Interview: Toni Tennille of the Captain and Tennille Talks About Her Upcoming Turn as Dolly Levi
Newsflash: Patti LuPone isn't the only star to have recently given up her Equity card. Singer and actor Toni Tennille has resigned from the union to do a new production of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center in Prescott, Arizona, November 3-20.
The Grammy Award-winning singer is no stranger to musical theater, having starred in the national tour of Victor/Victoria. But she's extremely excited about this super-sized college production, located near where Tennille currently lives, in which she will be sharing the stage with over 50 performers, including professional actors, high school and college students, and even three therapy-trained dogs.
TheaterMania recently spoke with Tennille about what playing Dolly Levi means to her, what it's like working with college students, and whether she plans to ever return to the theater in any capacity.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You haven't done a show or recorded an album in many years? What is it about ''Hello, Dolly'!' that made you want to come out of retirement?
I've been living in Prescott since 2008, and I quickly became familiar with the college and its insanely fabulous theater program. In fact, I've not only been singing with their choral groups for a few years, but I've been studying classical singing there. Anyway, right before Covid started, the director of theater arts and humanities, Craig Rolston. called me with a proposition. He said, "Do you want to do Hello, Dolly! in 2021?" I said, Really?" And then he promised me a fabulous production.
And I guess you believed him?
Yes, since I had seen them do a wonderful production of Phantom of the Opera, I believed him. They have their own costume department who design and build costumes, and I get four gowns that are made just for me. They are the most exquisite designs. Of course, I don't think I'll have anywhere else to wear them in Prescott.
How will your Dolly be different than others we've seen?
I've seen Carol Channing, Bette Midler, and Bernadette Peters do the show online – not in person — and they were all so wonderful. So, my big question for Craig was how I could make Dolly my own? When I go into a role, I go into it deeply, So I re-read [Thornton Wilder's] The Matchmaker (which is the play the show is based on), then I re-read the script for Dolly, and then I created my own background for her. She's going to be a real person; she's not going to be a cartoon or caricature. I am not looking for an easy way to get laughs.
Tell me a little bit more about this background story you created?
She was married to Ephraim when she was very young, and after he died young, she had to support herself. I think she loved the idea of being a matchmaker, because it reminded her of her life with Ephraim. She loves putting people together. The truth is she's also a lonely woman who locks the door and puts out the cat, so when she decides to get back into life, it's very moving. She knows what it likes to run out of time, just as I do.
What has it been like working with the younger actors? Did they know who you are?
They didn't know who I was, but they quickly got on the Internet and instantly they learned. I have so much respect for these kids, all of whom had to audition and many of whom are doing this show while studying or holding down real jobs. Anyone who comes is going to be knocked flat on their face. There will be people who will have tears just watching them.
Do you give them advice?
I talk to them about anything, and I make sure to give them lots of hugs. But yes, I am making sure they learn ethics, professionalism, and respect. And I tell the kids that their body is an instrument, and even it's hard for them to take care of themselves, they must. If any of them make it on Broadway, and some might, they will be prepared!
So, you told me you're basically retiring from performing in theater. But I know you wrote theater music very early in your career. Is that part of your post-retirement plans?
The interesting thing is I was most creative when I was at South Coast Rep back in the 1960s. One of the directors asked me to write music for his lyrics, and we had a great time doing this musical called Mother Earth (which had a brief run on Broadway in 1972). But when I met my husband Daryl (who became known as the Captain), I wrote my own things and of course we concentrated on making records. That was great fun! Anyway, if someone asked me today if I could write a jingle, I think I could. But right now, I mostly want to explore the classical repertoire. It's more fun to me to sing in French than anything else.