There are roles in the Broadway canon that will always be associated with the actors who originated them. Think Ethel Merman in “Gypsy,” Rosalind Russell in “Auntie Mame” or Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!”
It can seem daunting stepping into these iconic roles. But for Emmy-winning actress Sally Struthers, playing a role like Dolly Levi is a dream.
“If you can act, if you can sing a little bit, if you have some comedic timing, it’s pretty actress-proof,” Struthers said by phone from a tour stop in Ohio. “You just have to be the right age.”
Which is not, as she notes, age 24, which is how old Barbra Streisand was when she was cast in the movie version. “Boy, was that miscasting,” she said.
“I’m thrilled that I’m 66 years old and I’m playing a leading woman in a brilliant musical,” she said.
Struthers is bringing her version of Dolly Levi to Spokane next week for a four-day run at the INB Performing Arts Center as part of the Best of Broadway series. She’s been on the road since October, and the tour wraps up in April. In the meantime, Struthers is having a great time.
“We’re in a classic piece of American theater. The play is 50 years old and it’s every bit as crowd-pleasing as it was when it opened,” Struthers said. “It’s a perfect piece. We all get to wear all these gorgeous costumes, and sing these magical Jerry Herman pieces. I’m happy.”
For those unfamiliar with “Hello, Dolly!,” the story is set at the turn of the 20th century and centers on Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widow seeking to make a match with Horace Vandergelder, a “half-a-millionaire.” Herman adapted the musical from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which Wilder in 1955 revamped as “The Matchmaker.
Struthers is, and probably always will be, most closely associated with the role that made her a star: Gloria Stivic, the bubbly blond daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker on Norman Lear’s landmark television sitcom “All in the Family.” The show ran from 1971 to 1978, and Struthers won two Emmy Awards – in 1972 and 1979 – for her work portraying the left-leaning Gloria, who with her husband, Mike (Rob Reiner), often clashed with her conservative father (Carroll O’Connor).
Her other credits include memorable turns in the film “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) and “The Getaway” (1972), and recurring roles in the television series “Still Standing” and “Gilmore Girls.” She’s also had extensive theater experience, with roles in the female version of “The Odd Couple,” “Grease” and “Annie,” all on Broadway.
And she’s played Dolly before, first in Minneapolis several years ago. The producer, a friend, lured her, telling her it’s a small role, just a couple of songs and a couple of monologues.
“Liar,” Struthers said with a laugh. “It’s seven songs, 15 monologues. It was so difficult to learn.”
It’s been nearly 15 years since Struthers was through Spokane. That was when she was playing the devilish Miss Hanigan in a touring production of “Annie.”
Once again, the tour stop will be a bit of a homecoming. She lived in Spokane for a couple years as a toddler – her dad was an Army doctor, she said, and was stationed here before the family moved to Portland, where she was raised.
“I’m thrilled. I love Spokane,” she said, adding she is looking forward to visiting with family and friends.