It's been a long time since a new Jerry Herman show opened on Broadway (La Cage aux Folles in 1983) and even longer since the glory days when his long-running hits, Hello, Dolly! and Mame, welcomed a third concurrent Herman musical, Dear World, to the Great White Way in 1969.
Nevertheless, Herman's tremendous impact is felt to this day. La Cage aux Folles has been revived on Broadway twice in the last 10 years and talk of who to cast as Dolly and Mame can still excite (and incite) the most jaded of theatre queens. Manhattan nightclub 54 Below premieres "It's Today… 54 Sings Mame" Dec. 8 and even the 2008 animated blockbuster "WALL-E" centrally featured two songs from Hello, Dolly!. Herman has long been lauded for writing classic showtunes with hummable melodies, catchy lyrics and simple ideas that connect deeply with real feeling. This list can only skim some highlights.
Click through to read my choices for the top 10 songs by Jerry Herman.
10. "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly!
Speaking of "WALL-E," it's not hard to understand why writer-director Andrew Stanton was so inspired by "Put On Your Sunday Clothes." It's a joyful, bouncy cakewalk, but what gives it the edge to stay compelling (besides an infectious tune) is that it's framed in a classic "I want" song. The stirring opening verse immediately invests us in Cornelius and Barnaby's situation before we take the gleeful promenade.
9. "Song on the Sand" from La Cage aux Folles
It's hard to think of a love song more beautiful than "Song On The Sand." Thirty years ago, when La Cage aux Folles opened, the story of two men in love, a middle-aged gay couple, was extremely controversial. It's as if Herman set out to create a ballad so evocative and rapturous that it would melt away people's prejudices. Few composers could pull off the device of a character singing "La, da da da, da da da," (to describe lyrics he can't remember) without giving the impression that the song is being short-changed lyrics of its own. Herman knows how to do it right.
8. "I Don't Want To Know" from Dear World
It's been said that Angela Lansbury's thrilling delivery of "I Don't Want To Know" in the original Broadway production of Dear World is what won her the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. In fairness, Lansbury sang the daylights out of several stunning Jerry Herman songs in Dear World, including my personal favorites, "Each Tomorrow Morning" and "Kiss Her Now," but the power of "I Don't Want To Know" is inarguable. The dark self-awareness and willful denial make for dynamic drama, and Herman musically hit it out of the park.
7. "Bosom Buddies" from Mame
"Bosom Buddies" is the ultimate friendship duet. Cole Porter's "Friendship" (from Anything Goes) is up there too, but that song needed Lucy and Ethel one-upping each other on "I Love Lucy" to add a layer of comedy that was built right into "Bosom Buddies." It's the perfect musical realization of the frenemy-ship between Mame and Vera, and it works just as well to sum up innumerable other relationships we all have and witness. What makes it so appealing is that beneath the b*tchiness is a jaunty music-hall foxtrot evincing warmth and camaraderie as the two performers work together to stop the show.
6. "Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel
"Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel holds a special place in my heart. I'm pretty sure it holds a special place in Jerry Herman's heart as well; he has often said that Mack & Mabel is his favorite of his scores. I think part of what makes it so great is that it's the quintessential torch song (expressing a broken heart in the style of the 1920s, with brass blaring in counterpoint to the legato line of lyrics extolling their pathos in lists), and yet it isn’t from the 1920s. Jerry Herman wrote it in 1974, and there's an emotional sensitivity informed by modern life. You would be hard pressed to find a musical theatre fan who doesn't just love "Time Heals Everything."
5. "Two-A-Day" from Parade (Off-Broadway revue)
One of Herman's lesser-known songs, "Two-A-Day" is a wistful valentine to vaudeville from Parade, Herman's 1960 Off-Broadway revue. I fell in love with this song via Andrea McArdle's passionate, full-throated delivery on the cast album of the revue Jerry's Girls, in which she co-starred with Carol Channing and Leslie Uggams on tour. The sadly unrecorded Broadway production starred Uggams alongside Chita Rivera and Dorothy Loudon. The inimitable Loudon offers a little taste of a show business magic gone with the wind in a YouTube clip of "Two-A-Day," which I watch twice a day.
4. "I Won't Send Roses" from Mack & Mabel
If Jerry Herman's songs are often uncomplicated — unsophisticated, even — what takes them over the line into being powerful and gripping is how moving basic human emotions can be when expressed in such a straightforward manner. There's barely even a metaphor here. Mack is literally telling Mabel he won't send roses. But therein lies Herman's genius. We feel Mabel's ache. And like so many great Jerry Herman songs, you can stick in this song on your album, in your cabaret act or sing it to your lover — these feelings are universal. Of course, it would be better if you did send roses…
3. "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame
Another Jerry Herman song that works well out of context is "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame. In addition to the title number from Hello, Dolly!! (which knocked The Beatles from #1), it is one of the few showtunes of the last 50 years to make it onto the pop charts. The hit single of "If He Walked Into My Life" was recorded by the great Eydie Gormé, but probably no one will ever equal Angela Lansbury's authoritative original recording — at least not since Judy Garland (Herman's muse) never got to do it.
2. "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles
Musicals, especially big, successful musicals often have big anthemy-type songs to offer the audience an exciting climax or catharsis or an emblazoned statement of theme. This is especially true of Jerry Herman shows, which do not shy away from big feelings. Even in this concentrated pool, there can be no bigger anthem than "I Am What I Am." The song is so big, even Shirley Bassey sang it straight. Gloria Gaynor recorded a disco version, but you don't need to pump it up. It's the Herman credo: Keep it simple. There is no more basic truth than "I am what I am." Gold.
1. "It's Today" from Mame
I love "It's Today" so much. Lucky for me, there are three different Jerry Herman songs, all with the same melody. Besides "It's Today" from Mame, there's "Showtune" from Parade and the title song from Jerry's Girls. Of course, the wonderful message of "It's Today," that every day is a day to celebrate, is an inspiration for much of Herman's work, but I think his lyrics for "Showtune" really sum up what makes his songs such a treasure:
There's just no tune, as exciting
As a showtune, in two four
When it's played, you can just tell
There's footlights everywhere
When it's played, you can just smell
The greasepaint in the air
It's a smart beat,
It's the heart beat, of the score
There's just no tune, as exciting
As a showtune in two four
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)