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Jerry Herman - An Obituary

Jerry Herman – Broadway composer and lyricist

Born July 10, 1931; died December 26, 2019

Jerry Herman, who has died of pulmonary complications aged 88, composed some of the most rousingly upbeat musicals of the second half of the twentieth century, with a back catalogue of songs that have become pop theatre classics. This was the case with the title song of Hello, Dolly! (1964), which Louis Armstrong took into the top of the American charts, knocking the Beatles off the top spot for good measure. It was also true of I Am What I Am, the defiantly triumphal stand-out number from La Cage aux Folles (1984), written in the shadow of the 1980s AIDS crisis.

Inbetween, Herman’s other big hit was Mame (1966). These three shows saw Herman scoop a shelf-load of Tony awards, and helped him make history, when he became the first composer-lyricist to have three musicals run more than 1,500 consecutive performances on Broadway. Hello, Dolly! ran for 2,844, Mame for 1,508 and La Cage aux Folles for 1,761.

In many ways, Herman was a Tin Pan Alley traditionalist in his favouring of simple and infectious melodies at a time when a new wave of musicals by the likes of Stephen Sondheim was complicating things. When La Cage aux Folles, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, appeared in 1984, its story of a gay couple who run a drag club was pioneering in its depiction of a same sex couple on the Broadway stage. It also proved that old-school melodies could still make hit shows.

La Cage aux Folles was criticised by some for not being more radical in its depiction of the gay community. But Herman wasn’t interested in polemic, and let his songs do the talking. The show won six Tonys, while its breakout number, I Am What I Am, was recorded by Gloria Gaynor, and became a gay anthem.

Gerald Sheldon Herman was born in Manhattan, the only child of Harry and Ruth Sachs Sherman, who ran a summer school in the Catsgills, where Herman effectively grew up. As amateur musicians, Herman’s parents made frequent trips to the theatre with their son, who taught himself to play piano aged five, after which he started writing songs for fun. It wasn’t until Herman saw Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun as a teenager, however, that he had his musical epiphany. Herman went home that night and played several of Irving Berlin’s songs from the show on the piano from memory, thus setting the template for his own future way with an earworm.

After high school in Jersey City, Herman started at the Parsons School of Design. When his mother arranged an audition with Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser, however, he took Loesser’s advice of trying to make a career as a song-writer. He studied drama at the University of Miami, graduating in 1953. While at university he wrote and directed a musical called Sketchbook, and staged his first off-Broadway revue, I Feel Wonderful, a year after graduating. In 1957, Herman wrote and directed another revue, Nightcap, followed in 1960 by Parade. He made his Broadway debut the same year with From A to Z, featuring contributions by Woody Allen and Fred Ebb. His first full musical, Milk and Honey, came in 1961, and was Tony-nominated. An off-Broadway collaboration with playwright Tad Mosel, Madame Aphrodite wasn’t so successful, and closed after thirteen performances.

Things came good for Herman after he was approached by producer David Merrick to compose a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker. With Carol Channing in the lead role, Hello, Dolly! was a smash hit. The show’s title song won a Grammy, with Barbra Streisand going on to star in the 1969 Oscar-winning film version of the show.

After Hello, Dolly! and Mame, other Broadway shows by Herman included Dear World (1969), Mack and Mabel (1974) and The Grand Tour (1979). Most were short-lived affairs, and it wasn’t until La Cage aux Folles chimed with the zeitgeist that Herman was vindicated for his work’s prevailing sense of optimism. Not long after the success of La Cage aux Folles, Herman was diagnosed with AIDS, and lost his long-term partner, Martin Finkelstein, to the disease. Herman survived, but withdrew from Broadway, still feeling his work was out of fashion.

There have been two successful revues of Herman’s song-book, Jerry’s Girls (1985) and Showtune (1985). The latter became the title of Herman’s memoir, published in 1996. In 1993, the University of Miami renamed the theatre based in Herman’s alma mater The Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. In 2008, songs from Hello, Dolly! were used with Herman’s approval in Pixar/Disney’s animated feature film, WALL-E. In 2009, Herman was given a Tony award for lifetime achievement in the theatre. This was recognition for a talent whose work has survived the fickleties of fashion to help define the lingua franca of musical theatre at its life-affirming best.

Herman is survived by his partner, Terry Marler, and his god-daughters Jane Dorian, and Sarah Haspel.

The Herald, January 2nd 2020


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