Her speech in public, described as everything from a “raspy yawp” to a foghorn, was deceptive, friends said: When alone with them, she was perfectly capable of less stylized enunciation and enjoyed serious conversation.
The critic Walter Kerr called her “maybe the only creature extant who can live up to a Hirschfeld,” explaining that the theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld “always lives up to the people he draws, but the people he draws don’t always live up to him.” Mr. Kerr added, “Here’s the exception: mascara to swim in, nobly tragic mouth, the face of a great mystic about to make a terrible mistake.”
The tall, flamboyant Ms. Channing became a Broadway star at the Ziegfeld Theater on Dec. 8, 1949. That was the opening night of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” a musical based on Anita Loos’s best seller of the 1920s, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin and choreography by Agnes de Mille. Ms. Channing starred as the flapper Lorelei Lee, and her stardom was assured when she sang Lorelei’s anthem, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”:
Time rolls on
And youth is gone
And you can’t straighten up when
But stiff back or stiff knees,
You stand straight at Tiff‘ny’s,
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
Time magazine summed up her performance: “Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to reillumine the whole gaudy legend of show business.” Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of The New York Times, hailed her Lorelei Lee as “the most fabulous comic creation of this dreary period in history.”
The show ran almost two years on Broadway, and Ms. Channing played Lorelei on tour for another year.
In the next decade, she appeared on Broadway in “Wonderful Town,” “The Vamp” and “Show Girl.” She also created a nightclub act that toured the country.
The producer David Merrick, who had acquired the Broadway rights to Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker” and was in the process of turning it into the musical “Hello, Dolly!,” caught Ms. Channing’s act in Minneapolis and discussed the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi with her. She later met with Gower Champion, who had been enlisted as director and choreographer — and who, with his wife, Marge, had played an important role in Ms. Channing’s early career — and the role was hers.
“Hello, Dolly!,” with a score by Jerry Herman, opened at the St. James Theater on Jan. 16, 1964, and received ecstatic reviews. It went on to win 10 Tony Awards, including one for Ms. Channing as best actress in a musical. Among those she beat out was Barbra Streisand, who was nominated for “Funny Girl.”