With five gold records, fourteen Billboard hits and over a million albums sold worldwide, singer-songwriter Toni Tennille is one of the most beloved and important recording artists in the history of pop music. As one half of duo The Captain and Tennille, Toni and her then-husband Darryl Dragon flew to the top of the charts in 1975 with their monster hit “Love Will Keep Us Together.” They dominated the musical landscape with follow-up hits “Muskrat Love” and “Do That to Me One More Time,” and became one of the defining musical acts of the era. With their upbeat sound and likeable public personas, Toni and the Captain became fan favorites, not only as musicians but as the hosts of their own TV variety show in 1976. Since then, their music has remained at the forefront of popular culture, proving that a good pop song can live forever.
On her own, Toni has added new accolades to her long career, including the release of her autobiography Toni Tennille: A Memoir (Lyons Press, with Caroline Tennille St. Clair) in 2016. Now Toni will bring the coveted role of Dolly Levi to life in a brand-new production of “Hello, Dolly!” at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center in Prescott, Arizona. Toni leads a bright and talented cast in one of the most beloved musicals of all time. It’s an opportunity for the performers, many who are training in theatre at Yavapai College, to learn from one of the best, and for audiences to see a legendary musical icon in a role of a lifetime.
“Hello, Dolly!” is a stage musical very dear to me personally as it is not only one of my all-time favorite musicals, but as someone who researches and writes about popular culture, it was an important piece of entertainment that ushered me into a lifetime obsession with theatre and music. Toni and the Captain were at the number one position on the Billboard charts the day I was born, making Toni Tennille an important part of the soundtrack of my life. So, this was an irresistible opportunity for me to geek out on my love for “Hello, Dolly!” with Toni despite being unable to experience the show myself. My location far away in Canada did not stop Toni and I from bonding over our love for Dolly Levi, and everything “Hello, Dolly!”
Sam Tweedle: I am so excited to be able to talk to you about “Hello, Dolly!” This show was a gateway to bringing me deeper into the world of pop culture when I saw it at age 11. “Hello, Dolly!” is a big deal to me. I even have a replica of a Broadway poster featuring Carol Channing hanging in my kitchen.
Toni Tennille: Yes, bless her heart. I think she opened the show on Broadway in 1964. I met her a few times over my career. She was a lovely woman, and I think she played her last Dolly at age 77. Carol Channing was one of the classic Broadway stars.
Sam: I read that the role of Dolly Levi is a part that you’ve thought about playing before. Why is Dolly a role you wanted to play?
Toni: I always knew I would love to, but it never came up until I retired to Prescott, Arizona in 2008. I’ve been very involved in the music and the art scene here, and about three years ago, the director of the Theater Arts and Humanities Department at Yavapai College, which is a fabulous college we have here in town, called me and said, “I’ve got a proposition. You, in “Hello, Dolly!” in 2021, opening the season.” After thinking about it for awhile, I called him up and said, “I’m your Dolly.” But then COVID happened, and the performing arts were shut down everywhere and nothing happened. I thought this show was not going to happen either, but it’s happening. It’s going to be amazing, and I’m so thrilled about it.
Sam: What is it about the role that appeals to you personally?
Toni: Well, when Barbara Streisand did it, she was 28, but Dolly must be a middle-aged woman.
Sam: What you’d call “a woman of a certain age.”
Toni: I’m “a woman of a certain age,” but I still play a woman younger than myself, and my Horace can play a little bit older than he is, so it works out just fine. I never saw Dolly as a caricature. She has been played like that, with the “wink wink, nod nod” at the audience and she’s all jokes and slapstick. Instead of that, I’m playing her like a real person. Dolly married the love of her life when she was young. His name was Ephram Levi and he died young. They hadn’t had kids yet, and she was left alone. There wasn’t much money, and she had to do something to make a living, so she got into matchmaking and by using all her wiles, she ended up doing all sorts of things for people. I call it “Dollying.” So, although she’s funny and lively, she’s also very lonely. Most people don’t understand how lonely she is until she does that wonderful monologue.
Sam: Right before she sings “Before the Parade Passes By.”
Toni: That’s right. You really do know this show.
Sam: I told you, I’m a complete nerd for it.
Toni: You are. The moment she speaks to Ephram you can see what she’s been through. When she asks for him to send her a sign, the oak leaf falls out of the Bible. A perfectly good oak leaf, but without color, and without life. Suddenly Dolly realizes that she is like that leaf. When I was reading it, that got me. Then she says, “I want you to give me away” and she’s going to get back into life. That’s a very touching moment where you realize that Dolly is a real person. She has real feelings. I think one of the reasons why she loves doing matchmaking is because it makes her think of her and Ephram when they were young, and when they went to the Harmonia Gardens and danced. She loves putting all these young people together. Then, of course, there’s Horace, and my Dolly has a great Horace. Just when she finally decides that she needs to have enough money where she can do some good and live without going hand to mouth all the time, she thinks of Horace, who is a half a millionaire. She decides that she’s going to marry him, and she’s going to use that money to circulate it among the people like rainwater the way that Ephram taught her. She’s not just going to marry Horace for her. It’s for that money that he keeps in his safe. He never pays his clerk anything, and he keeps the money. Horace is just a cranky old guy, but he has a soft spot for sure. I love the banter that goes on between Horace and Dolly.
Sam: The banter between Dolly and Horace makes up most of the comedy.
Toni: Right. She’s trying to get him all rattled, which she does all the time. Every time she sees him, she rattles him and it’s wonderful to watch her slowly get Horace to realize that he wants her to be his wife. There’s a very touching way we’ve staged the closing scene with Horace. Dolly says “well, Horace, I finally found you the ideal wife,” and he said, “I don’t want an ideal wife. If I wanted an ideal wife, I’d find her myself and I found her and it’s you.” What she wanted to happen is happening, and she really likes him, and maybe even loves him a little bit.
Sam: Do you think Horus and Dolly are in love, or do you think they just have a deep affection?
Toni: You know, that’s an interesting question. She would never love him like she loved Ephram. They were young and that was passionate and exciting. But now she’s older. They love each other in a certain way. It’s a much more mature love. It’s older. It’s not on fire, but it’s still on when he tells her he loves her. And when she goes up to him and says “oh, but Horace, your wife would have to be ‘somebody,’” and then she says, “I am a somebody,” that’s the first time she shows her vulnerability to him.
Sam: What I think makes Dolly and Horace so interesting as a couple is that Horace is so used to being unflappable and the big man in town. He storms around and shouts and bullies everyone. But in Dolly he’s met his match. He’s not used to that, and especially coming from a woman. It makes a delightful dynamic.
Toni: Yes. There is so much more depth to this musical.
Sam: A lot of shows become hits on Broadway, but eventually disappear and are no longer relevant years later. “Hello, Dolly!” enamoured me at 11 years old, when I saw it over twenty years after it premiered. It’s a perpetual favorite still. Why do you think that?
Toni: I can answer that. It’s timeless, especially for women. There’s one moment when I’m sure that we’re going to get a huge amount of applause from the women in the audience. It’s when Dolly turns after she shoos Horace out of Mrs. Malloy’s hat shop, just after he sings “It Takes a Woman.” She turns to the audience, and she says, “Yes, it takes a woman.” Women are having their moment now. A lot of women have been in marriages or relationships that go on for too long. They think “Oh, I’m not happy, I’m not happy, I’m not happy,” and then when Dolly sings “When the Parade Passes By,” they hear her say, “I gotta get in step while there’s still time left.” A lot of women will stay with a man that maybe they shouldn’t have. That’s not just now. That’s been forever. It happened to me. I stayed with Darryl too long, but I felt like he needed me. I was there for him before he passed. But Dolly makes women in the audience think that they’ve got to get out of that place and live their life.
Sam: Okay. I just want to build on this idea for a second. It sounds to me that you really are harnessing your own life experience to make Dolly come alive, which, I mean, all good actors should do.
Toni: Oh, absolutely. Every actor does that. There is a lot of me in Dolly. I don’t go “Dollying” as much as she does, but I understand her, and women that are like her. When I wrote my memoir I got a lot of messages from not just women, but guys who said the same thing – that you’ve got to make time because it’s going to go away.
Sam: I bought your book when it came out a few years ago. I found your narrative about your life with Darryl Dragon to be very revealing and not what I was expecting. I assume that a lot of fans and readers felt the same way I did.
Toni: It’s a universal experience, no matter who you are or what you do for a living. Darryl and I were perfectly matched for pop music. I was a great singer, and I wrote some good songs. He was an excellent producer, and he knew how to produce a hit record. I enjoyed writing songs, but I wouldn’t let him listen to me while I was writing them. If he heard it, he’d ask me “why did you put that chord progression in there,” and I’d say, “well, that’s what I want.” Or he’d come in and say, “you can’t do that. That’s a parallel fifth,” and I’d say, “well, I want it to sound like this. I’m using the parallel fifth.” You know that kind of stuff. But then once I played it for him, then he’d go “oh, yeah,” and then he would go in and make a hit record out of it.
Sam: I hope you’ll indulge me. I want to ask you something about the past, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about this. On YouTube there is a video featuring you that absolutely fascinates me. It’s from the “ABC Silver Anniversary Special” broadcast from 1978, and you are singing a remake of “Gotta Fly Now” from “Rocky,” with a bunch of my favorite stars like Annette Funicello, Barbara Eden, Charro and The King Cousins. You basically invite the audience to get onstage to sing, and it becomes a virtual who’s who of 1970s pop culture. Everybody from Abe Vigoda to Tom Bosley to John Wayne and Dick Clark and dozens more; too numerous to name. You’re basically in the middle of it, holding court and keeping the whole thing from breaking down into chaos. It’s a brilliant clip, not only as a time capsule, but how you are completely in control of what could have been a disastrous situation. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about that moment, and if there was any planning or rehearsal or if it just looked as spontaneous as it seemed.
Toni: To be honest with you, I don’t really remember doing it. What I remember was that there were all these famous people that I hadn’t met yet. I do recall leading the thing. I’m pretty sure they gave us some basic instructions, like “here’s what to do. Here’s where you come in.” But we just did it, and it was fun. We pulled it off. When you watch it, you could see everybody on the stage, but I only could see a few at a time because I was in the middle of it, and I could just see them when they walked towards me on stage.
Sam: Something that makes your music so special to me personally is that “Love Will Keep Us Together” was the song that was at the number one spot on the Billboard Top 100 the day I was born. Billboard charts play a big part in the writing and research I do, so that is a song I hold close to me.
Toni: Oh, honey, that’s lovely. Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, who wrote that piece, were terrific.
Sam: Are you surprised how that song has managed to stay so eternal and relevant in culture, constantly resurfacing through pop culture?
Toni: I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I’m happy. It always makes me happy. It’s kind of timeless. It feels like a very long time ago, but the song continues. Neil Sedaka was in England at the time he wrote it, trying to get his career started again, and “Love Will Keep Us Together” was from an album he recorded there called “Sedaka is Back.” Darryl and I were looking for an up-tempo song to finish our first album, and we hadn’t really found anything that we liked. I hadn’t written anything I thought was appropriate. Our A&R guy called us and said, “listen, there’s this album Neil Sedaka wrote, and I think it’s something that you might be able to use.” Well, we listened to it, and there were some nice songs on it. But when we heard “Love Will Keep Us Together,” we said, “okay, that’s it. Stop there. That’s what we’re looking for.” We went in the studio the next day, and a few days later, we had it done, and it became a big hit for us. I became very close friends with Howie Greenfield who wrote the lyrics, and we met Neil through him. They were great guys. We loved it, and Neil was very proud of us having the hit with it.
Sam: It’s not only one of the most important pop songs of the 1970s, but one of the greatest love songs in pop music history. It’s a song that transcends generations. Obviously, the production of “Hello, Dolly!” is made up of a primarily younger generation that must be excited to be working with you, someone who has had such a huge career. It must be a great learning experience for them. How do they react to you?
Toni: I think they’ve seen me around campus because I’ve kept singing. I’ve been singing classical music with Master Chorale and so forth. So, they knew who I was, maybe because of their parents. Of course, they can always go online and look me up. Some of them might have been a little nervous, but most were eager to learn the things I talked to them about when we first got started. We were doing all sorts of table reads, and I was saying, “you know, I’m a professional, and I expect professional ethics in this show. That means you come on time, you know your lines, you rehearse your part, and if you’re going to miss rehearsal, you’ve got to let the stage manager know and have a good excuse. That’s just how we behave professionally in theatre.” They jumped on that, and I just love it.
Sam: I wish I weren’t all the way up in Canada, because it would be so amazing to see you on the stage playing Dolly. One of my favorite pop singers in my favorite stage musical is a dream come true.
Toni: I’m sure you would enjoy it. You really would. It’s going to be quite amazing.
If you live in the Prescott area, don’t miss your chance to see Toni Tennille, from November 3rd to the 20th in “Hello, Dolly!” It’s an exciting once in a lifetime opportunity, and a chance to support a wonderful theatre program. Tickets are on sale at Yavapai College Performing Arts Center.