Jerry Herman, Composer of Tuneful Broadway Hits, Dies at 88

Obituaries   Jerry Herman, Composer of Tuneful Broadway Hits, Dies at 88
 
Mr. Herman was responsible for such hummable scores as Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles.
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Jerry Herman, the composer-lyricist who, with Hello, Dolly! and Mame, wrote two of the most popular and tuneful Broadway musicals of the 1960s—to say nothing of La Cage aux Folles in the 1980s and a handful of musicals and rousing show tunes in between—died December 26 in Miami at the age of 88. The cause was pulmonary complications, as confirmed by his goddaughter Jane Dorian.

Mr. Herman specialized in anthems to joie de vivre (“Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly!, “It’s Today” and “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame, “Tap Your Troubles Away” from Mack and Mabel), straightforward tributes of vibrant personalities (“Hello, Dolly,” “Mame,” and Mack and Mabel''s “When Mabel Comes In the Room”) and positive declarations of individuality (“I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles).

Angela Lansbury, Jerry Herman and Carol Channing, from "Words and Music."
Angela Lansbury, Jerry Herman and Carol Channing, from "Words and Music."

“All these years that I’ve been writing Broadway musicals,” he once revealed. “Whenever I’ve had to write a real hit-’em-in-the-gut show tune, I always pictured it in the voice of Judy Garland. Invariably, my work came out more theatrical and exciting because of that little trick.”

By the 1980s, Mr. Herman’s brand of buoyant, brightly hued musical was out of step with the times. In a famous incident in 1984, La Cage aux Folles, his valedictory hit, won the Tony Award for Best Musical over Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, which many observers considered the greater achievement. Mr. Herman took the podium and thanked the Tony voters for their appreciation of “simple, hummable show tune” melodies. He would never write another show.

Jerry Herman was born July 10, 1931, in New York City. He was raised in Jersey City, where his parents, who worked summers as musicians in hotels and camps in the Catskills, encouraged him to pursue music. He learned to play piano at an early age. Young Jerry spent all his young summers at Stissing Lake Camp in the Berkshires, where he eventually directed the camp’s theatrical productions and began writing music. His musical hero was another straight-shooting crowd-pleaser, Irving Berlin, whose Annie Get Your Gun he had seen when he was 11.

When he was 17, he met Frank Loesser, who encouraged the young man to keep writing. Mr. Herman transferred from the Parsons School of Design to the University of Miami, which had a strong theatre company.

Moving to New York after graduating, he hit the ground running, producing the Off-Broadway revue I Feel Wonderful, which was made of songs he had written in college. He also played in the orchestra. It ran for 48 performances at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village. His next attempt fared better. Nightcap, another revue, ran for two years at a jazz club called Showplace beginning in 1958. It starred Charles Nelson Reilly, who would appear in several Mr. Herman shows. The Showplace hosted his next revue as well. Called, with Herman-esque brightness, Parade, it opened in 1960 and soon transferred to the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village, establishing Mr. Herman as a rising talent.

Mr. Herman’s first Broadway show was Milk and Honey, an unlikely musical about a May-December romance set during Israel’s first years as a young country. Producer Gerald Oestreicher tapped the composer to write the show after seeing Parade. “I said, ‘I can absolutely do it. I know all about Israel,’“ recalled the composer much later. “And I knew nothing about Israel.” To remedy that, Herman journeyed to the country to soak up the culture. Among the show’s best-known songs was effortlessly infectious “Shalom,” an ode to the Hebrew word for hello, goodbye and peace. The show starred opera singers Robert Weed and Mimi Benzell, as well as Yiddish theatre great Molly Picon. It ran for 541 performances after critics praised it, and the writer received his first of many Tony nominations.

It would be three years before Herman returned to Broadway, but the show he came back with—a musical take of Thornton Wilder’s tale of a wily matchmaker named Dolly Levi—was the opposite of a sophomore slump. Producer David Merrick, who had presented The Matchmaker, wanted to hire Herman to musicalize the piece, but didn’t think the composer possessed a sufficiently American outlook. In response, he wrote four songs over the course of a week, including “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “I Put My Hand In,” and “Dancing.” He got the job.

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Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! Joan Marcus

The late Carol Channing was given the lead role after Ethel Merman turned Merrick down, and her outsized, saucer-eyed, childlike performance, as well as Gower Champion’s splashy staging, proved a major asset in turning the musical into a sensation, winning a then-record 10 Tony Awards. When Channing left, the show proved durable, finding worthy interpreters in Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Martha Raye and, finally, Merman herself. Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway headed an African-American cast for a time. Barbra Streisand starred in the 1969 screen version of the musical, and Bette Midler made the role her own for a whole new generation of theatregoers with the 2017 smash-hit revival.

Also crossing the passerelle in the recent production were Donna Murphy and Bernadette Peters, who originated the role of Mabel in Mr. Herman's Mack and Mabel. A national tour of the revival currently travels the country with Carolee Carmello in the title role following Betty Buckley.

Mame, like Dolly!, told the story of a indomitable woman who beats the odds and manages to grab life by the throat on her own terms. It was based of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Auntie Mame, which in turn drew from Patrick Dennis’ book. As had been the case with Dolly!, star Angela Lansbury made the role her own, beginning a career as one of Broadway’s leading musical actresses. Mr. Herman won another Tony nomination and another hit.

Dear World (1969), based on Jean Giraudoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot, and starring a Tony-winning Lansbury, ran for four months. Mack and Mabel, a dark-hued piece about the rollercoaster relationship between silent screen director Mack Sennett and his star Mabel Normand—and Mr. Herman’s personal favorite among his scores—played a mere two months. The Grand Tour, in 1979, based on S.N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel, did no better. Though he contributed a few songs to the 1980 hit A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Mr. Herman’s day seemed to have passed. A 1980s revival of Mame starring Lansbury failed to catch fire, though several tours of Dolly! with Channing were popular.

But Herman found a final hit in 1983's La Cage aux Folles, which turned out to be his last full score. Its plot—daring at the time and based on a French play that had spawned a hit film—told of the unconventional relationship between a middle-aged flamboyant performer, Albin, and George, his male lover, who run a nightclub in St. Tropez. When George’s son falls in love with the daughter of conservative parents, their union is tested. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, who had just earned two Tonys for his Torch Song Trilogy earlier that year.

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Jerry Herman and cast of the revival of La Cage aux Folles Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In many ways, the show was classic Jerry Herman, extolling life and love taken to their fullest expression, and featuring splashy production numbers. But the story was in service of a culturally progressive vision, and one closer to the Mr. Herman’s actual life experience as a gay man. The show ran for more than four years.

Mr. Herman decided to exit the business on that high note. He said he “had nothing else to prove” to his critics and vowed never to write another show for Broadway. A revue called Jerry’s Girls toured the U.S. in the ‘80s. He appeared personally on Broadway in 2004 in An Evening With Jerry Herman. And he wrote a few new songs for the 1996 television movie Mrs. Santa Claus,” which starred Lansbury, and Miss Spectacular, a proposed Las Vegas show that yielded only a star-studded studio recording.

Otherwise, the composer was content to rest on his laurels, and oversee his existing musicals’ various returns to the Broadway and West End stages. In late interviews, he always maintained his bouncy, optimistic worldview, one much in keeping with the characters that peopled his musicals.

“It really disturbs me when I hear people knock these contemporaries of mine because they’re melodic,” he said. “Thank God they’re melodic! That’s what we’re missing.”

He is survived by Terry Marler, his partner of many years.

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