The Right Play

Did you happen to watch the Tony awards on TV a couple of weeks ago? It’s Broadway’s version of the Oscars—except instead of awards going to movies you haven’t seen, they go to plays you haven’t seen.

But on this particular Tony night, bunches of awards went to at least one play that perhaps you have seen—or at least heard of. That’s because while the movie industry has “remakes” —and television has “re-runs”—the theater business has “revivals.”

One of the big ones this season is a musical from the 1960’s called Hello, Dolly! It’s loaded with tunes including one called Hello, Dolly! (Hope I didn’t just ruin the play if you’ve not yet seen it. Here’s a further ruination of a famous play: In Death of a Salesman—a salesman dies.)

As I watched the Tony broadcast—and the cast and producers of the legendary Hello, Dolly! took their bows—not one of them referred to the play as having saved a life. But that’s probably because they didn’t have the same experience with it that I did. (I’ll get back to that ‘saving a life’ thing shortly.)
I became familiar with the songs in Hello, Dolly! because I performed a couple of them a few years ago on an actual stage—when the Fifth Avenue Theatre made the risky—and some say misguided—decision to cast me as the male lead, Horace Vandergelder.

The opportunity to be in a big musical at a major theater was too wonderful to pass up, but I was scared to death. What if I was lousy? I could already hear the reviews:

“I loved my seat in the back of the theater. I could barely hear Cashman’s singing from there.”
“The play began great. Then Cashman entered.”
“Two things in Hello, Dolly! should be cut: The second act…and Cashman’s throat.”

Still, I decided that if a Seattle audience did throw fruits and vegetables at me, at least they would be locally grown and organic.

In the weeks leading up to the first rehearsals, I got loads of advice. Perhaps the most helpful was: “If you accidentally fall off the stage into the orchestra pit—try to aim for the kettledrum. It sounds the funniest.”
But with my luck, I figured it would more likely be the tuba—and they’d need the ‘Jaws of Life’ to get me back out.

Nervous as I was—with first rehearsals looming—my wife came up with an idea that seemed perfectly wrong. “Let’s go on a cruise for a week,” she said. “I found a great deal to Mexico.”

“No can do,” I said ungrammatically. “What could possibly be a reason for going on a cruise when I’ve got lines and lyrics to learn? Plus, my memory is so bad I can’t even remember what I ate last night.”
“It was garlic fries,” she said, holding her nose. “And if you agree to go with me, I’ll help you rehearse your lines every day of the cruise, so that by the time we return, you’ll know all of them.”

It made sense. She told me so. And that decision is how a life was saved. (Told you I’d get back to that.)
True to her word, as we rose each morning, she would drill me on dialogue as punishingly as a sergeant. “It’s Hello, Dolly,”she’d scold. “Not Hey, What’s Up, Dolly?” Slowly but surely I started getting it down—all the words, the inflections, the songs.

On the final morning of the cruise, I told her we could skip the rehearsing. I was ready. But she insisted we run through the entire play one more time. I put my foot down. She put her fist up. And that’s why we stayed put in our room 45 minutes longer than I wanted.

Just as we finally finished the line reading—and were about to go up on deck—I heard what sounded like crying coming from the direction of the small balcony off our room. I leaned around the partition between our cabin and the adjoining one—and saw a woman—weeping bitterly—leaning out over the railing. She was—more than apparently—thinking about jumping the nine stories into the ocean below.
While my wife gently spoke with her, I ran out into the hall and alerted the ship’s security folks. They arrived in time to enter her room, sneak in—and pull her down from the railing.
Whether that woman would have actually leapt is unknown—but here’s hoping that these years later, she’s hale, hearty—and happy that she didn’t.
Later that final cruise day—as we departed the ship—my wife turned to me and said, “Good thing we went on this cruise, wasn’t it?”
I looked at her admiringly and said, “Wonderful woman!” It seemed like the perfect description of the person I married.
It was also my final line in Hello, Dolly!