A host of Broadway's finest took to the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre February 3 to celebrate the life of Tony winner Jerry Herman, the late composer whose melodies (and lyrics), imbued with the joys and hardships of life, linger long after the curtain comes down.
The afternoon began, fittingly, with the music: Conductor Larry Blank led the 29-piece orchestra, all seated on stage, in the rousing overture from the 1966 hit Mame. As the orchestra played portions of “Open a New Window,” “If He Walked Into My Life,” and more, photos and posters from such Herman productions as Parade, Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack & Mabel, The Grand Tour, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Jerry's Girls, and La Cage aux Folles were projected behind the orchestra, each visual drawing applause from the enthusiastic crowd.
Marilyn Maye, the cabaret veteran who appeared in several productions of Hello, Dolly! and Mame, sang a tune from the latter, the toe-tapping “It's Today.” The 91-year-old dynamo was in terrific voice, offering a joyful rendition of the Herman classic.
Herman's goddaughter, Jane Dorian, one of three speakers for the afternoon, followed, explaining that her mother, Carol Dorian, was lifelong friends with Herman. Carol was actually the muse of the late Kennedy Center Honoree and sang on most of his backers audition tapes. Dorian told the story of a three-year-old Herman, who, upon hearing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” went to the piano and played the tune with both hands. His mother, who was upstairs, yelled down, “Jerry, who is downstairs with you?” “It's just me, mom,” Herman replied to his shocked mother, who then realized she had a musical genius for a son. Dorian spoke about Herman's love for her own daughter, Sara, who was also his goddaughter, and his bravery in letting the world know he was HIV-positive by appearing on the cover of POZ magazine in 1997. Dorian also recognized Herman's partner, Terry Marler, who sustained the composer during his final years.
The music continued with Jeremy Jordan’s beautifully sung “It Only Takes a Moment” from Hello, Dolly! and Tony winner Debbie Gravitte's spirited “Wherever He Ain't” from Mack & Mabel. Tony winner Sutton Foster, soon to return to Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman in the revival of The Music Man, captivated with the Dear World ballad ”I Don't Want to Know.”
Angela Lansbury, who became a bona fide musical theatre star when she created the title role in Mame, appeared on video to speak about her late friend. Lansbury recalled meeting Herman in his New York apartment and explained that their friendship continued for decades. ”I will miss him for the rest of my days,” the six-time Tony winner confessed.
Lorna Luft, dressed as a very pregnant Agnes Gooch, had great fun with “Gooch’s Song” from Mame, and then the original conductor of that Tony-nominated musical, Tony winner Don Pippin, took to the stage to conduct the orchestra for the musical's title tune. As Follies Tony nominee Ron Raines lent his rich, powerful baritone to such lyrics as “You coax the blues right out of the horn, Mame. You charm the husk right off of the corn, Mame,” one couldn't help but revel in the genius of Herman, who builds the song so masterfully that the audience has no choice but to spontaneously applaud as the orchestra swells to a thrilling climax. Raines, the chorus, and the terrific orchestra all dazzled.
Tony winner Tyne Daly, who was joined by cabaret favorite Klea Blackhurst, delivered numerous laughs in the Mame duet “Bosom Buddies,” and Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth, recently on Broadway in her own concert, built the Mame showstopper “If He Walked Into My Life” to a gripping finale.
Paul McCartney also offered a heartfelt video tribute, expressing his love for Herman and thanking him for being a part of his life. Jason Graae followed, dancing, joking, and playing the oboe, as he performed one of the lesser-known Herman gems, “You I Like,” from the 1979 musical The Grand Tour.
Michael Feinstein, who organized the concert with Jane Dorian, delivered a beautiful, soaring “I Won't Send Roses” from Mack & Mabel. The multiple Grammy nominee was followed by Tony winner Leslie Uggams, who remains an exceptional singer and interpreter, and stunned with her breathtaking rendition of the La Cage aux Follies anthem “I Am What I Am.” Her roof-raising performance of the song of self-acceptance was greeted with a standing ovation.
Alice Borden, who described herself as “Jerry's oldest friend”—the two enjoyed a 70-year friendship—spoke about their time together at summer camp, when she was eight and Herman was 19. Herman would put together a show each summer, and Borden would watch in awe as the “one-man dynamo” was involved in every aspect of the production. Borden would later join Herman when he was invited to David Merrick's office to audition to be the composer of a new musical based on Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. Borden, in fact, delivered four songs from what would become Hello, Dolly!; famed producer Merrick responded to that audition by saying, “Kid, the show is yours!” Borden said she and Herman managed to control their emotions on the elevator ride down to the street, but once they were outside they could not contain their excitement, screaming and dancing and reveling in the life-changing moment.
Three songs from that international hit maker followed: John Bolton, who currently stars as Horace in the national tour of Dolly!, performed “It Takes a Woman”; Tony winner Betty Buckley, who opened the tour of the Tony-winning revival, offered a glimpse of her multifaceted Dolly Gallagher Levi, joining the chorus for the musical’s spirit-raising title tune; and Tony winner Kelli O'Hara wrapped her rich soprano around “Before the Parade Passes By” as photos of some of the numerous women who played Dolly—Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Martha Raye, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bette Midler, and more—were pictured behind her.
A video of Herman singing “I'll Be Here Tomorrow,” which can be viewed below, followed, with Herman explaining, “I wrote this song in 1979 for Joel Grey to sing in a show of mine called The Grand Tour, but I think you'll understand why it has so much deeper meaning for me in 2003.”
Another recent Dolly, Tony winner Bernadette Peters, followed, delivering a haunting version of one of her signature tunes, Mack & Mabel’s “Time Heals Everything,” which she built to a riveting, full-voiced finale.
Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the Tony-winning book for La Cage aux Folles, then recalled his first meeting with the composer in Herman's New York apartment. In “this world of beige,” down the stairs “came my own Auntie Mame,” Fierstein said, explaining that Herman was inspired by the first act of Torch Song Trilogy to write La Cage’s “A Little More Mascara.” An emotional Fierstein’s voice cracked as he spoke of his 40-year close friendship with Herman: “I will forever be grateful to that man.”
Veteran performer Lee Roy Reams, who appeared in numerous Herman musicals, was joined by the chorus—and eventually all of the performers—in La Cage’s “The Best of Times,” a fitting finale for a composer who always gave audiences just that, the best of times.
In the program notes for the memorial, Feinstein and Dorian wrote, “Unbeknownst to us, before his passing, Jerry requested that the two of us produce his memorial. We were honored to be entrusted with this momentous task. As we started sketching the program, it became clear that we were one heartbeat and instinctually knew what Jerry wanted… The greatest honor we can give Jerry, is to keep his songs on our lips and in our hearts. Through Jerry's music we are all connected. His music makes us all extended family. ’Look over there’… Jerry cared that much.”
Jerry Herman died December 26 at the age of 88. Read the full Playbill obituary here.