Why Hello, Dolly! is My Quintessential Post-Pandemic Musical

It was plagued by drama. On-set tensions were high between leads Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand. Director Gene Kelly and costume designer, Irene Sharaf, fought excessively. It premiered strongly at the box office, but contemporaries like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Easy Rider overshadowed the film, making it seem like a relic. Despite performing well at the box office, its backers lost an estimated $10 million. Hello, Dolly! pronounced the death of the big Hollywood movie musical, the end of an era. To be fair, the film came out right as the bubble was going to pop. Audiences had loved Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but lost their patience with 1967’s stale Camelot and Doctor Dolittle.

Perhaps because the film’s reputation precedes it, I was never much interested in it. I’ve been an avid musical and classic movie fan my whole life, but it wasn’t until years later when my niece developed a love of Disney-Pixar’s 2008 film, WALL-E, that I began to reconsider the film. WALL-E is a dystopian film about a lonely robot left to clean up Earth while humanity circles in a nearby galaxy on a gigantic spaceship. There is little to no music in the film, the only snippets we hear are of Wall-E’s favorite musical, Hello, Dolly! which he plays to cheer himself up while organizing towers of garbage. My niece would light up whenever, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” would play during the movie.

I first watched Hello, Dolly! in summer 2016 and its stuck with me ever since. It’s exuberant opening act, it’s delightful denouement, and its superb, outrageously beautiful ending make it not only the perfect summertime musical for me, but also one that heralds the beginning of a new era for a post-pandemic world. I get that the film can seem gauche, outlandish, or a parody of itself, but there is a sort of campy charisma about it.

The jaunty first act sees Dolly persuade the sleepy townsfolk of Yonkers to go to the big city in a moment reminiscent of “The Trolley Song” from 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker sing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” while the chorus engages in fancy footwork before everyone boards the train. There’s excitement in the air and Cornelius and Barnaby vow to find romance.

Once in the city, we meet the milliner, Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay. Irene sings a blissful wish song (“Ribbons Down My Back”) before Cornelius and Barnaby ricochet into her life due to Dolly Levi’s infamous meddling. From there on out, we follow Cornelius, Irene, Barnaby, and Minnie as they plan an evening on the town.

“Before the Parade Passes By” is sung by Dolly as she reconsiders her life. Since the death of her husband Ephraim, Dolly’s been in mourning—a recluse of the former life she’s known. We see Dolly thinking not of her past, but boldly of her future. She sings a soliloquy, ready to once again live in the world, not outside of it.

It’s a bittersweet moment when we find Dolly at her vanity, adorned in a dressing down, once again soliloquizing her fate. She brushes her hair beneath the phosphorescent glow of a gas oil lamp: she’s getting ready to go out for the first time since God knows when. The scene in itself is reminiscent of Gigi (dir. Vincente Minelli, 1958) when Leslie Caron sings, “Say a Prayer for me Tonight”—there is the magical simmer of anticipation, the possibility that anything can happen.

Of course, the largest number is the eponymous song and dance scene, where a shocked Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) sees Dolly at the top of the stairs at the elegant Harmonia Gardens. Slowly she descends, meeting once again with her old friends—the servers and maître ’ds, the orchestra—from bygone days. It’s a triumphant moment, one that you can’t help but feel a bit emotional about if you apply it to today’s world.

We’re on the precipice of returning back to “normal.” According to the American Progress Organization, “As of May 5th, 2021, more than 107 million people in the United States of America are fully vaccinated, and about 45 percent of the population has received their first dose.” The CDC announced today (May 13th, 2021) that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks and social distance. Teens on TikTok are calling the upcoming season, “Hot Girl Summer”. We can cautiously look forward to Juneteenth and 4th of July parties, cookouts, BBQs, pool parties, and the like.

For me, Hello, Dolly! is not only a fantastic summer musical, but also a quintessential post-COVID musical. It’s busting at the seams with people gallantly living, not remaining meek and quiet. One could argue Cornelius standing up to Horace regarding a higher-up position with more pay is reminiscent to middle class U.S. citizens finally fighting against starvation wages and an infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, the romances of the film and their earnestness (which could absolutely come off as too saccharine for some but I’m a sucker for) is hopefully how people who’ve been quarantined for two years can feel about relationships again. It’s a showy film, perhaps some might find it gauche, but it’s a wildly fun musical with a fantastic soundtrack that if you watch it without pretension, you can find yourself tapping your feet along too and smiling.

There are a lot of fantastic scenes in the film, but one of my favorite lines comes at the beginning, before all the characters boldly voyage into New York City. Dolly is visiting with Horace’s niece, Ermengarde, and her boyfriend, Ambrose Kemper. Ermengarde is taken aback upon learning that the meddling Dolly Levi, Yonkers’ most industrious widow, was once the toast of New York and that she has connections to the most coveted restaurant in New York, Harmonia Gardens.

“Not acquaintances, Ermengarde, friends. Dear friends from days gone by. My late husband Ephraim Levi believed in life and anyplace you can find it… cafes, ballrooms, yes even theatres! Why, even when times were bad, every Saturday night like clockwork down those stars at the Harmonia Gardens we came, Ephraim and me…” It’s a moment that comes back even stronger during the eponymous musical number when Dolly wistfully sings: “I went away from the lights of 14th street/And into my personal haze/ But now that I’m back in the lights of 14th street/Tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days…”

Isn’t it pretty to think about that? That despite time away from life as we knew it, we have the opportunity to begin again and to not just go through the motions, but to actively live and pursue our lives with the same passion as Cornelius Hackl and Dolly Levi. If there’s one thing you take away from this musical, it should be that.

Abby Sheaffer is a columnist for Cinema in Paradise.

Hello, Dolly! is available to stream on Disney+ with a subscription; you can rent it for $3.99 on Google Play Movies, Vudu, YouTube, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.

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