From Sister Act to The Addams Family, Carolee Carmello knows her way around a stunning Broadway musical, but she is taking on her biggest one yet in the marquee title role in Hello Dolly! This upstate New York turned Broadway actress is diving into the gorgeous costumes and beloved book headfirst and is taking on the role in her own fearless way. I sat down to talk with this award winning actress to talk to me about the road to Dolly, what her own individual path to the New York City stages was like, and what big named (and big voiced) roles she has yet to tackle.
Michael Cook: What is it like stepping into the role of Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!? It truly is one of the biggest roles in musical theatre and truly “a” role!
Carolee Carmello: You know, I don’t think I realized how much of “a” role it was when I took the role (laughs)! I had not seen the New York revival with Bette Midler, but I had seen some touring productions and seen the movie. When they asked me to take over the production for Betty Buckley, I said “sure”! When I started diving in and learning it all, it was like “ok!” (laughs)! It’s been so much fun though, now that I am ensconced in it and playing with John Bolton every night and wearing those gorgeous costumes, it has just been a dream. I have been having a great time.
MC: Was performing something you always thought you may end up doing?
CC: No, not at all. I was kind of a jock in high school and went to college for business administration. I finished my business degree and was trying to figure out my next move; I didn’t know if wanted to go to law school, get an MBA or dive into the corporate world. I had done some little community theater stuff during college as a hobby, and then I got an offer to do a summer stock show up in the Adirondacks out of the blue. I never thought of it as a career. I was asked to join a production up in Lake George NY. I thought it would be fun to just clear my head and spend a few months in the resort town and I did. I got exposed to all of these New York actors who said “hey you’re good, you should come to New York”! I was surprised by it and intrigued, so I made a decision. I would move to New York and try it for a year, and try to get it out of my system. I was hoping I wouldn’t have regrets when I was in my fifties, which I am now and look back and say “I wonder what would have happened”…
I moved to New York with very low expectations assuming that I would fall on my face. I started auditioning and getting little jobs here and there and slowly got sucked into the fun and the competition of it, and here I am thirty seven years later. Still sort of trying to figure out what my plan is for the future (laughs).
MC: You have been in shows that are true theatre “events”. From The Addams Family to Mamma Mia you have the keen ability to be part of shows that end up having so many eyes on them. Is it ever a lot to live up to when there seem be a high degree of scrutiny on the material?
CC: Yeah, there is a certain amount of pressure. I think you get into the world of the show when you are in rehearsals and you sort of forget what the expectation is of the audience and you just sort of try to do your job. Certainly, taking on a role like Dolly when there have been so many iconic and amazing women that have played this part, there is definitely a lot of expectation and pressure that has been put on you. I have to try and just do my own version of things and not let them eat away at me, otherwise I don’t think I’ll do a good performance. I try not to think about it too much, but thanks for reminding me (laughs)!
MC: Dolly Levi is a role that everyone puts their own distinct take on thought, with everyone from Bette Midler to Pearl Bailey to Carol Channing playing the role.
CC: You know, one thing about this role that I don’t think that I realized is that the writing is so great. All those Thornton Wilder speeches and the book scenes are so good. You don’t expect, in a golden age musical, that the book scenes are going to be so funny! The fact that it is so well written has made it accessible to so many different kinds of women. it is amazing to be that people as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Pearl Bailey, Carol Channing, Madeline Khan, all of these different kinds of women have played the role and it works. Whatever take that they have on it; it’s still audience pleasing and it’s just kind of fantastic.
MC: Is there a role out that that has eluded you that you would love to dive into?
CC: Well, I had a little quick production last summer of Gypsy. I got to finally play Mama Rose. It was only for one week though, out in Sacramento. It was so much fun, I would love to have a chance to do it again and for a bit longer next time. It was a lot to learn, just for eight performances. I have never played Mame, I don’t think there has been a big productions of it. It is a tough show, it is a little harder to remount I think. I have never done something original, I mean there are so many great roles out there like Sunset Boulevard and those kinds of parts, but it is hard to find new roles for women of a certain age. I think back in the day they wrote more parts for the middle aged gals and they don’t do it as much any more. I am hoping in the back of my mind that there will be some new project that comes up in the next few years before I am ready to hang up my tap shoes.
MC: If you could tell the Carolee that took that trip to New York City and walked into her first audition; what would you tell her?
CC: Be true to yourself. I think it is kind of corny, but it’s important for young performers not to be anyone else and to understand that what they bring is very unique. If they sort of rely on their own authenticity, that will be the best path. What they offer is special and they should not try to squelch that. They should dive deep, deep into that.
Hello Dolly! Stops In Philadelphia From February 19th through March 1st. Tickets Available Here