Call on Carol: The Broadway Musicals of Carol Channing
One of Broadway’s most distinct and original talents is Carol Channing. From her wide-eyed stare to her raspy voice, there has never quite been another performer like Ms. Channing. An expert at playing over-the-top comedy and delivering it with her own special brand of chutzpah, Channing left her indelible imprint two iconic characters of the Broadway musical theatre. Channing was born in 1921 and she is currently 97 years old, but her unforgettable persona continues to be one of the most impersonated and emulated on the Broadway musical divas. Today, we look back on the career of Carol Channing and celebrate her longevity and her talent.
Let’s Face It! (1941)
Carol Channing made her Broadway debut in the musical Let’s Face It!, understudying the show’s lead Eve Arden. The musical, with a score by Cole Porter and a book by Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields, was a comedy romp, typical of the time period. The musical told the story of three housewives who decide to get back at their philandering husbands who invite three young Army inductees to a summer house in the hopes they will make their spouses jealous. Channing, who was unknown at the time, occasionally spelled Arden and revealed the talent and timing that would eventually make her a star.
Lend an Ear (1948)
Lend an Ear was a popular musical revue of 1940s written by Charles Gaynor. The show was a series of sketches, comedic in nature, that explores topics that ranged from psychoanalysis to silent film stars, from an impoverished opera company to a lost touring troupe of performers. Carol Channing became a star overnight, critics heralding her looney takes on such numbers as “The Gladiola Girl'” and “Opera Without Music.” Gower Champion won a Tony Award for his choreography of the piece, which also starred Gene Nelson and Yvonne Adair.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949)
Channing created her first iconic role of Lorelei Lee in the 1949 musical adaptation of the Anita Loos novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Playing a scheming gold digger who must be chaperoned on an overseas voyage aboard a luxury liner, Channing commanded the stage with her dippy, doe-eyed characterization. The musical featured a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, and Channing introduced two of her signature numbers, “I’m Just a Little Girl From Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Channing’s co-star would be Yvonne Adair, with whom she had shared the stage inLend an Ear.
Wonderful Town (1953)
When it came time for Rosalind Russell to depart the Broadway production of Wonderful Town, Carol Channing stepped in to play Ruth Sherwood. Channing proved an apt replacement, mining all of the humor and heart to be found in the character, an Ohio woman who is seeking adventure and employment in New York City as a journalist. Singing such terrific Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green numbers as “Ohio,” “One Hundred Easy Ways,” and “Conga,” Channing demonstrated a wide-range of abilities.
The Vamp (1955)
Though it would only run 60 performances, The Vamp would be Carol Channing’s next starring vehicle, landing herself a Tony nomination. The musical featured music by James Mundy; lyrics by John La Touche; and a musical book by La Touche and Sam Locke. Decked out in some of the most ridiculous costumes ever created for a Broadway, in a show that Channing herself deemed “a mess,” the actress soldiered though playing the character of Flora Weems, a vamp of the silent film era who was, as one advertisement explained, “ born to distract, disturb, and destroy.” The musical was choreographed by Robert Alton and his work was also honored with a Tony nomination as well.
Show Girl (1961)
Show Girl was a musical revue with songs and sketches by Charles Gaynor, opened on Broadway January 12, 1961. Gaynor had also written the revue Lend an Earwhich had escalated Carol Channing to stardom, so the hope would be that their collaboration would catch fire with Show Girl. HIt didn’t, even though the revue had many funny sketches and catchy songs, the show held-on for 100 performances, thanks particularly to Channing’s name recognition and ability to make mediocre material shine.
Hello, Dolly! (1964)
It is, of course, for playing the character of Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!that Carol Channing would become most closely associated. It’s not hard to understand why. She reprised the role on Broadway in 1978 and in 1995, and toured extensively in the show. Of all of Channing’s roles. Dolly would prove to be her most heartfelt and grounded, even while it still employed her natural zaniness and cartoonish talents. Playing a busybody matchmaker who is trying to arrange a match for herself, Channing simply captivated. The Jerry Herman score was tailored to her unconventional voice, and she charmed the pants off of audiences with songs such as “Before the Parade Passes By”, “So Long, Dearie” and the infectious title song. Channing won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1974, Channing returned to Broadway in the musical Lorelei, which was essentially a reworking of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes told in flashback. Channing, once again, played Lorelei Lee, a wealthy woman covered in diamonds who flashes back to the overseas voyage that made her a millionaire. Channing then played the young Lorelei, just as she had in the original, even though it had been 25-years since her first time playing the young, enterprising woman set on marrying for money. Channing was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance.
Channing would also win a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 1995, an honor that celebrated a long and auspicious career as a creature of the stage and one of our most-energetic and enthusiastic talents.