Unless you're especially invested in musical theater, you've probably only heard of "Hello, Dolly!" in passing, perhaps unknowingly through the scenes included in "WALL-E." Two months ago, I didn't know anything about it. I listened to the soundtrack twice and got through three rehearsals before I could make out any semblance of plot. (It didn't help that I was stuck in the pit, playing the songs completely blind to their accompanying stage action. After 13 performances, I still can't say what the musical looks like.)
As I eventually learned, the story of "Hello, Dolly!" centers on — big surprise — a woman named Dolly. Dolly is the widow of the late Ephraim Levi and must, therefore, scrap together a number of odd jobs to keep herself afloat in the world. Despite extreme resourcefulness and entrepreneurship (offering "instruction in the guitar and mandolin," "surgical corsets re-boned," "ears pierced," and "pierced ears re-plugged," among other services), she complains of living hand-to-mouth, just barely getting by while her older, more prosperous days remain impressed on her mind. Even so, hard times cannot discourage her incessantly chin-up personality and go-getting spirit. She promises marriage for Ambrose and Ermengarde, adventure for Cornelius and Barnaby, and a wife for Horace Vandergelder — all of which she delivers on by the end of the musical.
Dolly has several attributes of a strong protagonist, especially in the amount of agency she wields over the plot. The miserly half-millionaire Vandergelder is the closest thing the story has to an antagonist — he stands in the way of his niece's wedding, of his employees' long-awaited vacation time, and of Dolly's desire to send his money "out circulating among the people like rainwater." He seems to have all the power in terms of worldly goods. Dolly, however, never lets his prestige intimidate her. She remains relentlessly cheerful and patient until he caves, proposes, and surrenders his power to her — power that was perhaps hers in the first place.
This is the brighter side of Dolly's character. Her means of persuasion, while often amusing, are not always savory. She expresses a fondness for meddling that values lives the same way it does "furniture and daffodils" — all are things for her to arrange in a way that pleases her. As such, she has no moral qualms about implying to Mr. Vandergelder that his first romantic interest — a perfectly upstanding woman named Irene Malloy — murdered her late husband. Neither does she think twice about accusing Barnaby and Cornelius of deserving "two writs, a non compos mentis, and a garnishing" in order to force them out to dinner with Malloy and Minnie (supposedly so they can "settle it amicably").
It is the nature and purpose of comedies to make light of such actions. Here the ends justify the means; all the meddling and false accusations were done without malicious intent, and thankfully ended as well as they possibly could. They are not criminal, but silly. Dolly is perhaps a better heroine to watch than to imitate — even so, she stands as a remarkable example of gumption and New Yorkish charm, refusing to mope or groan or resign to the lot of a helpless widow. "We are all fools," she tells the audience, naming herself among the foolish ranks even after she has met every goal she sought to achieve. She is neither afraid to be laughed with nor laughed at, and thus lives with a freedom as unknown as it is alluring to those around her.