Opinion | Remembering the Life and Music of Jerry Herman

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Jerry Herman
Jerry Herman (Courtesy of Steve Cohen)

By Steve Cohen

Jerry Herman’s musicals brought me joy. And that’s the emotion I feel after hearing of his recent death. Joy, overcoming the sadness of losing a friend.

He was angered when intellectuals criticized his musicals as lightweight, and he felt that “joyful” was a more accurate label. It’s what he wanted to communicate to the world.

Fans of Stephen Sondheim musicals were especially dismissive of Herman’s work, and he pointed out that his “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame” and “La Cage Aux Folles” did better at the box office than anything by his rival. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Herman’s words and music were the most successful on Broadway.

I first met Herman when I interviewed him for National Public Radio in 1991. He died Dec. 26 at the age of 88 from pulmonary causes.

His most personal creation was “La Cage Aux Folles” which centers on gay characters, and I asked Herman if it had special significance for him. “Yes,” he responded. “It’s hard to talk about it without getting emotional. I didn’t write it as a propaganda piece. It was just a delightful, funny story but it taught a lot of people tolerance. It did more to affect people than serious, preachy plays.”

When “La Cage” won six Tony awards in 1984, Herman said in his acceptance speech, “There’s been a rumor around that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it’s alive and well at the Palace Theater.”

Herman told me, “The most interesting thing about being in the theater is that your work goes on without you. Once you’ve written good shows, you know your work will be performed for the next hundred years, whether you’re around to see it or not. I know that my work will live on, long after I’m gone.”

He grew up in Jersey City, which had a large Jewish population in the 1930s. His parents ran a Jewish children’s camp in upstate New York, and his mother also had a radio show called “Ruth Sachs Sings” on WEVD, an ethnic station in New York. Herman told me, “My music comes from being brought up in a very happy Jewish home where there was music all the time. My sense of melody is all wrapped up in my roots. That’s why it’s warm and schmaltzy.”

His mother died of cancer when he was 21. According to Herman, she was like his character Mame. “I came home from school one day to find the kitchen full of hors d’oeuvres. It was a Tuesday and I asked her why she was busy cooking on a Tuesday, and she responded, ‘Because it’s today.’ And that’s where the opening song in “Mame” came from”:

Tune the grand up / Dance your shoes off /Strike the band up / It’s today!

His parents adored musical theater and took Herman into New York City almost every weekend. The first show he saw on Broadway was Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” when it was new, in 1946, and he was 15. “As we drove back through the Holland Tunnel I was singing the songs I’d just heard.”

He wrote his first show, “Step Right Up,” at 16 and it was performed at the Jersey City Jewish Community Center. His first Broadway creation was “Milk and Honey” in 1961, about a woman going to Israel during the country’s struggle for recognition as an independent nation. He incorporated sounds that he heard growing up, and a waltz (“Shalom, Shalom”) that reflected the music of European Jews. The heart-warming show ran for over a year.

“Hello, Dolly!” premiered in 1964 and became one of the most enduring musical theater hits. Its most-recent Broadway revival comes to Philadelphia Feb. 19 as part of a national tour.

Additional Herman shows include “The Grand Tour” which is about a refugee fleeing from the Nazis and has considerable Jewish content. “Dear World” is his most mature and interesting work, dealing with materialism and greed. It also contains his favorite song among all his offspring, “I Don’t Want to Know,” which includes the lines, “If laughter is no longer lilting / If lovers are no longer loving / Then I don’t want to know.”

My own favorites are his emotional ballads “Time Heals Everything” and “If He Walked Into My Life,” while many listeners are inspired by his anthem, “I Am What I Am.”

The perception that his shows were old fashioned and — worse — out of fashion, hurt.

“People put me down for writing upbeat songs, as if the feelings I put into them were not genuine. I simply write the way I feel, and these sentiments are honest. Bouncy, buoyant, and optimistic. That’s me.”

His life changed when Herman discovered that he was HIV positive and then his partner died of AIDS. He didn’t feel like working. Then, too, producers were afraid to risk their money on big projects by a man with his condition. Herman was frustrated and said to me, “I want the world to hear my stuff because it’s been too long.”

He wrote a new score in 1999, “Miss Spectacular,” commissioned by Las Vegas hotel-owner Steve Wynn as a casino extravaganza, but Wynn abandoned it when his Mirage was bought by MGM Grand. Herman professed to be happy that his music was “out there,” but I saw his exasperation that it wasn’t produced on stage.

Herman lived for three decades with HIV, thanks to protease inhibitor medicine. He spent most of those years designing and decorating homes for himself and his friends. He studied that art in his youth at the prestigious Parsons School of Design.

He applied his designing talent all through his career, paying special attention to the visual aspect of his shows. When he wrote “Hello, Dolly!,” he insisted that all the waiters be in green because of the vivid way that contrasts with Dolly’s red gown.

A bit of sadness creeps in when I contemplate how new Herman shows ceased during his later years, but a smile returns when I listen to almost any of his songs.

Steve Cohen is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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