Jerry Herman, the Broadway composer and lyricist, died at 88 this past Christmas season on December 26, 2019 in Miami, taking with him a sound that was characterized by can-do-it-ness and American pluck. A cock-eyed optimist devoted to joy and celebrating today, Herman was an exponent of simple tunes wrapped in powerful affirmations that kept audiences entertained and helped to drive the Broadway box office to new heights.
For many, he was defined by the traditional delights of title tunes such as “Hello, Dolly!”—especially as delivered by the delectable Louis Armstrong—or “Mame,” though it cannot be forgotten that in a time when homosexuality was all but criminalized, he boldly introduced the American stage to its first homosexual—and drag-performing—couple, complete with their own loving nuclear family. More than putting his personal beliefs onstage with La Cage Aux Folles, Herman lived openly and spoke candidly about his own gay pleasures at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when the stigma of “gay cancer” had much of the country gripped in hysterics.
Over the course of his five-decade-long career, his talent for jubilant songs won two Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Drama Desk Award, a Theatre World special award, a Kennedy Center Honor, and lifetime achievement awards from the Tonys and Drama Desk. For all of his success, he was not without his critics, who claimed that his work lacked grit and was overly accessible. Indeed, it has been frequently noted that Herman was a natural successor to Irving Berlin’s pop sensibility for crafting irresistible hits.
For all the critiques of playing it safe, Herman continued to put on his Sunday best and pleasant smiles as he laughed his way to Broadway gold. And whatever he lacked in melodic invention, he more than made up for with churning tunes and roaring anthems that dared anyone to try and stop the party. When “I Am What I Am,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “It Was the Best of Times,” or “If He Walked Into My Life” play, you may not recognize where they come from, but by the end of the song you will find yourself humming along with legions of Broadway fans who came before you and who continue to belt out the tunes at many a cabaret or karaoke today.
Name another composer who kept the audiences coming back night after night with life-affirming hummers and stunners. You can’t. Neither Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, nor his sometime-frenemy Stephen Sondheim can compete with Herman when it comes to making plucky positivity cool.
Herman’s shows ran for approximately 20 consecutive years on Broadway, which says nothing of the endless regional productions and tours that they enjoyed. But even as he always had a show in production somewhere, his career was not without its turmoil.
Following the back-to-back successes of 1964’s Broadway smash Hello, Dolly!—which ran for nearly seven years and with 10 Tony Awards held the record for the most awarded production for over 37 years—and Mame in 1966—which helped make Angela Lansbury a star—Herman did not experience another hit until 1983, with La Cage Aux Folles.
During that 17-year interim, Herman kept busy, supervising productions of Hello, Dolly! and Mame—making him one of the few composers in history to control every aspect of one of his shows—while also toiling on his three big flops. Those shows that bombed ran the gamut from strange plots and heartbreaking love stories to great-escape capers, proving that even though Herman was devoted to bouncy music, he was just as adventurous a creator as any of his contemporaries.
Dear World followed an insane recluse out to save her Parisian neighborhood from greedy oil executives and won Lansbury her second Tony. Mack and Mabel, Herman’s valentine to show business, featured his favorite score and starred Robert Preston in his final musical performance, alongside Bernadette Peters, just as she was about to become a star. It also introduced the devastatingly gorgeous torch songs, “Time Heals Everything” and “I Won’t Send Roses” to the world. The Grand Tour offered Joel Grey a star turn as a Jewish intellectual who teams up with an anti-Semitic aristocrat to escape the Nazis.
With La Cage Aux Folles, Herman came roaring back into the big time, even defeating Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking Sunday in the Park with George for the Tony Award. During his acceptance speech, he inadvertently (but not really) introduced Broadway to shade in a quip seemingly directed at Sondheim that went viral before going viral was even a thing: “This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theater. There’s been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it’s alive and well at the Palace Theatre.” Herman would spend years expressing dismay at the notion that he was in a feud with Sondheim, even as “toe-tapper vs. wordy intellectualism” arguments continued to rage between show queens.
Whether the shade was purposeful or not, Herman would soon find his own brand of music out of favor with the culture. His fall from grace has been largely attributed to his health decline following his HIV diagnosis in 1985, and while it is true that the disease nearly claimed his life, access to early HIV treatments—which he volunteered for as an early human clinical trial participant—allowed him to recover to full health. Herman himself believed that it was the New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams who put an end to his career in March of 1992, when she publicly outed him with no warning. Her Page Six posting mentioned his comings and goings and concluded, “We just want Jerry, who’s HIV positive, to stay healthy.”
Rather than give in to despair at the lack of returned calls, Herman turned his attention to managing his “children”—revivals of his shows that kept him in control and in constant demand, working with a crew of leading ladies on revues, such as Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon—and fundraising millions of dollars to help fund AIDS research. As always, when faced with a difficult time, Herman focused on doing the best that he could and opening the window to a better view.
Gerald “Jerry” Sheldon Herman, was born on July 10, 1931. He is pre-deceased by his former partner Marty Finkelstein, who died from AIDS-related complications, and survived by his husband, Terry Marler, and goddaughter, Jane Dorian.