Some mornings fancies run down my forearm like ants, and other days I just copy down the status quo. Writing’s a damnable profession. But rain or shine, I write. —Thornton Wilder, on the writing of The Merchant of Yonkers
Although The Matchmaker is now regarded as a classic of its genre, its success came only after nearly two decades of frustration and disappointment on the part of its creator. By 1935 (three years before the success of Our Town), Wilder had begun work on an English-language adaptation of an 1842 farce entitled Einen Jux er sich Machen (roughly translated as “He Just Wants to Have Fun”) by Johann Nestroy, the great Austrian comic writer whose work had fascinated Wilder as a young student. Itself an adaptation of British playwright John Oxenford’s 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent, Nestroy’s play followed the misadventures of two young shop clerks who, unbeknownst to their miserly boss, go off to Vienna in search of adventure. (The play would also serve as the basis for Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle in 1981.) Wilder worked sporadically for several years on his first farce, secretly hoping that the adaptation might someday be staged by the great Max Reinhardt, the towering German director who had become something of an idol to the young writer. Calling his adaptation The Merchant of Yonkers, Wilder also borrowed elements from Molière’s The Miser as he crafted his comedy, switching the primary focus from the two clerks to the character of the shop owner himself. Wilder also created a new character for The Merchant of Yonkers: a wily widow-turned-matchmaker named Dolly Gallagher Levi, who would eventually become recognized as one of the author’s most vibrant creations.
Somewhat boldly, Wilder sent a copy of The Merchant of Yonkers to Reinhardt through a mutual friend. Reinhardt, who had moved to Hollywood during the Nazi takeover of Germany, was immediately taken with the script, and began plans to premiere the play at his “California Festival” in 1938. Although that production fell through, Reinhardt was determined to premiere the play in New York that December, and rehearsals began in the fall. Although initial preparations went well (Wilder enthusiastically wrote that Reinhardt’s comic sensibilities were “dazzling”), Wilder’s airy comedy became burdened by Reinhardt’s heavy, detail-laden set designs and by the histrionic performance of famed tragic actress Jane Cowl as Dolly. Reviews of the play’s December 28 premiere were largely negative, and the show closed after only 39 performances.
Among the actresses who had been initially considered for the role of Dolly was Ruth Gordon, who turned the offer down due to her distrust of Reinhardt’s comic abilities. Gordon’s fascination with the character of the meddling matchmaker endured, however, and in the fall of 1951 she contacted Wilder with an idea to revive the play for London audiences. Although Wilder feared that the play “bore the stigma of failure” (although it had lived on in a number of student and professional productions), Gordon and her husband Garson Kanin soon convinced him to revise and update the play, and to retitle it. Now called The Matchmaker, this new version premiered at the 1954 Edinburgh Festival, where its strong reception—and Gordon’s incandescent portrayal of Dolly—led to a premiere in London that November. From there the play moved to New York, under the auspices of the Theatre Guild and producer David Merrick. Opening on December 5, 1955, it played for 486 performances—the longest run enjoyed by any of Wilder’s plays. A film version followed in 1958, starring Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine.
But more spectacular success awaited Ms. Levi. A musicalized version of Wilder’s tale, under the direction of Gower Champion, began a pre-Broadway tour in 1963, bearing the somewhat daunting title Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman. Under a new name, Hello, Dolly!, the show opened in January 1964, and instantly became one of the all-time smashes of the American musical theater. Wilder had no official role in this incarnation, and in fact was in Europe when Dolly debuted. But when he finally did see it, in May of 1965, he was so delighted that, according to his sister Isabel, “One would have thought he wrote it all himself, not just the play on which the book, lyrics and music were based.” Hello, Dolly! eventually ran for over 2,800 performances on Broadway, and has since become a staple of the American musical theater repertoire. Its success finally brought Wilder the financial security that eluded him throughout his career—and firmly enshrined his Dolly as one of the great stage creations of the 20th century.