If you were fortunate enough to see the Tony Award-winning 2017 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, starring Bette Midler, then you saw the genius of composer and lyricist Jerry Herman—who died at age 88 on Thursday—at its most joyful and transcendent. The roars and applause for Midler and company were so thunderous the roof of the theater felt like it would launch into space.
But if you didn’t see it, or you didn’t see Carol Channing in the original 1964 production (based on Thornton Wilder’s 1954 play The Matchmaker), or Betty Buckley’s recent national tour of it, or the 1969 Barbra Streisand-starring movie version, no matter. Listen to the album. Sure, there is the luxuriant, show-stopping, pure-camp pizzazz of the title track, when Dolly Levi returns to the loving, diva-worshipping embrace of the waiter chorus.
But Herman’s genius is also in that song and so many of the songs’ notes of melancholy and characters’ determination to face whatever demons need facing down and darn well carry on, as in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” and “Before The Parade Passes By.” You see and hear the same mixture—hum-worthy music sugar-coating the grittier bite and notes of emotional wont—in Herman’s other well-known musicals, like Mame (1966) and La Cage aux Folles (1983), one of the first Broadway musicals to feature a gay couple as its central characters.
It is there too in the song from La Cage (sung by George Hearn) that became its own disco-era and LGBT anthem, “I Am What I Am”—lyrics perfect both for a wild spin on the dance floor or karaoke machine, bursting with fun and an enjoyment of life, while also containing an emphatic statement of self-assertion that could be chanted, placard aloft, at a Pride parade.
The song, later sung by Gloria Gaynor and others, came out at a time when LGBT people were condemned as sick, treated as perverts and different, and made to feel shame by politicians, tabloids, and bigots. The exclamation of “I am what I am,” of needing “no excuses,” the desire to “bang my own drum,” of stating and owning, “Your life is a sham/Till you can shout out/I am what I am,” was radical.
In case it needed saying again, the song laid out the need to personally be proud of you, or even more plainly, “It's one life and there's no return and no deposit/One life so it's time to open up your closet/Life's not worth a damn till you can shout out/I am what I am.”
Herman was reportedly taken to a Miami hospital after complaining of chest pain. He died of pulmonary complications, and is survived by his partner Terry Marler and goddaughters Jane Dorian and Sarah Haspel.
He was first inspired to take up piano by a production of Annie Get Your Gun his parents took him to in the late 1940s. After producing off-Broadway revues I Feel Wonderful and Parade and From A to Z on Broadway, Herman found his first Tony-nominated stage success with his 1961 musical, Milk and Honey.
As the New York Times noted, Herman made stage history as the first composer-lyricist to have three musicals run more than 1,500 consecutive performances on Broadway—Hello, Dolly! with 2,844, Mame with 1,508, and La Cage with 1,761. Herman ultimately scored a dozen Broadway musicals, including Mack & Mabel (1974), won multiple Tonys (including a lifetime achievement award in 2009), two Grammys, and he was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2010.
Joel Grey, Oscar-winning star of Cabaret (and now director of the acclaimed Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof), who starred in Herman’s Tony-nominated musical The Grand Tour, which played on Broadway for 61 performances in 1979, told The Daily Beast: “He was a heart-on-sleeve kind of guy. Whatever he wrote was so immediate and so heartfelt. I think he is the Broadway answer to Irving Berlin—his musicals and songs were popular, tuneful, schmaltzy and accessible. Look at Hello, Dolly! You can’t do better than that.”
Buckley told The Daily Beast: “Jerry Herman knew something profoundly true and beautiful about life, and through his musicals left us a legacy of the remembrance that love is all. Herman is truly one of the greatest composer/lyricists of Broadway’s golden age of musicals. His shows seem to center around a leading character who is seeking to rise above his or her circumstances in a relentless quest for love and joy.
“It was my honor to play Dolly Levi in the first national tour of the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! To feel the audience’s great love for the show, to see the joy in their faces was a gift. Everyone knew the show and could sing along with Herman's memorable, beautiful score.”
Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book of La Cage, told The Daily Beast in a statement: “Jerry Herman lost his hard-fought battle last night and we lost one of the greats. A collaborator and friend for almost 40 years, I cannot thank him enough for his love, trust, encouragement, support and laughter. Sweet, adorable, loving, generous, talented, funny and loyal. Those are the easy words to describe Jerry.”
“Brought together to write La Cage Aux Folles, I knew nothing of the musical form. He knew it all and was more than willing to guide this novice along. Under the watchful eye of director Arthur Laurents, we wrote our Tony award winning show in less than 6 months and for the next 4 decades, we proud parents shared the duties of guiding our child about the world.”
“Through all of these years Jerry battled illness with superhuman ferocity. He was not a survivor. He was a conqueror. Even at the worst of times enthusiasm and joy rang true in his voice. He lived on the edge of a devious little laugh that always made you feel like an insider to a private and naughty little gambit.”
“I adored this man and never took our friendship for granted. A great talent, a steadfast friend, his exquisite taste in everything from decorating to dressing was always on display. Jerry devoured life as if each day was a rare piece of chocolate placed on a silver platter just for him. Well done, Mr. Herman. Bravo.”
“He had a vision about himself and the theater. He was clear about what he was doing.”
Buckley recalled to The Daily Beast that the first Broadway show she ever saw on a college vacation trip to New York City was the all-black production of Hello, Dolly! “starring wonderful Pearl Bailey.”
“After I moved to New York, I saw Mame starring the great Angela Lansbury. Some years later Mr. Herman invited me to his apartment for lunch as an interview/meeting for a project he was considering. It was the only time I got to sit down with him. He was a lovely, gracious host. I was somewhat tongue-tied meeting him.”
In The Grand Tour, Grey recalled playing S. L. Jacobowsky, a Polish Jewish intellectual “about to face the Holocaust,” Grey told The Daily Beast. “He has this song, ‘I’ll Be Here Tomorrow.’ It has always stayed with me as an important anthem in a way. He had this attitude of ‘simply going on,’ as the lyric goes, even in the context of what we knew the end of the play to be—that he wouldn’t be around. But he believed in himself, and he believed in right and wrong.”
“It is so stirring. I always love that song whenever I hear it that was his mantra too. I think he loved musical theater like nobody else and he wrote so many great shows. It’s a fantastic amount of work. And Broadway was everything to him.”
Herman was “very straightforward and excited” when it came to crafting a musical, said Grey, “and he wrote wonderful songs.” Grey laughed. “He wrote a new song while on the road—and it was wonderful, ‘I Belong Here,’ a real showstopper. He was a definite artisan.”
The Grand Tour didn’t run long, and while reviewed well (and earning Tony and other award nominations) it did not take light as a musical, and remains one of Herman’s lesser-known works.
“You never know what’s going to remain in the zeitgeist but it was a musical at that time having to do with anti-Semitism,” recalled Grey. “The timing probably was not propitious. But it was a good show.”
Grey also noted Herman’s songs’ mix of pleasure and endurance. “I think that was very much his mantra, not being bowed down. Even if a show didn’t work, he loved it, and he went on to the next one. That’s what makes a long-run mind. He had a vision about himself and the theater. He was clear about what he was doing.”
Gavin Creel, who worked with Herman on the 2004 Tony-nominated Broadway revival of La Cage—and who won a Tony for his performance as Cornelius Hackl in the 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!—told The Daily Beast: “I am extremely sad. He was a kind man, and happy to be in the presence of people who wanted to tell happy stories. I found him to be really joyful, always smiling, always complimentary and encouraging. He struck me as someone who really loved musical theater and who always loved musical theater for what it could do. The best thing about writing musical theater is that generations to come may never know his name but will always know his music. That’s the best thing about art right there.”
In 2004, when the revival of La Cage was playing on Broadway, Herman was “very excited that it was being produced again and a whole new audience was experiencing it,” said Creel. “This was a charged time. We didn’t have marriage equality yet, and it was an election year—very polarizing. The musical is not overtly political, but the musical presents this (long-enduring gay) relationship as what it was: real.”
“Jerry’s attitude seemed to be that ‘I wrote this in the 1980’s, and here we are in 2004 saying something that needs to be said.’ I wonder if the production didn’t succeed because in 1983 it seemed new and fantastic, and now just seemed too close to home. But at the time Jerry was simply joyful and appreciative.”
Creel said Herman had inspired him in his own writing. “The lesson I take from him is to write what you love. Line up that with who you are in the most powerful place, and that will be the work that is heard around the world.”
“I’m forever grateful for Cornelius Hackl,” said Creel. “He took Thornton Wilder’s source material and made Cornelius. Playing him, singing those lyrics that Jerry created, changed my life. Without Jerry’s music that would never have happened.”
Creel said the brilliance of Herman’s music, for a performer, lay in its melody. “You can lean back into it. (Director) Jerry Zaks and the whole team would say, ‘Trust it.’ If you were thinking, ‘It’s 2017, shouldn’t we layer so much more stuff into this?’ the answer was no. Trust the primary colors in it and lean back into it. Let the melody of the song bite into the words. There was brilliance in those lyrics.”
“In ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes,’ the message is: go out there and put on the clothes, fake it till you make it. If you want it, go out and fucking get it! I feel like Jerry Herman had teeth without baring them ever. He had bite. Look at the song ‘Hello, Dolly!’ itself and its melodies. What seems simple is very complex, and really about the melancholy of Dolly coming home, of missing and being missed.”
Creel’s favorite lyric to sing is at the start of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” he laughed. “Slamming that door, and singing, ‘Out there. There’s a world outside of Yonkers…’ I had heard it in WALL-E (the 2008 Pixar movie), and it’s the mantra of that film, which I loved. I had only seen Hello, Dolly! maybe as dinner theater when I was 7 or 8. And then slamming that door, and we are in a buddy comedy, the two of us (Cornelius and Barnaby Tucker) going, ‘Come on. Let’s go get ours.’ He perfectly captures that in that song.”
A few years ago, Buckley recalled, she was “honored” to perform Herman’s “lovely” 1969 show Dear World, directed and choreographed by the “legendary” Gillian Lynne.
“She corresponded and talked to him frequently about the production,” Buckley said. “We were hopeful he would come to see it in London, but his declining health prevented him making the journey. When the Hello, Dolly! tour passed through Florida near his home we were again hopeful he might come to see us. He could not but I always felt we had his blessings.”
Buckley continued: “His great legacy in the world of musical theater is singular and completely unique. His music and stories remain to remind all of us of the truth of our connection to one another. Thank you for the music, Mr. Herman. Thank you for all the lessons in love and choosing happiness. Rest in peace.”