The Mating Game: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's "The Matchmaker" Tells a Deeper Story Beyond "Hello, Dolly!"
In 1955, playwright Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker became a Broadway hit that ran for 486 performances, toured successfully, became a movie, and was embraced by regional and community theaters across the country. Today, Wilder’s play is rarely performed because of Hello Dolly!
“It’s an American classic and it doesn’t get done because Hello, Dolly! gets done,” said Wendy Wright, the director of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of The Matchmaker, which will run October 19-22 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
Hello, Dolly! is, of course, the hit musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The song "Hello, Dolly!" was a mega-hit for Louis Armstrong before the musical was up and running, and the musical gave Carol Channing her greatest role. It, too, became a movie with Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.
The Matchmaker has an interesting history. It began as a one-act play in England in 1835 and was expanded into a full-length play by an Austrian playwright in 1842. In 1938, Wilder, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist, created an American version of the story that he called The Merchant of Yonkers. It flopped. But Wilder regrouped, put the focus on Dolly, and created The Matchmaker. He won the Pulitzer for the plays, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and the novella, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Hello, Dolly! was a big hit but to make way for music, it left out a lot of the story.
“Nobody does this because it’s the same story, however, once you’re working on it you can see that it’s not really the same; it's the same story, but it’s not," Wright said.
“There’s so much more depth to The Matchmaker than Hello, Dolly! brings to it. There are characters that don’t exist in Hello, Dolly! I like the innocence of the play and it’s much like Our Town; there’s a purity to the comedy which is so lacking in the world today. And that was one of the things that makes it an American classic.”
The Civic Theatre was looking for a production that would allow for a large cast since The Matchmaker has 16 characters. While Wright said she usually prefers directing comedies, she’s a veteran of 18 productions for the Civic including most recently Barefoot in the Park. Others include Twelfth Night, Hay Fever, Rainmaker, and Blithe Spirit.
“It’s more fun to work on,” Wright said. “It’s a positive experience and it’s not all sturm and drang about something.”
The Matchmaker is about the mating game. The widow Dolly Gallagher Levi is engaged in trying to find a match for the widower store owner Horace Vandergelder. While suggesting that the tightwad Vandergelder might be matched with a younger woman, Dolly is trying to snare Horace for herself. Meanwhile, Vandergelder’s abused, overworked, and extremely withdrawn young chief clerk Cornelius finds himself in love for the first time with the young woman that Dolly is using to lure Vandergelder to herself. The main plot and subplots that revolve around Dolly’s schemes do not always run smoothly.
Julie Post, in her first role with Civic Theatre, plays Dolly.
“She’s a widow and has known Horace for years, seeing as she was his wife’s best friend,” Post said. “She has a very generous heart and does care about an awful lot of people, but does find herself arranging things. It’s very funny. It’s a farce so it always has a lot of different twists and turns and her interactions with Horace are quite fun.”
Civic Theatre veteran Charles Sutherland plays Vandergelder, something of a loveable Scrooge.
“My staff is treated like dogs,” said Sutherland with a jovial roar. “I’m a self-made man and nobody has a hand in what I say or do. I’m very isolated in the world because I don’t listen to anybody. I don’t deal with anybody well.”
Johnny Washington, another newcomer to the Civic Theatre, plays Cornelius, a 33-year-old man who is extremely awkward around women.
“This gentleman is always running in circles in his life and he works six days a week,” Washington said. “On Sundays, he goes to church twice and he’s very naive. The world excites him, it’s all new to him. When women come in the store, he has a pre-programmed dialogue he can say to them like, ‘Yes, ma’am and that will be 75 cents, ma’am.’ Actually, talking to women or seeing them in the wild is a new experience to him.”
Cornelius and his buddy Barnaby finally get to break out when they have to travel the short distance from Yonkers to Manhattan. Here the sheltered young men find adventure.
“When I read the monologue to audition for the play, I said I was made to play this role,” Washington said. “I relate a lot to Cornelius. I’m a guy but very fascinated by women. I’m sheltered.”
Manhattan is a wonderland to Cornelius.
“When he goes from Yonkers to New York, he’s overwhelmed with these experiences. He comes across the woman who is supposed to be Horace’s fiancée and he’s immediately awestruck,” Washington said. “The first woman he sees is the most beautiful woman in the world. He’s nervous but also very charming. He has reason to lie but he wants to be truthful about what he’s feeling.”
For Sutherland, Matchmaker is another kind of adventure.
“I never thought I would get a part this big and wonderful,” he said. “I love the words; the choices of words are unusual in many cases and not what I would say. I’m someone fighting all the way but going through enormous change.”
Wright said Wilder’s play is about taking those leaps that make life worthwhile.
“The theme of the show is adventure and putting yourself out there and taking risks, that is basically what the play is about,” Wright said. “For Dolly, it’s a fine line that you walk to make sure she’s not overbearing; she needs to be lovable and that’s a fine line for an actor to walk.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will present Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker at 7:30 pm on October 19, 8 pm on October 20-21, and 2 pm on October 22 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave. in Ann Arbor. For tickets, visit www.a2ct.org or call -734-971-2228.