Theatre yesterday and today



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"Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out

Strut down the street and have your picture took.

Dressed like a dream your spirits seem to turn about.

That Sunday shine

Is a certain sign

That you feel as fine as you look!"

Simple, yet elegant. Two words which pretty much sum up the breadth of the work of Jerry Herman, who celebrates his eighty-sixth birthday today. Broadway first heard from him before he had turned twenty-nine, and his rise as a composer of both words and music, was meteoric, and his rise as a composer of both words and music, was meteoric, even if that first show, From A to Z, was a short-lived revue for which he wrote a few songs (other contributors included newcomers Woody Allen and Fred Ebb). Next came Milk and Honey, which ran for fifteen months, then Hello, Dolly!, which would go on to become the longest running musical of its day. His luck continued with another smash hit, Mame (which made a musical star now and forever out of Angela Lansbury), and though there were some rough times and disappointments with the three musicals that came after— Dear World, Mack and Mabel and The Grand Tour— each have original cast albums that are treasured by theatre fans of taste and distinction.

Pearl Bailey and ensemble in their Sunday clothes in the Broadway company of Hello, Dolly! (1968).

But Herman rebounded with a person triumph when La Cage Aux Folles, his final show to date, opened at the Palace Theatre to rave reviews and a four-year run in 1983. Winning the Tony for Best Musical it has proven enormously popular over the years with its two subsequent Broadway productions each winning Tonys for Best Revival (in 2004 and 2010). That said, neither of his big lady shows, Dolly and Mame, are as easily revivable. Totally star-powered vehicles, each rely upon musical actresses of hefty chops and eccentricity, so much so, that Mame hasn't returned to Broadway since it opened in 1966 with anyone other than Lansbury (briefly in 1983). And until Bette Midler this year, Dolly had never been back where she belongs without either Carol Channing (who created the role) or Pearl Bailey (one of the many who succeeded her in the original production). That the new production at the Shubert is currently breaking box office records is due to audiences hungry to see Midler in a role that fits her perfectly, but also speaks to the quality of the work itself. The book by Michael Stewart, based on Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, is a solid piece of old-time construction that in Jerry Zak's "if it ain't broke don't fix it" staging, plays as fresh as it did when I first saw it around the time of my twelfth birthday in 1969.

Gerald Herman was the only child of Harry and Ruth Herman, raised in Jersey City, New Jersey in the 1930s. A child prodigy, he was playing the piano at a young age and was lucky enough to be introduced to the great composer Frank Loesser at nineteen, who encouraged Herman in his fledgling career. Immediately after graduating the University of Miami, he moved to New York City and produced his own Off-Broadway revue titled I Feel Wonderful, starring Phyllis Newman. He was twenty-three. As someone who writes both words and music, the person to whom he has most been compared is Irving Berlin. Although not quite possessing Berlin's verbal dexterity (and wit), had he been born twenty years earlier, Herman would undoubtedly have been pounding out songs at a rapid rate of the Tin Pan Alley variety, just like Berlin did. As a product of the 1950s, he easily fits in as part of the esteemed group who all came up in New York at the same time: Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick and John Kander & Fred Ebb.

Jerry Herman's I Feel Wonderful (1954).

Herman is a craftsman, and nothing he writes feels first-drafty to my ears. He is capable of beautiful ballads like "It Only Takes a Moment," "If He Walked Into My Life" and "I Won't Send Roses," in addition to rousers like "I Am What I Am," It's Today" and "Tap Your Troubles Away." Not to mention toe-tapping tunes, two of which, "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame," were huge hit recordings in the '60s for everybody from Robert Goulet to Eydie Gormé to Louis Armstrong. If you would like to hear beautifully orchestrated renditions of many of Herman's best songs, his longtime musical director and arranger, Donald Pippin, produced an album that is simply wonderful. It's called Jerry Herman's Broadway and is readily available on Amazon and iTunes. Check it out.

Of all the near-misses, fans of Herman hold out eternal hope that his problematic Mack and Mabel, that features arguably his best score (one he himself declares his personal favorite),  might some day get a second chance. Unfortunately, every rewrite attempt over the last forty-four years hasn't solved the core issue of its wan love story and downbeat ending (silent screen star Mabel Normand died of tuberculosis at age thirty-seven— years after she broke up with Mack Sennett, the director who discovered her). The original production, which starred Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in what has been described as an eye-popping staging by Gower Champion, ran only sixty-six performances. Besides the 1974 original cast album (the best), there is a London concert recording from 1988 that has the likes of George Hearn, Tommy Tune, Paige O'Hara and the late, great Stubby Kaye doing numbers from the show. A few years later, a full-fledged London production was produced with Howard McGillin as Mack and there have been others since. The British can't get enough of the score and these versions (among others) have been recorded and are available for streaming and downloading as well.

Jerry Herman at the Hello, Dolly! recording session (1964).

In terms of his skills as a lyricist, I think that Herman is deceptively simple. His words at first listen might feel somewhat pedestrian, but on closer examination they are sort of perfect. They usually sit nicely on the melody and never take on more than they can lift. One phrase of music and lyric in "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," sends me in defiance of any rational explanation. It's when the chorus sings, "We'll join the Astor's at Tony Pastor's." It's the emphasis on "join" and "Tone" that gets me every time. I can't explain why, but it's kind of Herman's genius that it makes me feel so good. It's one of the unexplained mysteries of why Broadway show music has an effect on me like no other. It has to do (of course) with the stories that the songs are wrapped around, and that each character specifically sings about something that is both true and important to them. But it also has to do with the sheer skill involved in the effort. Herman is one of the greats... who makes the heavy lifting seem effortless. For that I say both bravo and Happy Birthday.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: