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SO LONG, JERRY

“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—an accurate summation of the words and music of Jerry Herman, who died yesterday at the age of eighty-eight. As a child of the sixties, I was first introduced to his songs when they were spanking brand new. And throughout that turbulent decade, Herman’s bright and beautiful tunes (so optimistic!) broke through the noise to become a force to be reckoned with. When radio still influenced the way people came to be familiar with popular music, the airwaves were filled with the major recording artists of the day like Robert Goulet, Eydie Gormé and Louis Armstrong singing Herman songs and selling millions of records (yes, records).

Jerry Herman (1931–2019)

Broadway first heard from him before he had turned twenty-nine, and his rise as a composer was swift and 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!, a phenomenon of its day which would go on to break My Fair Lady's record, becoming Broadway’s longest running musical (coincidentally, it closed on December 26, 1970—exactly forty-nine years ago to the day of his death). 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.

Angela Lansbury as Mame (1966).

Herman rebounded with a personal triumph when La Cage Aux Folles, his final Broadway musical, 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 in 2017). 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 (who did so briefly in 1983). And until Midler, 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 back to the city of his birth (New York City) produced his own Off-Broadway revue at age twenty-three titled I Feel Wonderful, starring Phyllis Newman (who only just passed in September).

Off-Broadway program for ​Jerry Herman’s I Feel Wonderful (1954).

​Herman was a superb craftsman, and to my ears, nothing he ever wrote ever felt first-drafty. Capable of beautiful ballads like “It Only Takes a Moment,” “If He Walked Into My Life” and “I Won’t Send Roses,” he also wrote thrilling rousers like “I Am What I Am,” “It’s Today” and “Tap Your Troubles Away.” Not to mention the twin toe-tapping showstoppers “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame.” As recordings go, 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 his near-misses, fans of Herman hold out eternal hope that his problematic Mack & Mabel, that features arguably his best score (one he himself declared his personal favorite), might some day get a second chance. As it turns out, it’s already scheduled for February 2020 at City Center's Encores! with Doug Sills as Mack and Alexandra Socha as Mabel, both of whom respectively brought the house down with their singing of “Movies Were Movies” and “Look What Happened to Mabel” when they were included in Hey, Look Me Over, a revue of neglected Broadway musicals produced by Encores! in 2018. As but one example of how infectious a Herman tune can be, if you have five minutes to spare, watch this extraordinary version of “Tap Your Troubles Away” featuring Anna Jane Casey.

Anna Jane Casey (how does she sing and dance at this energy level?) with “Tap Your Troubles Away” (2012).

In terms of his skills as a lyricist, I think my favorite thing about Herman is how guileless he was. His words always sit so 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,” wallops 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 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 have to tell, and that each character specifically sings about something that is both true and important to them. Another example from Dolly, “Ribbons Down My Back,” is to my ears an absolutely stunning achievement of composition. But it also has to do with the sheer skill involved: heavy lifting made to seem effortless.

I’ll leave the last words to Bernadette Peters (the original Mabel) who tweeted this morning that Herman “made it to Christmas and left us the next day!!” And bittersweet as it may be, I for one will be listening to his “We Need a Little Christmas” as I process this farewell to one of the greats to ever grace the Broadway musical with their personal genius.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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