HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JERRY HERMAN
July 10, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“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.
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).
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.
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. Especially so after City Center’s Encores! showcased two songs from it in their revue earlier this past February titled “Hey, Look Me Over.” Doug Sills as Mack and Alexandra Socha as Mabel brought the house down with the singing of “Movies Were Movies” and “Look What Happened to Mabel.”
Unfortunately, every rewrite attempt over the last forty-four years hasn’t solved the core issue of Mack and Mabel’s 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.
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.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.