Valley of the Divas!

My partner and I just viewed our new 30th anniversary edition of Valley of the Dolls, the 1967 film based on Jacqueline Susann's best-seller. The notes on the video box read: "Lured by their dreams of fame and fortune, three ambitious young women enter the world of show business and discover how easy it is to sink into a celebrity nightmare of ego, alcohol and 'pills'--the beloved 'dolls.' A prim New Englander (Barbara Parkins) unexpectedly skyrockets from her job as secretary in a talent agency to a glamorous TV model. A determined singer (Patty Duke) finds that Hollywood success can also spell self-destruction. And a beautiful sex symbol (Sharon Tate) is torn between the money commands and the shame of feeling exploited."

What tour de force roles for three sexy, exciting divas! And the part of Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), a hard-hearted survivor in the fickle world of the theatre, could provide some veteran prima donna with the opportunity to go on cheating time. And how about those supporting characters? Tony Polar, the rakish lounge singer; his sister Miriam (Lee Grant), guarding a devastating family secret; Lyon Burke, the world-weary roue seeking true fulfillment; Ted Casablanca, the sexually ambiguous fashion designer. What a vast array of musical and dramatic riches this work presents, just begging to be mined!

Alas, it was not to be. Somebody really missed the boat back in the 1960's. Antony and Cleopatra? Mourning Becomes Electra? Come on! Here was an opera with the potential to pack houses for decades to come. Ah, what might have been! I can see it now…


An Opera in Two Acts
World Premiere: Metropolitan Opera, 1968

Music and Libretto: Ned Rorem
Stage Direction: Nathaniel Merrill
Sets and Costumes: Robert O'Hearn
Conductor: Thomas Schippers

Anne Wells
Anna Moffo
Jennifer North
Mary Costa
Neely O'Hara
Teresa Stratas
Lyon Burke
Sherrill Milnes
Tony Polar
Jess Thomas
Miriam Polar
Evelyn Lear
Ted Casablanca
Luigi Alva
Eileen Farrell as Helen Lawson

After a triumphant opening night, the opera went on to conquer the operatic capitals of the world. In 1970, the Vienna State Opera mounted Das Tal der Puppen with Gundula Janowitz (Anne Wells), Lucia Popp (Jennifer North), Anja Silja (Neely O'Hara), Eberhard Waechter (Lyon Burke), Rene Kollo (Tony Polar), Hildegard Pilarczyk (Miriam Polar), Adolf Dallapozza (Ted Casablanca) and Sena Jurinac as Helen Lawson.

"Out of my way, I got a man waiting for me!" snarls Joan Sutherland (right) to Gail Robinson. The two coloratura divas (best of friends in real life) performed the witchy "Ladies Room Duet" for the 1972 "Fol-de-rol" at San Francisco Opera

Not to be outdone, La Scala assembled a star-studded cast for its 1973 production of La valle delle bambole: Raina Kabaivanska (Anne Wells), Katia Ricciarelli (Jennifer North), Elena Suliotis (Neely O'Hara), Renato Bruson (Lyon Burke), Jose Carreras (Tony Polar), Fiorenza Cossotto (Miriam Polar), Franco Bonisolli (Ted Casablanca) and Antonietta Stella as Helen Lawson.

Determined to showcase the impressive ranks of its soprano roster, New York City Opera produced the work in 1976: with Diana Soviero (Anne Wells), Carol Neblett (Jennifer North), Catherine Malfitano (Neely O'Hara), Richard Fredericks (Lyon Burke), Henry Price (Tony Polar), Maralin Niska (Miriam Polar), Enrico di Giuseppe (Ted Casablanca) and Phyllis Curtin as Helen Lawson.

Going out the way she came in: Grace Bumbry as Helen Lawson

The Metropolitan Opera revived the opera for its 1986-87 season with Carol Vaness (Anne Wells), Barbara Daniels (Jennifer North), Maria Ewing (Neely O'Hara), Thomas Hampson (Lyon Burke), Jerry Hadley (Tony Polar), Elisabeth Connell (Miriam Polar), David Rendall (Ted Casablanca) and Grace Bumbry as Helen Lawson. La Bumbry won a lengthy ovation for her ringing pair of high B-naturals in Helen's climactic phrase "Broadway don't go for BOOZE and DOPE," but, critics complained, the remainder of the cast lacked the musical and dramatic abilities of their original counterparts .

New York next saw the opera when the touring Kirov company offered a single performance of Dolina kukol in the spring of 1993. Vladimir Gergiev conducted powerfully if a tad sloppily, and a rather moth-eaten collection of flats and drops amusingly featured the Statue of Liberty visible through the window of Neely's Broadway dressing room! The cast featured Galina Gorchakova (Anne Welles), Anna Netrebko (Jennifer North), Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (Neely O'Hara), Sergei Leiferkus (Lyon Burke), Vladimir Galouzine (Tony Polar), Ludmilla Diadkova (Miriam Polar), Sergei Larin ("uncannily convincing" as Ted Casablanca) and Elena Obraztsova making a guest appearance as Yelena Lawson.

Valley of the Dolls returns to the Met in the 2001-2002 season. The new production will be conducted by James Levine and staged by Mark Lamos in sets by John Conklin. Issac Mizrahi will make his Met debut designing the costumes. The "updated" libretto by Charles Busch will include a prologue featuring Aprile Millo as Jacqueline Susann. Casting is as follows: Renee Fleming/Patricia Racette (Anne Wells), Ruth Ann Swenson/Elizabeth Futral (Jennifer North), Cecilia Bartoli/Ana Maria Martinez (Neely O'Hara), Dwayne Croft/Nathan Gunn (Lyon Burke), Marcello Giordani/Juan Diego Flores (Tony Polar), Paul Groves/Gregory Turay (Ted Casablanca) Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Brian Asawa (Miriam Polar), and Eva Marton/Wendy White as Helen Lawson.

Enzo Bordello