In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1964: Hello, Dolly! (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
On February 7th, 1964, the Beatles arrive in America landing at New York’s JFK Airport to screaming crowds of fans. Two days later, they make their American debut performing on the Ed Sullivan Show to screaming fans in the audience and a television viewership of 73 million people, 34% of America’s population in 1964, a record for the time.
Since then, their performance is often seen in music history as a major turning point. There’s a clear dividing line of music before February 9th and music after February 9th. Right away, the Beatles became an instant once in a lifetime phenomenon owning the charts from February to May 1964 with three back-to-back-to-back #1 singles and at one point had the top five songs in America, a record that remains untouched to this day. Kids across the country are buying anything Beatles related and forming bands trying to do their best imitation of the Beatles. Almost every artist who had been having hits before the Beatles were quickly being rendered irrelevant.
That didn’t quite happen. The truth is these transformations simply don’t happen overnight. Singles wise, pre-Beatles hitmakers like the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons still managed to do just fine through Beatlemania. Old school crooner types like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra still had hits through the ‘60s even as music rapidly changed away from their styles. A new wave of singers emerged around 1964 including Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and Petula Clark who were singing show tunes and orchestral pop far removed from the British Invasion excitement that was dominating but were still big nonetheless.
Albums-wise, while Beatles albums may have been selling like crazy, old-school pop and musical albums were still as popular as ever among record buyers. This disconnect is mainly due to the fact that adults were buying albums more than their kids who mainly bought singles. This is especially evident in 1964’s best-selling albums. Meet The Beatles are at #8 as the odd one out in a Top 10 still dominated by showtunes, folk, and orchestral easy-listening pop. This includes 1962 and 1963’s best-seller West Side Story (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) still holding on at #5, Barbra Streisand netting three albums in the Top 10, Andy Williams at #9, trumpeter Al Hirt’s largely instrumental Honey in the Horn at #3, and Peter, Paul & Mary at #2. And rounding all this out as 1964’s best-selling album is the soundtrack to Hello, Dolly!, a musical that opened on Broadway a month before the Beatles touched down in America creating its own mania that went head to head with the Fab Four on the charts in more ways than one.
Hello, Dolly!’s origins date back to 1835 with the English play A Day Well Spent which Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy adapted into his own play Jux will er sich machen (He Will Go on a Spree or He’ll Have Himself a Good Time). A century later, American playwright Thornton Wilder turned Nestroy’s play into The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938. The play, by all accounts, was a complete dud and it took 17 years for Thornton to revive the play as The Matchmaker in 1955. The Matchmaker was a hit and led to a 1958 film adaptation.
In the early ‘60s, Broadway composer Jerry Herman began writing lyrics and music for a new musical based on The Matchmaker with playwright Michael Stewart writing the book. For the lead role of Dolly Levi, Ethel Merman was originally in mind for the part but she passed along with Mary Martin, who had played Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Eventually, the show’s producer David Merrick got actress Carol Channing for the role adapting it to her style becoming Channing’s signature role.
Even by the time of its stage debut in November 1963, Hello, Dolly! was still a work in progress. After unfavorable early reviews, changes were made to the script and musical score including the addition of “Before The Parade Passes By.” Initially going by titles like Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman and Call on Dolly, Merrick settled on Hello, Dolly! when he heard jazz great Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the title song that he had recorded as a demo and was originally used to promote the show.
Set in New York City at the turn of the 20th Century, Hello, Dolly! centers around its titular character Dolly Levi, a middle-aged widow who works as a matchmaker. While searching for a wife for half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, Dolly makes it her mission to wed Horace. Dolly heads up north to the city of Yonkers where a bunch of crazy shit occurs before she and Horace can get together. Dolly sabotages Horace’s original match, gets Horace to have dinner with her before getting him and his friends and family to come with her to New York. More crazy shit happens before Dolly and Horace finally wed at the end.
Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre on January 16, 1964, and it immediately exploded. For Broadway, it was the closest thing they had to Beatlemania in 1964, call it Dollymania you will. The musical was a big hit with critics and audiences selling out shows instantly. It swept the 1964 Tony Awards even beating out heavy favorite Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Hello, Dolly! wound up running on Broadway for six years until closing in December 1970 after 2,844 performances. It was for the time the longest-running Broadway musical beating out My Fair Lady before quickly being overtaken by Fiddler On The Roof.
On the charts, Hello, Dolly! was as much of a phenomenon as the Beatles. The soundtrack managed to knock out The Beatles’ Second Album spending a week at #1 on the albums chart. That’s not all. Louie Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!,” a song never intended for wide release was released to capitalize on the phenomenon becoming an out of nowhere comeback hit for the legend. “Hello, Dolly!” wound up reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in May 1964, ending the Beatles’ three-month reign at the top as well as making Armstrong the oldest artist ever to top the Hot 100 at age 62. Armstrong’s album of the same name replaced the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack at #1 on the album charts for six weeks.
If there’s a way for me to describe the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack is that it’s the most Broadway sounding show of the Broadway shows I’ve reviewed for this column. The big brassy production, the orchestras, and the theatrical singing style are like the very sound you imagine when you think of a Broadway musical. For what it is, the soundtrack is a fun listen. You can tell everyone is having a fun time and are professionals at this type of musical performance.
Most of Hello, Dolly!’s musical legacy today is largely relegated to its title song as the success of Louis Armstrong’s version shows. The title track is sung toward the end as Dolly returns from Yonkers to New York City. It’s essentially a homecoming song. Dolly is glad to be back in NYC and on the social scene again and the guys are all excited to see Dolly back and wish that she doesn’t go away again as she belongs in NYC. The Louis Armstrong cover might have dwarfed the original in the larger public consciousness but the original is a fun little musical romp.
Outside of that, Hello, Dolly! hasn’t exactly become a West Side Story or Sound of Music in having many songs that have become immortal musical standards even to non-theater nerds. To me, Hello, Dolly! has existed as one of those classic Broadway shows but outside the title song, I don’t think I’ve had many experiences with any other songs outside of maybe “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” just on the title and song sounding vaguely familiar. I can see why cause many of the songs to me just don’t stick with me. Again, this is not my type of music and I’ve never seen the musical so I don’t have any experience or attachment to it but even with other musicals I’m still able to remember a lot of their songs. Most of the songs go in one ear and out the other. Call it a fun forgettable listen.
With the musical’s feel-good and old-timey feel, it’s easy to see the success of Hello, Dolly! being attributed to Americans still reeling from the JFK assassination. A musical like this must have provided a much-needed escapism for people trying to get over the trauma of the assassination as well as the country’s growing involvement in Vietnam and turmoil at home over issues like civil rights. I’m probably reaching here but as we’ve seen, and are seeing right now, these types of happy mediums have always given us a great escape from the troubles of the world.
The success of the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack marks the last time to date that a Broadway soundtrack has been the best-selling album in a year. Musical soundtracks would still be big sellers but Hello, Dolly! marks the end of Broadway soundtracks being major commercial profits before the pop music shifts of the ‘60s really begin to kick in moving a new generation of record buyers away from show tunes.
Like with most hit Broadway musicals, Hello, Dolly! has managed to survive over the years. A film adaptation by 20th Century Fox was released in 1969 with Barbra Streisand in the lead role of Dolly. The film was a box office hit becoming 1969’s fourth highest-grossing film but is considered by many as a flop and garnered mixed reviews but was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1970.
Hello, Dolly! has come back on Broadway many times over the years including a revival as recent as 2018. It’s currently running in London which like every other form of entertainment has been canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So once we’re finally able to go out to a theater, go see Hello, Dolly! if you’re in London.
Next time: 55 years later, the music of Disney’s Mary Poppins still has us feeling supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Programming note: I’ll be taking this week off from posting as I’m getting ready for my finals. Got some new ideas planned for this blog once I come back so stay tuned!