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Hello, Dolly! begins early one summer morning in New York City in the 1890s.
Dolly Levi, born Gallagher, the jack-of-all-trades widow of one Ephraim Levi, a dry-goods merchant, is on her way to Yonkers, New York, to arrange the second marriage of Mr. Horace Vandergelder, the well-known half-a-millionaire. In truth she intends to marry him herself. She reveals what sort of woman she is ("I Put My Hand In").
Moving to Yonkers, we meet Horace Vandergelder; his long-suffering clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker; and his weeping niece Ermengarde. Vandergelder, who believes that everyone in the world, except himself, is a fool, explains why he has decided to do that most foolish thing, marry again ("It Takes A Woman").
Dolly arrives and proceeds to clear the field of all rivals, including Mrs. Irene Molloy, a young widow she herself presented to Vandergelder, by telling Vandergelder about a great catch – an heiress – one Ernestina Money, whom she will introduce to him that very afternoon when he marches in the 14th Street Association Parade. Vandergelder agrees and goes off to New York on business as his two clerks decide they have had enough of Yonkers and are going to New York themselves to get some living into them before it is too late. Cornelius sings to Barnaby about the wonders of the big city and is joined by Dolly as she tries to persuade Vandergelder’s niece Ermengarde that it is time for her to rebel too ("Put On Your Sunday Clothes").
In New York City again, we meet Mrs. Molloy, the young widow whom Vandergelder has been considering as a possible second wife. We find that Mrs. Molloy, too, is tired of her dull existence as a milliner and longs for some adventure herself, hoping to find romance in the New York summer ("Ribbons Down My Back"). By chance, Cornelius and Barnaby take refuge in her shop to avoid meeting Vandergelder. While they are hidden in cupboards and under tables, Dolly, Mrs. Molloy and Minnie Fay – Mrs. Molloy’s assistant – distract the suspicious Vandergelder by praising motherhood and other good American values and institutions ("Motherhood").
Despite the women's best efforts, Vandergelder discovers there are men in the shop, and though he does not know who the men are, he is angry enough to break off relations with Mrs. Molloy and inform Mrs. Levi that he will meet her “heiress” that evening at the end of the parade. Mrs. Molloy is furious (or at least pretends that she is furious), and Dolly, seeing that Cornelius is much taken with the young widow, patches things up and arranges for Cornelius and Barnaby to take Mrs. Molloy and Minnie Fay to dinner at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. Cornelius, mindful of the fact that he has somewhat less than three dollars in his pocket, suggests that he couldn’t go to a fashionable place like the Harmonia Gardens because they have dancing there and he doesn’t know how to dance. And so Dolly teaches Cornelius, Barnaby and finally, everyone on the block how to dance ("Dancing").
An exuberant Cornelius takes Mrs. Molloy off to see the 14th Street Parade, and Dolly, having brought them together, is once more alone. She speaks to her late husband, Ephraim Levi, and explains why she wants to marry Horace Vandergelder. She is tired of leading a safe, solitary existence and longs to “rejoin the human race.” The set changes to 14th Street at night as Dolly, joined by all the marchers, restates her determination ("Before The Parade Passes By") and the curtain falls on Act I.
Act II begins with Cornelius and Barnaby convincing Mrs. Molloy and Minnie Fay that the really “elegant” way for them to go down to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant is to walk ("Elegance"). Meanwhile, at the Harmonia Gardens, the entire staff is buzzing with the news that Dolly is coming back for the first time since Ephraim Levi’s death. By eight o’clock the excitement has reached fever pitch as the curtains of the main entrance part and Mrs. Levi, resplendent in a glittering red dress, starts down the stairs ("Hello, Dolly!").
Dolly pulls out all the stops as she sets about hooking Vandergelder. First she pretends to assume that he wants to marry her and firmly turns him down; then she paints a dreary picture of what life in Yonkers will be without her; and finally she proves to him that his well-ordered existence is somewhat less than that during the confusion engendered by his discovering not only Cornelius and Barnaby, but also his niece Ermengarde, in the Harmonia Gardens show. He discharges Cornelius on the spot and is amazed to hear his once-humble clerk take this blow with equanimity and declare his love for Mrs. Molloy in front of one and all ("It Only Takes A Moment"). In the prisoner’s docket to which he has been taken for creating a disturbance at the Harmonia Gardens, Vandergelder – obdurate as ever – hears Dolly bid him a biting farewell ("So Long Dearie").
It is early next morning and we are back in Yonkers. Vandergelder, now without clerks, without niece and without Dolly, realizes that he’s been as big a fool as everyone else – and he’d be an even greater fool if he let this wonderful woman out of his life. And so he asks Dolly, who conveniently returns, having expected just such a turn of events, to forgive him and marry him ("Hello, Dolly" reprise), and the curtain falls.
(Adapted from the synopsis printed on the jacket of the original Broadway cast recording.)
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