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The play has a long and colorful history. John Oxenford's 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent had been extended into a full-length play entitled Einen Jux will er sich machen by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy in 1842. In 1938, Wilder adapted Nestroy's version into an Americanized comedy entitled The Merchant of Yonkers, which attracted the attention of German director Max Reinhardt, who mounted a Broadway production, which ran for 39 performances.
Fifteen years later, director Tyrone Guthrie expressed interest in a new production of the play, which Wilder extensively rewrote and rechristened The Matchmaker. The most significant change was the expansion of a previously minor character named Dolly Gallagher Levi, who became the play's centerpiece. A widow who brokers marriages and other transactions in Yonkers, New York at the turn of the 20th century, she sets her sights on local merchant Horace Vandergelder, who has hired her to find him a wife. After a series of slapstick situations involving mistaken identities, secret rendezvous behind carefully placed screens, separated lovers, and a trip to night court, everyone finds themselves paired with a perfect match.
The play was a success at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End before finally opening on Broadway on December 5, 1955, at the Royale Theatre, later transferring to the Booth to complete its run of 486 performances. Ruth Gordon's performance in the title role earned her a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress; Guthrie won as Best Director.
Characters and original Broadway cast
- Horace Vandergelder, a Merchant of Yonkers – Loring Smith
- Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, a Friend of Vandergelder's Late Wife – Ruth Gordon
- Irene Molloy, a Milliner – Eileen Herlie
- Minnie Fay, Mrs. Molloy's Assistant – Rosamund Greenwood
- Cornelius Hackl, a Clerk in Vandergelder's Store – Arthur Hill
- Barnaby Tucker, an Apprentice in Vandergelder's Store – Robert Morse
- Ermengarde, Mr. Vandergelder's niece, whom Ambrose wants to marry — Prunella Scales
- Miss Flora Van Husen, a Friend of Vandergelder's Late Wife – Esme Church
- Malachi Stack – Patrick McAlinney
- Ambrose Kemper, an Artist – Alexander Davion
- Gertrude, Vandergelder's Housekeeper – Charity Grace
- Miss Van Husen's Cook – Christine Thomas
- Rudolf, a Waiter – William Lanteau
- Joe Scanlon, a Barber – Philip Leeds
- August, a Waiter – John Mulligan
The 1958 film version, adapted by John Michael Hayes and directed by Joseph Anthony, starred Shirley Booth as Dolly, Anthony Perkins as Cornelius, Shirley MacLaine as Irene, Paul Ford as Vandergelder, and Robert Morse reprising his Broadway role as Barnaby.
In 1964, the play enjoyed yet another incarnation when David Merrick, who had produced the 1955 Broadway production, mounted a hugely successful, Tony Award-winning musical version entitled Hello, Dolly!, with a score by Jerry Herman and starring Carol Channing.
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