“Hello, Dolly!” still is going strong, and Lewis J. Stadlen is happy to have another go-round as Horace Vandergelder, the half-a-millionaire from Yonkers, N.Y., who gives matchmaker Dolly Levi a run for her money.
Stadlen has played the role opposite Andrea Martin, Leslie Uggams, Randy Graff — and now Betty Buckley, in the national tour. Buckley, however, is on vacation, and won’t be performing at the Des Moines Civic Center. Understudies will step into the title role for all eight performances Tuesday (4/9) to April 14. (Cedar Rapids native Timothy Shew also is in the cast playing the Judge, and serving as the understudy for Horace Vandergelder.)
Each leading lady brought something different for Stadlen to play off.
“When I did ‘The Matchmaker’ with Andrea Martin, it was the first time I’d done it,” Stadlen, now 72, said by phone from a recent tour stop in Denver. “‘The Matchmaker’ is quite different, in that Horace and Dolly are characters of equal importance. I think I was a little young for it — I was probably around 50. Also, we had to do it very quickly ... we only had three weeks of rehearsal. ... That was the embryo of figuring out who Horace was.
“Then with Randy, who I have done a number of plays with, that was the first time I did ‘Dolly.’ And Randy — talk about an actress with heart. (She has) great emotionality. She’s not an antic comedian, so she brought a sincerity — and she also has a great set of pipes.
“I thought Leslie was terrific. The thing about Leslie, there was a song written for Ethel Merman that’s usually cut from the productions, and I remember saying to Leslie, ‘Don’t’ sing that song, it just makes the parade passing by number kind of redundant.’”
She didn’t heed his advice on “World, Take Me Back.”
“She sang it and she made it work, and it was great,” Stadlen said.
“Then when I did this production, Jerry (Zaks), who is a very hands-on director, said, ‘We’ll build on what you’ve already done, and hopefully we’ll make it better,’ and he has. Of course, he has perfect comic pitch.
“I just think that as an actor — not only ‘Hello, Dolly,’ but in everything — I’ve just gotten better, because my life experience has become more complicated,” said Stadler, a Brooklyn native who now lives in Manhattan.
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“When you start off, and I had a wonderful teacher by the name of Stella Adler, there were kind of two schools: one was, ‘Everything has to be real, everything has to be real,’ and her concept of good acting was, ‘If you know what you’re doing, then you can simulate reality and people will not know the difference.’
“But you have to know what you’re doing, and have to know what the play’s about. And you have to know where your character fits into the puzzle of the play; what side of the political equation your character is on; how to honor the intent of the author and not just worry about whether people think you’re real. If they don’t think you’re real, you’re failing. So I was immediately intrigued, because she said you have to use your intellect,” he said.
“Then when I was about 45 years old, I discovered that I had a heart, and so you then have to combine what you know intellectually about the character and you have place that character in the center of your chest, and realize that if you’re able to do that, then emotions will feed your intellect.
“Knowing the character as well as I do now, that’s just about it.”
He’s been enjoying this year of touring, which for him, will end in Boston on Aug. 25. He’s especially looking forward to returning to Des Moines, where he first saw his name in print, in a review of the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1967. “That’s the first time I ever felt like I was good at anything,” he said.
Now, the road holds the allure of not only visiting many cities, but that feeling of “being part of a collective” with a touring troupe, and hearing various audience reactions.
“I’m always surprised,” he said. “Each community responds to a play differently.”
Still, after all the years and all the performances on stages and screens — drawing Drama Desk and Theatre World awards in 1970 for his Broadway debut as Groucho in “Minnie’s Boys,” then Tony nominations for “Candide” in 1974 and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1996 — he recites a mantra to prepare himself for each time he steps into Vandergelder’s shoes.
“It’s very difficult going out there eight times a week,” he said. “There are lot of times that you’re not feeling particularly well or your concentration is not at peak level. What I do before every performance, I have a mantra that I say out loud to myself in a secluded part of the backstage, reminding myself I am part of a story, and that my responsibility is to tell the story as best as I can. If I would go out there, which I did early in my career, and say to myself, ‘What does Lewis J. Stadlen get out of this,’ that would bring up every neurotic impulse in my personality.
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“If you go out there and you’re nervous, you feel it in your stomach. But if you say, ‘Now wait a second — this is about the totality of the human being’ and you transfer your energy to your heart, you’re fine. At least, I’m fine. I always do that in every performance so that I have emotional access to what I know intellectually about the role.”
WHAT: “Hello, Dolly!” national tour
WHERE: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (4/9) to April 12; 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 13; 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 14; post-show discussion with cast April 11
TICKETS: $40 to $174, Civic Center Ticket Office, (515) 246-2300 or desmoinesperformingarts.org/events/1819-hello-dolly/
RUN TIME: 2 hours, 45 min.
SHOW’S WEBSITE: hellodollyonbroadway.com