WoW Report writer, Trey Speegle, reported that Tony Award-winning composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics for such iconic shows as Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles died yesterday.
Jerry Herman had a big influence on my life. As a little 10-year-old musical theatre fanatic, I would practice kick stepping my way down a staircase at our house, as my imaginary chorus sang my character’s name (I think sometimes they were actually just singing Steve!). My parental units had just presented me with the Original Broadway Cast album of Hello, Dolly! and I was having a difficult time recovering from the excitement of those infectious tunes.
Herman’s hummable songs personify the term “show tune”. They are tuneful, optimistic, and deceptively simple. I didn’t know it in 1964, but Herman would be providing me with a musical number for descending a staircase for the next six decades.
Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics, conjured up super successful and contagious tunes for Broadway musicals: Milk And Honey (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1964), Mame (1966), Dear World (1969), Mack & Mable (1974) and La Cage Aux Folles (1983).
There is a bit of a formula to a Herman show: In all these musicals a misunderstood leading lady introduces a song early in the first act that states her life philosophy: I Put My Hand In There, It’s Today, Each Tomorrow Morning, Look What Happened To Mabel, and A Little More Mascara.
Act One ends in her big soliloquy, where our heroine lifts her own spirits by singing: Before The Parade Passes By, If He Walked Into My Life Today, I Don’t Want To Know, or I Am What I Am.
Then, there comes that big “staircase” number, when the chorus celebrates how all our lives have been changed by the mere presence of this amazing woman with the title songs from Hello, Dolly! and Mame, plus When Mabel Comes In The Room, One Person, and The Best Of Times. The song One from A Chorus Line (1975) is both a parody and homage to these songs.
Despite the easy recipe, these musicals with their wonderful and skillful songs make for superior theatrical experiences. Some were super hits and others became cult favorites. Herman is the only composer-lyricist to have three musicals on Broadway at the same time.
Many of his compositions have become pop standards. Louis Armstrong‘s version of Hello, Dolly! sold more records than any Beatles songs in 1964. The film versions of Hello, Dolly! and Mame are considered by most fervent fans of musical theatre to be duds, but as a very young man I was thrilled by the movie version of Hello, Dolly! I must have seen it 20 times. I still enjoy Barbra Streisand as Mae West doing Dolly Levi. She is funny and fresh, if decades too young in the role. I was really very touched that the title character in Wall-E discovered emotions from a dilapidated 20th century tape containing a loop of Put On Your Sunday Clothes.
Herman was openly gay for decades, but he once avoided the talk-shows because he wanted to keep his gayness a secret, even if he did write what might be the ultimate Gay Anthem with I Am What I Am.
“In the 1960s, I wasn’t openly gay because I wondered what people would think of me. I was in a business surrounded by gay people, and I was totally comfortable and accepted as an individual. It became very easy and natural for me to be in the closet. But now I think that time and age and good sense have made me more public. I think it is good sense.”
Herman was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. The news was devastating. The news was delivered during an era when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. He nearly gave up on his theatre career and stopped writing after his diagnosis was unceremoniously made public by New York Post columnist Cindy Adams in 1992. His fear of becoming seriously ill during a new production, along with the death of his longtime partner took him into seclusion. But, Herman is one of the fortunate ones who survived to see the experimental drug therapies take hold and as one of his lyrics proclaimed: “I’m alive and well and thriving”.
La Cage Aux Folles was huge, a critical and commercial smash, and also a political and social turning point. It was 1983 and Broadway audiences had never seen a pair of men holding hands, much less singing a love ballad to one another.
George Hearn‘s star turn as Za Za, belting out what is probably the most dramatic Act One finale of all time, I Am What I Am, a plea for dignity and acceptance, was a surprisingly stalwart statement in those early days of HIV/AIDS. It is a powerful message from a songwriter who claims that all he ever wanted to do was entertain people.
“In the beginning, people were shocked when they heard about the gay romance and the homosexual themes. But once they became involved in these people’s lives, they realized that the human issues applied to everybody, not just homosexuals. We were not gung-ho about delivering a political message. We were not out to change the world and wipe out bigotry overnight. We were just doing a musical.”
I had the happy good fortunate to play Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! at Seattle Civic Light Opera in the late 1980s. During performances, I would close my eyes as the male chorus sang the title number. What I was hearing was “Hello, Horace!” or better yet “Hello, Stephen!”. I pictured myself kick-stepping down that large staircase.
Although facing stiff competition from Funny Girl, the original production of Hello, Dolly! swept the Tony Awards in 1964, winning 10, a record that remained unbroken for 37 years, until The Producers won 12 Tonys in 2001. The Original Broadway Cast album for Hello, Dolly! was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2002. The album reached number one on the Billboard Album Chart the first week of June 1964 only to be knocked off the spot the next week by Armstrong’s album Hello, Dolly!
Hello, Dolly! has never been more relevant or exciting to musical theatre fans. The 2017 Broadway revival starred ultimate Gay Icon Bette Midler. Total sales on the first day the box-office opened were $9,082,497, a first-day record for Broadway. This Hello, Dolly! was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning four, including for Midler and Santo Loquasto‘s scrumptious costumes, plus Best Revival Of A Musical.
Herman has been nominated for the Tony Award five times, and won twice, for Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles. In 2009, Herman received a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is a recipient of the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors. He published a candid, well-written book, Showtune: A Jerry Herman Memoir (1996).
Even though he was reticent to keep working, I had hoped he had another musical in the wings for us.