Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JERRY HERMAN

“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-seventh 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 impressive. His first effort was a show titled, From A to Z, 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 garnered good notices and ran for fifteen months. Then there was Hello, Dolly!, which would go on to become the longest running musical of its day. Herman's 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).

Herman rebounded with a personal triumph when La Cage Aux Folles, his final show to date, opened in 1983 at the Palace Theatre to rave reviews and a four-year run. 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, were as easily revivable (that is, until Bette Midler, a star of the first rank took on Mrs. Levi to great acclaim and record-breaking box office). These totally star-powered vehicles, each rely upon musical actresses of hefty chops and eccentricity, so much so that Mame has yet to return to Broadway since it opened in 1966 with anyone other than Lansbury (briefly in 1983). And until Midler last year, Dolly had never been back where she belonged without either Carol Channing (who created the role) or Pearl Bailey (one of the many who succeeded her in the original production).

Jerry Herman with Pearl Bailey, listening to a playback at the Hello, Dolly! recording session (1968).

Gerald Herman was the only child of Harry and Ruth Herman, raised in Jersey City, New Jersey in the 1930s. A 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.

Off-Broadway program for ​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.