Save Me a Seat…is a chronicle of Lewis J. Stadlen’s 2018 tour as Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! Having played the role opposite Randy Graff, Leslie Uggams, and Lee Roy Reams “in drag without the slightest camp affectation,” he’s on successive stages with Betty Buckley. The actor describes his interpretation of the character as “self assured – a petty tyrant and fanatic know-it-all, too dogmatic to realize he has a heart until the last of cupid’s arrows hits him right between the eyes.” Stadlen’s a romantic.
We hear about his initial qualms. “My worst fear is that Betty, a brilliant dramatic actress, would turn Dolly into Medea.” (He’s later quick to praise.) And about a wide range of opening night parties or their absence. An admission of once forgetting lines, replacing them with gibberish “at least they rhymed” rides tandem with pride in recognized skill. Audiences are (apparently commonly) rated by geographic location. Thus, in Washington, D.C., there’s “a politically correct audience eroding all desire to be funny.” (It was 2018.) Stadlen keeps hoping at the next stop he’ll meet “a sixty-five year-old knock-out, who is totally onto herself, exceptionally forgiving, and who for some reason finds me vulnerable and interesting.”
The book is part diary: “Life on the road has to do with scarcity of mundane responsibilities…” including the morning hunt for a New York Times, encounters with company members, old friends, and new fans, a year’s worth of backstage dresser portraits, and the search for “a meaningful kiss.” It’s part memoir: featuring recollections of family, liaisons and roles (often Fiddler on the Roof and The Producers). And it’s part travelogue: Every city, hotel, theater and restaurant is listed or described and compared to past tour experience; quirky sights like The Muhammed Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky are noted and explored.
When the author describes The Pecan Lounge where he and friends spent an hour on line in the broiling sun for ostensibly the best barbecue in Dallas only to be nonplussed into ordering by the pound or a sandwich from The Noshville Deli in Nashville “that tastes as much like pastrami as a cricket match resembles a baseball game,” adding, “There’s much to be said for a cricket match when it’s the only game in town…”
When he observes that a Florida hotel suite is a mixture of Dodge City and Donnie Brasco or that his pop-decorated residence in Denver boasts an elevator whose computerized voice asks a television trivia question at every floor…When he agrees with Mark Twain that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” not the least because the local review headline read This Dolly Has Little to Say Beyond “Hello!” (Lily Janiak – The San Francisco Chronicle) and has to walk back to his hotel through a sea of the dispossessed, or that he’s “never been able to find the soul of Boston,” Stadlen is unquestionably entertaining.
Lists of unknown (to us) people, some of whom he’s asked to write not very interesting self-descriptive pieces, mere naming of greasy spoons and watering holes, and an insert containing poor photos of strangers and locations meaningful only to the author, could successfully be edited out.
There’s a feel for the arc of the tour, instances then and prior to game-of-chicken negotiations, illumination of casting hierarchy, loneliness, and fraternity. Tangents like those centering on John Wayne and Hume Cronyn are welcome. When eight months is added to the itinerary, Stadlen must decide whether to stay. Ruminations will be familiar to every seasoned actor.
He ends the year, as does Buckley, in Boston. John Bolton and Carolee Carmello take over. “Everyone in life is replaceable – Albert Finney (a hero of Stadlen’s), Derek Jacobi, and Babe Ruth are replaceable. (I’ll make an exception for Maggie Smith)…Presently I’m feeling a combination of grief and nostalgia.”
Lewis Stadlin is candid, articulate, sensitive, low key, curmudgeonly, and wry in the manner of A.J. Liebling and Calvin Trillin. Except for my caveats, this is an enjoyable read. It won’t hurt if the reader is an actor or theater aficionado and conversant with the play. If you live in New York and fit the description of his Loreli, I suspect Stadlen’s still looking for that kiss.
Photos courtesy of the author
Save Me a Seat – On the Road with Hello, Dolly! By Lewis J. Stadlen
Published by BearManor Media