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Broadway Up Close and Personal: Celebrating Jerry Herman (Full Length)
(Composer and lyricist; born July 10, 1931, in New York City)
It only takes a moment to realize that Broadway's Golden Age is alive and well and thriving as long as Jerry Herman's around. "When they passed out talent," the legendary Carol Channing has said, "Jerry stood in line twice."
Almost single-handedly, the creator of Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles and so much more has revitalized and nourished the all-American tradition of great and unstoppable show tunes. His music and lyrics have kept audiences tapping their feet, humming along, and wiping their eyes with tears of joy for generations. Even as often he's been underrated as being too easy to like in a world of dark and foreboding musicals, too entertaining, too tuneful and much too upbeat, the genius of Herman's deceptively simple songs cuts through any shortsighted criticism. "Jerry has succeeded so well in his mission that people don't give him credit," said Michael Feinstein, "because to be simple without being cliché is nearly impossible."
Herman's genius, in truth, is not so much simple as it is subtle. For all his cock-eyed optimism-and very much in the tradition of his forefathers Rodgers and Hammerstein-a Herman musical always carries a message of timeless values, of humanity's triumph over hatred and ignorance, of happiness over despair. 1983's La Cage aux Folles, currently a smash hit on Broadway all over again and a Tony Award winner in all three of its Broadway productions-and counting-is not only a bona fide crowd pleaser but also the most sweetly radical musical of its age. Here on the Broadway stage, decades before the fight for marriage equality hit the headlines, was a pair of gay dads raising a family, and here was "...a man singing a love song to another man-I don't think that's ever been done in a Broadway musical before." Herman told The Washington Post that during previews in Boston "I didn't know whether or not they'd throw stones. The audience gave it an ovation."
"By the time Georges and Albin-having weathered a son's passing ingratitude and a zealot's intolerance-walked hand in hand into the St. Tropez sunset, the audience was on its feet," The Washington Post reported. "What La Cage aux Folles celebrates, after all, is loyalty and love, respect for others and respect for self and, yes, even family. The good old values."
Gerald Herman was born in New York in 1931 and raised in Jersey City. His parents Harry and Ruth ran a children's summer camp in the Catskills, where young Jerry surprised everyone by teaching himself the piano. Once, he recalled years later, "my parents took me at a tender age to see Annie Get Your Gun, and I was absolutely dazzled. I have one of those retentive ears, and when I came home I sat down at the piano and played about five of the songs. My mother was amazed."
Many more would be amazed. At 17, he was introduced to Frank Loesser, who encouraged him to continue composing once he heard some of Herman's songs. He went to the University of Miami, joining its adventurous theater program and himself appearing in undergraduate shows including the musical Finian's Rainbow. His alma mater since then has honored this distinguished alumnus and today boasts the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre at the heart of its drama program. After graduation from Miami, Herman headed back to New York and put together a review of his songs so far: I Feel Wonderful opened at the Théâtre de Lys in Greenwich Village October 18, 1954 and ran for 48 performances. He was just getting going.
While playing piano in a New York jazz club called the Showplace, Herman brought together his friends Phyllis Newman and Charles Nelson Reilly for another review called Nightcap, which opened in 1958. This one ran for two years. In 1960 came Herman's Broadway debut, alongside material by Fred Ebb and Woody Allen, in the review From A to Z. That same year came Parade, also at the Showplace, starring Reilly and Dody Goodman. A hit, Parade moved to the Players' Theatre and it was during this run that a producer asked Herman if he would be interested in writing a musical about the founding of the state of Israel. Milk and Honey, starring Molly Picon as the ultimate Hadassah lady, opened in 1961. It earned Herman his first Tony nomination for Best Musical of 1962. He had arrived.
It was David Merrick who brought together Herman and the first of his vulnerable but ultimately invincible heroines, Dolly Levi. Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing opened in 1964, ran for 2,844 performances, became Broadway's longest-running musical and has been revived often since. It swept the Tony Awards, taking home a then unmatched 10 including Best Musical and becoming one of the happiest episodes in the history of the Broadway musical. Mame followed in 1966, starring Angela Lansbury and teaching the world that in the toughest times "We Need a Little Christmas." What has followed amounts to a life-affirming body of work rivaled by few: Dear World, the underappreciated Mack & Mabel, The Grand Tour, Mrs. Santa Claus, Jerry's Girls, and of course La Cage aux Folles.
The theater world knew a good thing when it heard and saw it: Tonys, Drama Desk Awards, Theatre World Awards all followed, as did a 2009 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a 2010 Drama Desk Special Award for "enchanting and dazzling audiences with his exuberant music and heartfelt lyrics for more than half a century."
Right now in the 21st Century, we can be sure that someone, somewhere is singing a Jerry Herman song. That's one happy way we know the man's been right all along: the best of times is now.