Breaking Baz: Well Hello, Imelda! ‘The Crown’s Imelda Staunton Finds Humor And Poignancy In Rollicking ‘Hello, Dolly!’ At The London Palladium

EXCLUSIVE: Imelda Staunton, swathed in glamorous red taffeta, descends a staircase on the London Palladium stage to lead a line of eager waiters in a chorus of “one of our favorite songs from way back when” from Hello, Dolly!

”Let’s reset,” a production assistant’s voice suddenly booms over the pubic address system.

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We’re at a rehearsal run-through of a brand-spanking-new revival of the classic Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart musical adapted from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, starring an outstanding Staunton as Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow who over the course of just one day emerges from grief to rediscover life again.

The show started previews last Saturday where it was rapturously received, but the creative team knows there’s still work to do before official opening night July 18.

Back at rehearsals, Staunton happily “resets” and does the number again as choreographer Bill Deamer moves his dancers and asks them to take her wrap and “offer her a vacant lap.”

Yes, I’m humming along as I write out the song lyrics.

Dominic Cooke, the show’s director, bounds up on stage, halts the proceedings and asks his company to start again, from the top of the stairs, and perform the show’s second act without a break. It’s repeated a couple more times and each and every time Staunton, undaunted, knocks it out of the park.

Michael Harrison, the show’s producer, is sitting in a fifth-row orchestra seat watching his star light up the proscenium as she dives into numbers along with Andy Nyman as Horace Vandergelder, Jenna Russell as Irene Molloy, Tyrone Huntley as Barnaby Tucker, Harry Hepple as Cornelius Hackl, and Emily Lane as Minnie Fay plus other members of the company.

(L-R) Michael Lin, Tyrone Huntley, Emily Langham, Harry Hepple and Imelda Staunton
(L-R) Michael Lin, Tyrone Huntley, Emily Langham, Harry Hepple and Imelda Staunton

Deadline marvels at Staunton’s stamina but wonders how often her understudy will fill in for her during the limited 10-week run at the 2,200-seat Palladium.

Affronted, Harrison stares me down, and promptly addresses the question: ”She’s Imelda Staunton,” he begins grandly.

“Imelda Staunton does the lot! She’s the definition of a leading artist,” he declares.

Imelda Staunton during a poignant moment in ‘Hello, Dolly!’
Imelda Staunton during a poignant moment in ‘Hello, Dolly!’

“You don’t miss shows. You don’t go off sick,” he intones. “You deliver eight times a week.”

Harrison proclaims that Staunton “should be sent around every drama school in the country. Seriously. To talk about what the effect is when you ring in sick that day, on wardrobe, on wigs, on stage management. And it’s very, very easy for people to go off now.”

He acknowledges that for a 10-week season it’s unlikely cast members are going to book a holiday or a day off to go to the races, or heaven forfend, to watch a European Championship football semifinal.

“This is a very, very good company,” Harrison says proudly.

“But I’ve got a great leader,” he says, pointing to Staunton singing “So Long Dearie” to Nyman’s Horace, “and it all comes from the top.”

Later, during a break, Cooke, her director, echoes Harrison’s point. “She’s very old school like that. And I am too actually,” though Cooke appreciates that  if you’re on a year’s contract in a long-running show “you take your holiday, of course you’re going to have people off some nights. But I sort of feel like on a shorter run like this, people have paid their money to come and see the show that was actually rehearsed.

“And it’s not that there aren’t great covers within a company, but you want to see the show. And very often you don’t because there’s so many people going off.“

(L-R Jenna Russell and Andy Nyman with Dominic Cooke
(L-R Jenna Russell and Andy Nyman with Dominic Cooke

Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like in an emergency, he admits, “but there’s a bit of a culture of stars going off. And Imelda’s old school — she’ll turn up every night and deliver. And I think she sort of expects others should do the same thing.“

“I know she expects people to turn up if they can,” he adds.

Cooke escorts me from the grand salon, down a spiral staircase and through a side door into the Palladium auditorium.

The cast’s limbering up to run through more scenes.

Staunton peers out into the distance.

Laughing, Harrison warns a reporter, ”Oh, she can see you.”

Michael Harrison
Michael Harrison

He adds, ”I told her you were visiting and she said ‘Okay, that’s good. Would you like me to have a big tantrum in front of him?’ I think she liked the idea of a scandalous headline.”

However, work comes first and Staunton was adamant that she wouldn’t interrupt rehearsals to spend time discussing the show with a me. “You know what she’s like when her head’s in a show,” Harrison explains.

That’s why the lady’s a star. From the moment Staunton made her London theater debut as Mimi, one of Miss Adelaide’s Hot Box chorines, in Richard Eyre’s dazzling 1982 National Theatre revival of Guys & Dolls, it was clear she wouldn’t spend too much longer further down the bill.

Her Mimi fizzed with the vitality of a crowded Times Square on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Soon enough, when the show was revived, and with Julia McMcKenzie unavailable to resume her Olivier Award-winning Miss Adelaide, Staunton stepped in, and I was lucky enough to have observed her progression.

Oh, yes, she fell in love with the show’s Big Jule. Back then he was played by a James Carter. He would later become better known after altering his Christian name to Jim.

Staunton and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) have been married for over four decades.

It’s a privilege to be seated in an auditorium, where my view is totally unobstructed, to observe Staunton morph into Dolly Gallagher Levi as she marches into Horace Vandergelder’s hay-and-feed emporium to let him know the error of his ways. And to see her do it several  times, each one different — a gesture changes here and there — is a bonus

The way she does it is funny and moving at the same time; the lightness of her comedy is remarkable in the way the dramatic thrust of the story doesn’t get lost.

That’s what Staunton has worked for, Cooke says.

Dominic Cooke
Dominic Cooke

He notes how Staunton, before she made it to the National Theatre, honed her talent working in regional theater doing every type of production. “And she can do everything because she can sing,” he says. “She can tap, too!”

She’s been Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and she’s played Lady Macbeth in the Scottish play. “It’s not just her talent,” Cooke stressed. “It’s her experience.”

His thoughts are momentarily interrupted when he announces an uninvited guest.

“There’s a mouse running across the very nice carpet,” he says, pointing out the little critter.

”Probably wants to audition,” he adds nonchalantly.

“She works so hard,” Cooke says as he waves goodbye to little Mickey Mouse.

“So between each rehearsal, she’s sort of coming up with brilliant ideas. And she reminds me a bit of Anthony Sher, because I worked with him. These are actors who use the rehearsal, they don’t come into the rehearsal expecting you to just do things. They come in with a set of offers; it’s just ideas, imagination, skill, humor. And she’s just got a brilliant work ethic.

“She takes it very seriously. But she doesn’t take herself seriously,” he says.

“It’s a strange show,” Cooke muses, “because it’s got so many genres in it; musical, comedy farce, drama, but doing sort of farcical comedy is really tough. Either it works or it doesn’t. It has to be bang on. It’s like the music itself. It’s very, very precise.“

He adores the comedy in the piece but laments that “comedy itself [on stage] has slightly fallen out of favor,” noting that the new generation of “young directors don’t really want to do it.”

Shaking his head he says, “I dunno why. It’s taste, isn’t it?”

He posits that a lot of youngish directors have been influenced by European theater, and German theater in particular. “German theater doesn’t do comedy,” he argues.

Having spoken with German playwrights and directors, Cooke believes the differences in humor is “a cultural thing,” and he was told by a German dramatist that “in Germany we don’t like everyone to have the same response in an audience because it reminds us of bad habit. So if everyone laughs at the same time, they feel uncomfortable with it. And I think a lot of young directors got influenced by going off to Berlin to watch these shows, and so the idea of comedy has fallen away.”

Interesting to note that in 1938, Wilder wrote an Americanized adaptation of Einen Jux will er sich machen, an 1842 farce by Austrian playwright Johan Nestroy, which was itself based on an even earlier one-act work from England.

The new play was The Merchant of Yonkers, a comedy about a wealthy Yonkers businessman who sets about finding himself a wife. The Merchant of Yonkers arrived on Broadway, closing after only 39 performances.

Wilder later turned The Merchant of Yonkers into The Matchmaker. Thoughtfully, he chose to significantly expand the role of the title character, a young widow who arranges marriages for her Yonkers community.

It opened at the Edinburgh Festival, the West End, followed by Broadway. David Merrick, Gower Champion with Herman and Stewart adapted it into Hello, Dolly!

The rest we know.

Staunton was lucky enough to have visited with Herman before he died in December 2019. And he agreed to some songs being switched around.

Cooke had similar discussions about Wilder’s play text with Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew, who was then literary executor of his uncle’s estate. “He’s coming over for the first night, he’s keen to see what we’ve done” says Cooke.

“Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart paid very, very close attention to what Thornton Wilder wrote. All the song titles are from Wilder. It’s a bit like My Fair Lady and Pygmalion. There’s a close relationship,” Cooke adds.

And Herman’s score has an immense sense of joy, he says. “It’s really infectious and it’s because there’s a lot of Wilder’s work is in it. And it’s sort of not sentimental.”

Staunton and Cooke last worked together on the acclaimed Follies revival at the National Theatre while Harrison produced the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Gypsy that transferred into the Savoy Theatre.

And all three want to work together again, though hopefully the process won’t take over five years as it did with Hello ,Dolly!

Initially, they dismissed doing Hello, Dolly! in London because of the sensational production that Bette Midler and producer Scott Rudin were then doing on Broadway.

“We did think that they might bring it here,” Cooke says. “But then the signals were sent that their version was for Broadway only,” in the same way that this Hello, Dolly! is for London only.

The show won’t be extending beyond its September 14 last night, in any case the Palladium’s booked solid after then.

Nor will there be a filmed version for NT Live. “There’s a rights issue about filming it. There are rights connected to the movie all over the place. It would take years to untangle. You’ve got to see it here,” says Harrison.

“And it’s fantastic to see Imelda return. I mean, it couldn’t be better following The Crown, being made a Dame, and now this at the London Palladium, a beautiful place,” he says with a contented sigh. “And it was made for musical comedy.”

And Stanton was made for Hello, Dolly! at the London Palladium.

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