A tunesmith in the old-fashioned sense whose smash hit successes are the definition of the musical comedy, Jerry Herman is the most famous and successful songwriter who has, strangely, never fully received his due as a master composer and lyricist. Herman may be the only contemporary Broadway songwriter whose name is recognized by the general public, with the possible exception of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Surprisingly, this fame is due to the success of only three shows: Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage Aux Folles. His work defines what most people think of when asked to describe the Broadway musical: glitzy, upbeat extravaganzas, long on energy and catchy tunes that the audience is sure to hum while leaving the theatre. That expectation has both helped and hurt Herman’s works, especially as he summoned the courage to escape public expectation by writing more and more psychologically adept works in an attempt to extend the boundaries of musical theatre.
Herman was born at the Polyclinic Hospital on 50 Street in Manhattan, his mother’s room looked out upon the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. Later, she told Herman that it was a sign and one day he would have a hit at the theatre. Tragically, his mother died of cancer just as his career was taking off and she would never see his great success. Still, she implanted in Herman the zest for life and optimism that pervades his work.
He was educated at the University of Miami and the Parsons School of Design. His first score was for the off-Broadway revue, I Feel Wonderful(1954) which started life at the University of Miami before moving to New York. He followed it with another revue, Nightcap(1958) which employed the talents of Charles Nelson Reilly, Dody Goodman, and Phyllis Newman. Another off-Broadway revue, Parade, followed in 1960.
The modest success that Herman had thus far enjoyed didn’t portend the enormous successes of his Broadway book shows. The first was Milk and Honey(1960) with Robert Weede and Molly Picon starring. He followed the off-Broadway misstep Madame Aphrodite (1961) with the blockbuster Hello, Dolly! (1964). It became one of themost successful musicals in Broadway history, achieving 2,844 performances and many revivals on Broadway with Carol Channing repeating her title role.
Herman’s next show proved almost as popular. Mame opened on May 24, 1966 to extraordinary acclaim. Angela Lansbury proved she could make a successful transition from Hollywood to the musical stage. Herman’s score is first-rate, ably assisted by the fine orchestrations of Philip J. Lang. Lansbury, Herman, and librettists Lawrence and Lee teamed up again for Dear World, a musical version of Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. Public expectations were that the show would be in the vein of Herman’s other razzmatazz offereings. But Dear World was a more delicate, serious piece, albeit blown out of proportion in producer Alexander Cohen’s beautiful production.
Mack and Mabel(1974) followed, and, despite having what some consider Herman’s most mature score, as well as the contributions of Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston, the show played only 65 performances. Today considered a classic score, Mack and Mabel is a particularly sad failure. Herman’s next show performed slightly worse than even Mack and Mabel. The Grand Tour (1979) was an ill-conceived vehicle for Joel Gray which Herman had to be talked into undertaking.
With three failures in a row, critics proclaimed Jerry Herman’s career finished. Skeptics pointed to the success of Hello, Dolly! and Mame as flukes and suggested that Herman’s style wasn’t suited to the supposedly more sophisticated Broadway of the 1980s. But on August 21, 1983, Herman surprised Broadway with La Cage Aux Folles, a huge hit in the style of his previous masterworks but with a sure message embedded in the farcical elements of the story. Herman was finally able to work serious themes into popular entertainment. After the triumphant opening night of La Cage Aux Folles, Herman walked out onto Times Square and proclaimed that he would never again write a Broadway musical. Unfortunately for his fans and musical theatre history, he has kept his promise. (KB)