A large piece of theater magic disappeared the day after Christmas, 2019, when composer/lyricist Jerry Herman died in Miami at the age of 88.
Iconic creator of certifiable Broadway classics Hello, Dolly! (1964), Mame (1966), and La Cage aux Folles (1983), he was one of the last great tunesmiths, whose songs from his hit shows, and more from his misses, are permanent parts of the great Great American Songbook.
His death brings an end to an era on Broadway when the musical was, first and foremost, an evening of choice entertainment, a chance to forget the day's problems, and the place to have fun. If there was a hint of social consciousness, it was camouflaged under sparkling stagecraft, glistening costumes, plenty of dance, and songs that left you humming as you exited into the night's reality. Herman's Broadway was a place of unbridled imagination, a fairy tale world that never truly existed, but where joy and infectious laughter reigned.
He had his share of flops and critical bashing, but his songs were always praised for their vivacity, truth, easy listening, and being both character-specific and universal. He was old-school, like his idol Irving Berlin. Edgy psychological musical plays, like those written by his contemporary Stephen Sondheim, to whom he was often unfavorably compared, were not his cup of tea. He liked his shows upbeat, and even his La Cage, the first Broadway musical to feature a gay couple in a loving relationship, was heartfelt and sweet enough to lure in the matinee crowd for a four-year run. (One of that show's songs, “I Am What I Am,” soon became a gay-pride anthem.)
While Herman's sunniness seemed less than appropriate for a downer of a show such as Mack and Mabel (1974), about the ill-fated romance between silent film director Mack Sennett and star Mabel Normand, the musical racked up six Tony Awards, and its score has become a cult favorite for cabaret performers and Broadway Babies of all stripes. Ironically, Herman was not nominated. Among his other works: Milk and Honey (1961), his first Broadway show; Dear World (1969), an adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, for which Angela Lansbury won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical; The Grand Tour (1979), an overstuffed and problem-plagued production from S.N. Behrman's WWII comedy Jacobowsky and the Colonel, that starred Joel Grey, post-Cabaret. His last show on Broadway was his own revue, An Evening with Jerry Herman (1998), a compendium of his career, accompanying himself on the piano, having a marvelously happy time.
Herman lived with HIV since diagnosed in 1985, but was fortunate to become one of the first patients offered the experimental protease inhibitor. It saved his life. He would later endorse various AIDS causes like Tuesday's Child, Starbuck Pediatric Foundation, and his own creation, Marty's Place, a hospice in Key West in honor of his former partner Marty Finkelstein, who died in 1989.
Herman received every possible theater award, two Grammys, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Doctorate from the University of Miami, and, in 2002, the first American Musical Theatre Award, presented by Theatre Under the Stars when it inaugurated the new Hobby Center.
Herman's bright shining music will be standards forever. He could write anything. Brassy marches (“When the Parade Passes By,” from Dolly); rousing hit tunes for his Great Ladies (“Mame;” “Hello, Dolly;”); aching torch songs (“I Won't Send Roses” and “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel; “If He Walked Into My Life” from Mame); comedy pastiches (“It Takes a Woman” from Dolly; “The Man in the Moon is a Miss” from Mame; “Have a Little Pity on the Rich” from Dear World).
Herman's bouncy and tuneful Broadway may no longer be relevant, sad to say, but it's not dead or forgotten. Listen to Justin Paul and Benj Pasek's expressive Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen and tell me there's not a hint of Herman in its irrepressible spirit. Sure, there's no kickline or parade passerell on which to cakewalk, but its anthems are just as effective and heartwarming as anything penned by Herman.
Some music is just timeless, whether it's from a creaky show that closes after a two-month run or from a feel-good blockbuster that will be with us to entertain as long as there are stages upon which to strut. Effervescent, tuneful, and full of life, Jerry Herman made sure of that.
Note: In serendipitous tribute, Hello, Dolly! (Herman's greatest musical, although he personally preferred Mack and Mabel) plays via Broadway at the Hobby, January 7-12. This is the Tony-winning 2017 Broadway revival that won Bette Midler the award for Best Actress in a Musical and Gavin Creel for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. Sadly, neither of them are on this tour. But the show is a juggernaut, and can withstand replacements. As we know, look who else has assayed the role of Dolly Levi: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Pearl Bailey, Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, Dorothy Lamour, Mary Martin, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Martha Raye.