takes to keep up with the world.

“I think she would embrace all the different platforms. Wherever you could meet someone, it’s great. And if you meet people and it doesn’t quite work out, keep trying. She feels to me like a very optimistic person as far as making connections with people.

“I think she’d be into it. She’d start probably.”

Hello, Dolly! begins its Texas run at Houston’s Hobby Center January 7 to 12. Then, it’s on to Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth from January 14 to 19 and Austin’s Bass Concert Hall from January 21 to 26.

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