In the wake of the tragic passing of legendary performer Carol Channing, I thought I would take a look at her most iconic role. By the time she attempted this part, she had already given one of Broadway’s greatest comedic performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and her performance there was arguably more nuanced, but it never quite approached the sense of sheer joy and triumphant, life-embracing inspiration she had as Dolly. As most of you probably know, virtually every major Musical Theater diva has attempted the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi at some point in their careers (Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters…that isn’t even a complete list, by the way). But while I will admit that Streisand probably sang the part best from a purely vocal perspective, and that Channing’s odd vocal style can be an acquired taste for some people, no other Dolly has ever approached the sheer life-affirming impact of Channing in the role, especially on the show’s title song, which is universally acknowledged as the showstopper to end all showstoppers and which has never been pulled off as magnificently by any other performance. While it goes without saying that Channing is brilliant on the show’s original cast album, it’s actually her second full recording of the score, made as late as 1994, that better captures the true dazzle and splendor she reportedly brought to the role onstage. In any case, both those recordings are definitely in the “required listening” category for anyone who cares even the slightest about Broadway Musicals or Show Tunes. No matter how many legends are drawn to the role, there will never be another Dolly Levi equal to Channing, and despite the derogatory jokes some people made about her vocal sound during her life, her recorded performances will enable her to live on forever as one of Broadway’s most one-of-a-kind long-term performing legends.
Steve Barton is best known today for originating the role of Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, but while he was by no means anything less than excellent in that role (and, indeed, is still probably the best Raoul of all time), his greatest triumph came when he played Count von Krolock in the German musical Tanz der Vampire. Barton sang the role in a deep, resonant baritone rather than the tenor he had displayed in Phantom, and some of his low notes (particularly in the song “Gott Ist Tot”) send chills down the spine. He played the character with an incredibly degree of depth and subtlety…when Krolock philosophizes about ‘the pleasures of sadness’, Barton really makes you feel what he means. To be honest, I’m not sure any other actor has ever so convincingly captured the impression of a centuries-old world-weary immortal. He also made his big second-act soliloquy (known in the English version as “Confession of a Vampire”) into one of the most wrenching cries of pain in all of musical theater. He could cry out in anguish with the best of them, but he played much of the role in an exquisitely soft murmur that manages to make this bloodthirsty killer almost painfully sympathetic as well as achingly erotic…like the Phantom, most of the women in the audience would have loved to be captured by this supposed villain. Barton was meant to go on to star in the show’s Broadway production, and even cut some English-language demos, but his tragic suicide in 2001 not only robbed the world of one of its greatest theatrical talents, but was probably a key factor in the notorious derailment of the Broadway Dance of the Vampires.
Among fans of the musical version of Les Miserables, one of the many ongoing disputes is the one over which was the best Javert of all time, the candidates usually being Terrence Mann and Phillip Quast. Quast was a more imposing Javert, emphasizing the inexorable and unyielding qualities of the character, but he arguably came across as too strong in his portrayal. Let’s face it—Javert is ultimately weak enough that when faced with the reality of moral ambiguity and complexity that he had shut out all his life, he couldn’t bear to go on living and drowned himself. It’s hard to imagine the iron symbol of the law that Quast portrays doing that. But as one commentator once said of Mann, “This guy makes Javert sound…human!”. It’s worth remembering that what makes Javert the villain of the piece is not what he does…as a policeman, he would have had to do essentially the same thing even if he hadn’t considered Valjean guilty…but what he believes. Like Willie Loman, he took the great lie of his job home with him…in this case, that the law and the legal system were infallible and that everyone punished by them completely deserved their fate. Mann brings out this conflict, usually sounding more belligerent than commanding, constantly lashing out against the world for failing to reflect his stubbornly-held belief system. Even his version of “Stars” was less serene and more self-righteously angry than most versions, and his suicide aria captures his broken inability to accept the truth perfectly. Mann has a somewhat higher-pitched baritone than the deeper voices usually favored for the role, which might be the reason some prefer Quast in the part, but I’d argue that the higher voice is ideally suited for a character who is ultimately more a petulant, deluded fanatic than the intimidating soldier of the law he seems on the surface. And oddly, Mann’s more honest portrayal of the character’s weakness makes him much more sympathetic than any other portrayal I’ve encountered, because, as stated above, he seems like a human rather than a symbolic stand-in for the legal system as a whole as some production of the musical tend to make him.
Todd Duncan was a College professor when Gershwin approached him to play Porgy in Porgy and Bess, and while he was initially reluctant, he allowed Gershwin to perform the score for him. According to Duncan’s own accounts, by the time they got to “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin”, he was in tears, and knew he had to do this show. He would return to it for the Broadway revival in the Forties that at last made the show successful as a Broadway musical, and he is still considered by most to be the definitive Porgy. His “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin” was one of the most powerful expressions of joy in music ever heard, his “Buzzard Song” a defiant cry of life and freedom, his “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” gut-wrenching beyond compare, and his “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” indescribably beautiful. Later recordings would show he had a bit of trouble delivering spoken dialogue, but he was the very first Broadway musical actor in the modern sense, and the sheer depth of emotion that he could put into a song was staggering (and must have been even more so at the time, when basically no-one else was doing it). It’s worth noting that when Kurt Weill and his collaborators were casting Lost In the Stars, they knew they had only two really choices for an opera-weight Black male singer who could really and truly act, and when Paul Robeson turned them down, they immediately turned to Duncan, who was glorious in that role as well.
Janis Paige may have had an on-again-off-again relationship with the correct key, and there’s no denying that many better pure singers have played Babe in this show since, including such vocal luminaries as Doris Day, Judy Kaye and Kelli O’Hara. But Paige invented the mannerisms that have become indelibly associated with the role, such as those utterly distinctive hillbilly yodels on “There Once Was a Man” (the authors apparently didn’t even think of it as a hillbilly song until they heard her perform it), to the point where everyone who has played the role since is basically just doing an impression of her. And while some of those impressionists may have sung the music better than she did, no-one ever brought more personality or vitality to the role, and in spite of her tendency to go off-key, there are a lot of people who would rather hear her in the role than any of the more secure singers that followed her.