Though I never met him, I did have the joy of providing the late Jerry Herman with something that from everything I’ve been told (and with proof to back it up) made him laugh until it hurt. You know the kind of laughing I mean, right? When your belly or your sides ache? Of course you do. The fact I was able to give him the gift of laughter after his having given me (and millions of others) the gift of music that he composed for the theatre over many decades, was a small measure of payback. But satisfying, nonetheless.
What was it that made him laugh that hard? Was it really all that funny? And how did it happen? Read on for the answers (and the payoff is worth the buildup, I promise).
Jerry Herman in the lobby of the St. James Theatre (1964).
Forty years ago, in the winter of 1979, I moved to a studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. While pursuing an acting career, and in order to pay the bills, I worked as an office temp doing typing and filing. Back then, in the days before computers, being a typing demon was a genuine commodity. I would be booked through an employment agency that specialized in providing secretaries (as they were then called) to the networks headquartered in New York City, which really made it fun to go to work. I plied my trade at ABC, CBS, WNET (PBS) and most happily NBC, at 30 Rock, a great building to hang around (with an awesome cafeteria). One time, for about a week, I was installed in the office of a local WNBC Sunday morning religious program called The First Estate. It was hosted by Dr. Russell Barber, who was very kind to me, and I used to watch him tape the show from time to time.
A couple of years later — 1983 to be exact — I was cleaning my apartment on a Sunday morning and, as is my wont to this day, I turned on the TV to accompany my vacuuming. How I landed on Dr. Barber’s religious program I’ll never know but thank God I did. Not only did I have the immediate “Eureka!” moment that something undeniably great was happening… but I had the foresight to pop a blank tape into my Betamax VCR (yes, Beta!) and record it for posterity.
What was being broadcast were members of a church in New Jersey (if my memory serves correctly) singing and dancing “It’s Today” as well as the title song from Mame. It was a community theatre production of Jerry Herman’s musical and it featured non-theatre types like accountants, housewives and dentists—all game for a good time. I had my own personal one time and out community theatre experience (Finch in How to Succeed) when I was eighteen—and survived to tell the tale. And yes, I know it’s not particularly nice to make fun of seeing people working so hard at something they’re not very good at, but please accept this in the spirit it’s meant to be taken. When something is so bad it’s good, you simply have to appreciate it full throttle. Which is where Jerry Herman comes in. I mean, if he could laugh at it, it has to be okay, right?
And how did Jerry Herman discover it? Well, the first thing I did after watching the tape a few times (oh it gets better with every viewing), was to edit “It’s Today” and “Mame” out of the broadcast and get it to my friend George, the one person I knew who would appreciate it the most (so now it was a copy of a copy). As it would happen, some years later, George befriended Michael Feinstein. One day, he popped in the cassette of Sonya Tannenbaum and Company and Michael couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Laughing through tears, when he finally caught his breath, the first thing he said was, “I have to show this to Jerry!”
So, a copy of the copy of the copy was made, and not only did Michael show it to him, but Jerry adored it. And that’s how copies began circulating, creating a very minor, but singular sensation. And now after nearly forty years… I am finally ready to share it with the world. Both songs start late (sorry!), and I think you’ll like Sonya Tannenbaum, who has a lovely voice. I suppose I could tell you what to look out for, but you’ll easily discover what makes it timelessly hilarious all on your own. There are so many treasures to be had. Hint: keep your eye on the chorus and the dancing — especially the bearded guy in the blue suit. It’s safe to say, you’ve never seen so much box stepping in your life.
Actually, George was kind enough to dig up his copy of my copy (I truly don’t know what happened to mine) and I was screaming from the moment it started. I actually forgot a good deal of what makes it so unforgettable, funny as that sounds.
But wait! I told you I had proof that none of this is made up.
In 1993, a CD was released titled “Michael Feinstein Sings the Jerry Herman Songbook.” Accompanied by Jerry Herman on piano, it’s got some great tunes (the big ones as well as some obscure ones) and contains something now considered somewhat old-fashioned: a booklet with liner notes. Though when I got mine, I didn’t read it very carefully. What was there had to be pointed out to me, because I certainly wasn’t looking for it. So leave it to my old friend George to bring it to my attention.
Take a look at who gets a “very special thank-you.”
See? Sometimes the mundane gets raised to a level of high art. Or at least in how it’s appreciated by people who know a good/bad thing when they see it. And I got to make Jerry Herman laugh. How great is that?
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.