REMEMBERING JERRY HERMAN By Peter Filichia
Adding them all up, there weren’t all that many Jerry Herman songs that Broadway would ever get to hear.
A mere dozen in MILK AND HONEY, MACK & MABEL and HELLO, DOLLY! Only eleven in MAME, DEAR WORLD, THE GRAND TOUR and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.
There were five others as a result of Herman’s doctoring: BEN FRANKLIN IN PARIS had two, for which he didn’t take official credit; A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD had three, for which he did.
Add in “Best Gold,” the opening number that represented his Broadway debut in FROM A TO Z, a 1960 revue. Include the hellishly clever “Our Hearts Belong to Mary,” for which he “only” wrote lyrics to Cole Porter’s famous song in order to celebrate Mary Martin, and you get a grand total of eighty-seven Broadway songs.
Considering that Herman lived to be eighty-eight, that averages out to fewer than one Broadway song for each year of his lifetime.
(And if the rumors are true about certain numbers in a certain smash hit, even fewer.)
Sure, Herman wrote a TV musical (MRS. SANTA CLAUS), a show that was earmarked for Las Vegas (MISS SPECTACULAR) that didn’t happen, four off-Broadway shows and some other songs along the way. Nevertheless, as compared with most songwriters who write about twenty songs per show (is that why they call it a “score”?), Herman gave us fewer.
And yet, nearly 10,000 Broadway audiences heard them via 250 previews and 9,743 regular performances, ranging from the limited engagement of BARBARA COOK’S BROADWAY! to DOLLY’s mammoth run. Herman was the first composer-lyricist to have three shows run more than 1,500 performances: DOLLY (2,844), MAME (1,508) and LA CAGE (1,761). The last-named would have run even longer had the Palace not shut down in order for a new hotel to be built (history is now repeating itself); an announced transfer to the Mark Hellinger was finally deemed not economically feasible. (That was a component to our losing the Hellinger, too.)
Granted, all of those performances don’t even amount to three-quarters of the run of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. And DOLLY, which had set the long-run record for musicals, has already seen nineteen musicals surpass it (with many more to come). Keep in mind, though, that most of Herman’s output was at a time when tourism was a third of what it is now.
Herman acknowledged that seeing Irving Berlin’s ANNIE GET YOUR GUN as a teen cemented his goal of becoming a songwriter for the theater. Certainly two songs from that smash-hit could comment on Herman’s career. He certainly became famous for “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” to him, writing breezy tunes and optimistic lyrics. And just as Berlin had written “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Herman, in his first off-Broadway success – 1960’s PARADE – wrote “There’s No Tune Like a Show Tune.”
In 1961, MILK AND HONEY wasn’t a great musical, and yet the oft-heard tune “Shalom” helped it to 543 performances. It wasn’t a hit by the yardstick of paying back its investment, but it received five Tony nominations, including one for Herman’s score.
MILK AND HONEY’s season also included musicals by Noel Coward; three-time Oscar-winners Jay Livingston and Ray Evans; Robert Wright and Chet Forrest, who’d won a Tony for KISMET; Harold Rome, who’d written what was then the longest running revue in Broadway history; the much-heralded Styne, Comden and Green; newcomer John Kander and established pros Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Still, the Tony nominators chose Herman above all of the above.
The musical version of THE MATCHMAKER was originally to be called DOLLY: A DAMNED EXASPERATING WOMAN. Once Herman conceived of a welcome-back song for Mrs. Levi at the Harmonia Gardens, producer David Merrick and most everyone else connected with the show knew it had to be retitled HELLO, DOLLY!
That song also allowed Louis Armstrong, then approaching sixty-three years old, to set the record as the oldest person to have a Number One Hit Single. This happened after John, Paul, George and Ringo had occupied the top spot for fourteen consecutive weeks – until they had to make way for Jerry Herman’s song.
And once Armstrong’s hit had left the charts, the song still had more mileage in it. Few presidential campaigns have chosen Broadway show songs to promote their candidates, but Lyndon Johnson approved “Hello, Dolly!” as his when he was seeking election in 1964. Who can say how much Carol Channing’s rendition of “Hello, Lyndon” helped LBJ to win (and by a landslide, yet)?
How many title songs from Broadway musicals have won Grammys as Song of the Year? One and only one: “Hello, Dolly!”
As the great musical theater historian Ethan Mordden noted in his book about 1960s musicals – which used MAME’s “Open a New Window” as its title – “Herman’s voice informed many writers’ style at this time.” One only need examine the decades before and after HELLO, DOLLY! to see this verified. From 1954 to 1963, only ten of the thirty-two Best Musical Tony winners and nominees had title songs (and one of them was Herman’s “Milk and Honey”): 31.3%. But from 1965 to 1974, twenty-two out of thirty-seven Best Musical winners and nominees had title songs (including Herman’s “Mame”): 59.5% percentage – nearly twice as much.
(And while a musical version of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER didn’t get nominated when eligible in 1966-67, it had changed its name from DINNER WITH SHERRY to SHERRY! – undoubtedly because it had a peppy Hermanesque song by that name.)
In the first eighteen years of the Tony Awards, no show had ever won as many as the ten that HELLO, DOLLY! nabbed. It was a record that would hold for thirty-seven years until THE PRODUCERS eclipsed it. But DOLLY’s take of the Tonys wouldn’t end there; the 2017 revival yielded four more.
How many hits get six major recordings? DOLLY did. The original cast album with Carol Channing celebrated Leap Year Day in 1964 by hitting Number One on the charts – fewer than three weeks after The Beatles were on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and were selling records by the millions. The RCA Victor issue would remain on the charts for fifty-eight weeks.
And how many musicals get three additional major recordings while the original production is still running and the original cast album is still available? When Mary Martin opened the show in London in 1965, RCA recorded Herman’s score one more time – but not for the last. When Merrick replaced his white cast with a black one, RCA brought Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and their cast into the recording studio. Finally, in 1969, while the Broadway production still had a year left in it, the film was released and a soundtrack album emerged.
Add to these the 1994 Carol Channing revival and the 2017 Bette Midler revival, of course.
And what would the 1967 “English-Yiddish Musical Revue” that played the Henry Miller’s for sixty-eight performances have used as a title had Herman not written his hit? Certainly not the one it eventually chose: HELLO, SOLLY!
The 1966 Tony voters thought MAN OF LA MANCHA was a better musical than Herman’s next show: MAME. The following year, however, Grammy voters deemed MAME the Best Score from an Original Cast Album. That’s what the award was called then: Best Score. That made the achievement Herman’s and Herman’s alone.
Every female star of a certain age craved the role of MAME – but the one Herman wanted was the one who got the job: Angela Lansbury. Yes, Stephen Sondheim had introduced Lansbury to the musical stage in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE in 1964, but it took a Herman show to make her a Broadway player on her way to becoming a superstar and legend. MAME gave Lansbury her first Tony, and her second came from another Herman musical: DEAR WORLD.
That one wasn’t a hit. The title song has taken a great deal of criticism – from Herman himself, too – but the rest of the score proved Herman’s range; after writing two hits set in New York,
he wrote music wonderfully appropriate to Paris.
The Herman song that will last the longest won’t be “Hello, Dolly!”, MAME’s “If He Walked into My Life” or LA CAGE’S “I Am What I Am.” No: MAME’s “We Need a Little Christmas” is the one that could last now and forever as a Yuletide classic.
Herman didn’t set out to write a standard. He was simply doing his job of musicalizing a scene that had been in AUNTIE MAME: Ms. Dennis won’t be defeated by all the troubles that have plagued her and her friends; she’ll find a way to bolster both herself and them by relying on Christmas cheer.
In Herman’s New York townhouse, large pictures of his Dollys and Mames could be seen on the upper floors. Lucille Ball took quite an amount of white-hot heat for her Mame in the film version, and yet, there she was, proudly pictured among the rest. Just as Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s first hit said that the soldiers were “all my sons,” Herman felt that his Dollys and Mames were all his daughters.
MACK & MABEL’s book hasn’t always satisfied audiences, but despite a two-month run on Broadway, it received a Best Musical Tony nomination. If that was a surprise, the shock was that Herman’s music and lyrics were snubbed in the Best Score category. This was 1975, when Broadway was starting to fear that it had better embrace rock or be left behind, so it chose THE WIZ and THE LIEUTENANT over it, leaving SHENANDOAH to represent old-guard songs.
Who knew then that MACK & MABEL would later be embraced by Britain or that its entr’acte (used as an overture on the album) and best ballad “I Won’t Send Roses” would become world famous thanks to Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean? How is it that two figure skaters found the worth in Herman’s score that so-called Broadway savants couldn’t?
THE GRAND TOUR wasn’t a hit, either, and Herman admitted that he was reluctant to do it. However, Michael Stewart, with whom he’d worked twice, wanted him to adapt JACOBOWSKY AND THE COLONEL so he couldn’t say no. Nevertheless, he still delivered a worthwhile score.
But in 1983 he rebounded with LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. A musical about two men who have been a couple for decades –
one of whom was a drag queen – was a little audacious for Broadway. Yet Herman and Harvey Fierstein carried it off.
Herman’s Tony-winning score included a brainstorm. In the original 1978 French film, we don’t see Albin carefully transform himself into Zaza; in the musical we do, thanks to “A Little More Mascara.” Perhaps that went unnoticed because of the dramatic first-act finale: “I Am What I Am,” in which Albin offers not a scintilla of an apology for who he is.
It’s a rare gay piano bar that hasn’t had someone at some point break out into “I Am What I Am,” which over the years has become an (if not THE) LGBTQ anthem. Although Herman wrote it for a drag queen, its most popular recording was by Gloria Gaynor.
Note that once again a woman would figure prominently in a Jerry Herman song. And perhaps more interesting still is that Gaynor’s version was disco. By 1983, many deemed Herman as old-fashioned, and yet one of his songs made it into the realm of that musical fad.
That his Best Score Tony wins were two full decades apart –
DOLLY in 1964 and LA CAGE in 1984 – also showed that Herman passed the test of time. No other composer-lyricist can boast of the trifecta that LA CAGE has managed: a Best Musical Tony for the original production and Best Musical Revival prizes in both 2004 and 2010.
Every decade since the sixties has featured some Herman on Broadway. And while DOLLY hit the screens in the late sixties 60s and MAME in the mid-seventies, that wasn’t it for Herman and Hollywood. The 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E started by playing the first bars of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” even before the credits rolled. The song made a few more recurring appearances in the well-regarded film, too, proving that even a machine could appreciate a Herman tune.
What else? Two Broadway revues, one performed by others (JERRY’S GIRLS) and one with himself and others (AN EVENING WITH JERRY HERMAN). A Kennedy Center Honor. A memoir that certainly wasn’t self-published. A 2008 PBS documentary. Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Tony and the Drama Desk.
But how was it that he was admitted into The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1981 and not the Theatre Hall of Fame until 1986? Oh, well; he could still claim both achievements.
His melodies were hummable, but his lyrics were hardly ho-hummable. Many people forget that he even wrote the words to his own tunes; a few obituary writers simply referred to him as “composer Jerry Herman.” We remember, though, such ticklers as “I’m too old for Hialeah but too young to shoot” … “She had a countenance a little bit like Scrooge but oh, today you would swear the Lord himself applied the rouge” … “Till ev’ry fella from Duluth to Atlanta sees all of his fantasies” … “I won’t send roses, and roses suit you so.”
Too many of us skip over stage directions when we read plays. Herman certainly didn’t when he perused AUNTIE MAME, for he noticed what Lawrence and Lee, who had written the original play, noted in italics in Act Two, Scene Five: Vera was “now somewhere between forty and death.” Herman included it in “Bosom Buddies” and got one of the biggest laughs in the show.
And yet, Herman’s smartest lyric was technically the easiest to write: LA CAGE’S “Song of the Sand.” Here we had one man singing to another about the time they fell in love. Broadway audiences of the ‘80s might not have accepted let alone enjoyed having a man sing “Your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair are in a class beyond compare” to a member of his own gender. So Herman wisely had George refer to a song that was playing back then, one that went “La da da da da da da.” That wouldn’t be deemed objectionable by the most conservative audience member.
Many of us choose second careers after a successful first one; Herman began decorating homes and developing properties. Musical theater enthusiasts weren’t happy about his choice, but, hey, it was his life.
That he died at eighty-eight carries an irony, too, for that’s how many keys can be found on a piano. To quote three lyrics from MAME, let’s “tune the grand up,” put that many “candles on the spinet” and “light the candles” in his honor. It’s the least we can do for a man who so often gave us the best of times.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.