In describing Broadway composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, who died Dec. 26 in Miami of pulmonary complications at the age of 88, most use the terms “optimist” and “old-fashioned.” And throughout his long, illustrious, lucrative career, he embraced both labels.
As he commented to me back in 1985, as his final mega-hit show, La Cage aux Folles, was beginning its victory lap national tour, “Old-fashioned? That’s my favorite word. I love it. That to me means having quality and having lasting values.”
Audiences have resoundingly agreed. He is credited with three musicals – Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage – which each ran more than 1.500 performances in their original Broadway productions. And while he never had a fully produced new show in New York since La Cage, 36 years ago, his musicals pop up regularly, often winning Tony Awards for Best Revival, further evidence that his old-fashioned optimism is “so nice to have [it] back where it belongs.”
South Florida had been one of Herman’s homes ever since he gave up studying at the Parsons School of Design and enrolled at the University of Miami, where he became a theater major and wrote his first musical revue. Many years later, after gaining success on Broadway, he endowed a performance space on the campus, now known as the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.
In 1961, Herman had his first musical – and his first hit – on Broadway with Milk and Honey, a show set in the young nation of Israel. It ran a respectable 543 performances, but its chief significance to Herman is that it attracted the attention of producer David Merrick, who offered him the opportunity to write a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.
Of course that became Hello, Dolly!, an unqualified hit that went on to win 10 Tony Awards – a record at the time – including one for Herman’s score. That was followed by the almost-as-successful Mame, based on Auntie Mame, which cemented Herman’s image as a writer of upbeat shows with larger-than-life female leads and infectious title songs.
But that description would work against him when in the late 1960s and 1970s, he began writing darker more dramatic shows, such as Dear World (based on The Madwoman of Chaillot), The Grand Tour (a Holocaust musical based on Jacobowsky and the Colonel) and Mack and Mabel (a silent film-era biography of the tumultuous relationship of director Mack Sennett and his star/muse, Mabel Normand). Alas, none of these was able to find an audience, with the longest run a mere five months.
Still, Herman continued to insist that Mack and Mabel was his finest score and he kept revising the show, hoping to have a satisfying revival that would return it to Broadway. Productions did crop up in London and in regional theaters in the United States, but so far the show has not made it back to New York.
The 1970s was a fallow period for Herman, and he openly worried that his brand of melodic songwriting was out of fashion. But in 1983, he was back on top with La Cage aux Folles, based on a French play and film of the same name, about a gay couple, Georges and Albin, a St. Tropez nightclub owner and his cross-dressing stage star. Albin was, in effect, another larger-than-life female character, who just happened to be a gay man.
That season’s Tony Awards were considered a head-to-head match-up between Herman and Stephen Sondheim – the composer of old-fashioned shows versus the leading innovator of the musical theater (Sunday in the Park with George). But it was Herman who prevailed, winning his second Tony for best score as La Cage won six statuettes in all. Accepting his award, Herman famously said, “This award forever shatters a myth about musical theater – that the simple hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway.”
Soon after his triumph with La Cage, Herman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He feared that his career and his life were over, but he was able to receive experimental drugs – a cocktail of protease inhibitors – that not only halted, but reversed the ravages of the disease. As he buoyantly joked at the time, “now I will have to die of something else,” a line that proved prophetic, as he lived with AIDS for another 34 years.
In his latter years, Herman spent his time collecting awards, including the Tony for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre, the 2010 Kennedy Center Honor and his induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who proudly embraced sentiment.
As he defended his position to me once, he said, “I love sentiment. If it’s inherent and genuine, I think sentiment is what we want. We want to laugh and we want to cry, but we don’t know that.”
We do know that the Broadway community is poorer since Jerry Herman passed away.