Jerry Herman’s Broadway
- Disc 1
The selections on this recording are not presented chronologically. Instead the songs are grouped together by feeling and emotion (except the Philip J. Lang brassy overture to Mack and Mabel which is left intact). Not surprisingly, most of that feeling is upbeat. Whether it is sentimental (“Song On the Sand”) or triumphant (“Before the Parade Passes By”), Jerry Herman’s music is about optimism. And that is as it should be, given the fact that the first Broadway show he saw, and the one that changed his life, was Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman. Seeing that show with its unparalleled parade of great songs and featuring a larger-than-life musical comedy heroine (and star), Jerry discovered a passion for the theater and for “showtunes.”
The clarity and joy that is the hallmark of an Irving Berlin song is clearly Jerry’s greatest influence. Songs such as “It Only Takes a Moment” or “If He Walked Into My Life” are remarkable for the directness of their emotions, and have lyrics and melodies that are at once dramatic and musical. That musical thrust of a clean, pure melody is what Jerry Herman does best.
His career began in the mid-1950s when he created “special material” for revues and nightclub personalities. Those songs were collected and produced off-Broadway in 1960 under the title Parade. During that show’s 95-performance run, producer Gerard Oestreicher and librettist Don Appell found the composer/lyricist they had been looking for to write the score for their musical comedy about a tourist group in Israel: Milk and Honey. That show opened on Broadway in 1961 and ran for 543 performances. The score reflected a maturity and authentic ethnicity that surprised people who expected more of his light-hearted revue material.
His next show, though still early in his career, is the quintessential Jerry Herman musical, Hello, Dolly!, with a book by Michael Stewart based upon Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. The show has a big-hearted, optimistic point of view, loud clear emotions, a grand larger-than-life star part and a score as bountiful as one would want. In this case the first star was Carol Channing and the list of others that have followed – Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, etc. – reads like a who’s-who of every great musical star alive in the 1960s. On this recording the International Dolly is more than just a clever way of reinventing a song everyone knows: it’s a reminder that a Jerry Herman song knows no borders. You can walk down the street virtually anywhere in the world and ask someone to sing “Hello, Dolly!” and the chances are pretty good that they could.
Following Hello, Dolly!, Jerry turned his attention to the musical version of Lawrence and Lee’s popular play Auntie Mame (based upon the best-selling novel by Patrick Dennis). The resulting show, Mame, was another Broadway smash, another great star part (this time for Angela Lansbury) that would be played on Broadway and around the world by the likes of Susan Hayward, Celeste Holm, Jane Morgan, Ginger Rogers, and Ann Miller, and another score which featured such now standard songs as “We Need a Little Christmas,” “If He Walked Into My Life,” “Mame,” and “Bosom Buddies.” Mame played 1,508 performances on Broadway and won Tonys® for both Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur.
At this point, Jerry had written three Broadway shows and had three Broadway hits. He is fond of saying, “Was I spoiled! I thought you just wrote a musical and it ran for seven years.” He was about to discover that this was not always the case. His next show in 1969 reunited him with Mame librettists Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and star Angela Lansbury. Dear World was based upon Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and it ran 132 performances. Tastes in popular music were changing. The advent of the rock musical Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and the sharp-edged work of Stephen Sondheim were among the elements of an evolving Broadway arena. Broadway musicals were breaking down barriers and new musical theater styles were emerging. Dear World, while being a failure, contains some of Jerry’s most sophisticated and deeply felt work – “The Tea Party” is complex and challenging in a way his work never was before – and songs such as “I Don’t Want To Know” and “Kiss Her Now” stand with some of the best theater ballads ever. A friend of Jerry’s, Sylvia Herscher, once told him when he was wondering why there weren’t more “cover” versions of “I Don’t Want To Know,” “Someone will find the song … its time will come.” That song is now a staple of cabaret acts around the world and recently Jerry heard Liza Minnelli stop the show with it at Carnegie Hall – making Sylvia Herscher’s prediction come true.
Following Dear World, Jerry was approached to write the score for Mack and Mabel based upon the romance between Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. Despite the buopant score, which became his personal faborite, the book by Michael Stewart, stars Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters and exuberant staging by Gower Champion the show lasted a mere 65 performances. Thanks to the cast recording though it has developed a devoted cult following both in the U.S. and in England.
The ’70s continued to prove disappointing with The Grand Tour in 1979. Adapted by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble from Franz Werfel’s Jacobowsky and the Colonel, the show starred Joel Grey and the score featured an optimistic anthem, “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” a lovely ballad “Marianne,” and a robust song of friendship, “You I Like.” the show, however, didn’t work. Garnering mixed notices, it lasted 61 performances. The failure of The Grand Tour, his third in a row, was devastating, leaving Jerry wondering whether he should continue to write.
A phone call for help in March of 1980 from two friends, Alexander H. Cohen and director Tommy Tune, from Baltimore where their show A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine was trying out, resulted in Jerry writing three “special material” numbers for the show. That phone call, those three numbers, and the positive response they generated not only turned the show around but Jerry as well. He got his best reviews in a decade for those songs. The A Day in Hollywood experience and the renewed interest in his work reminded him of how much he loved the theater, and he began actively looking for a new property.
He found it one afternoon in a movie theater in Los Angeles where he saw the French film La Cage Aux Folles. Watching that film he knew that this would have to be the basis for his next musical. The next day when he called to inquire about the rights he discovered that producer Alan Carr had already done so and that it was in fact already being written. Jerry’s agent told him to forget about it. He didn’t. Creative teams came and went, and one night, Fritz Holt and Barry Brown, who had joined Allan Carr as executive producers, without knowing of Jerry’s prior interest in the show invited him to dinner with the specific intention of asking him if he would be interested in writing the score for La Cage.
The resulting show, La Cage Aux Folles, opened in 1983, played 1,761 performances, and was a worldwide phenomenal success, making him the only composer/lyricist ever to have three shows run for over 1500 performances on Broadway. With a book by Harvey Fierstein and direction by Arthur Laurents, the show was a return to the old-time magic of Broadway musicals. It featured Jerry’s trademark elements of an optimistic view of life and a great star part for a great leading lady (in this case George Hearn). Critics and audiences alike cheered it and Jerry’s dark decade was over at last.
Like other writers who see their work go out of fashion, Jerry Herman has survived to see his work return to be embraced by critics and audiences who grew to doubt him. Even songs from the scores that were previously dismissed have become contemporary standards around the world. Like other artists who do what they do over a long period of time and don’t bend to fashion or trends, Jerry has stayed true to his inspirations. To put it simply, he is what he is.
There is never an evening when somewhere in the world, Jerry’s music and lyrics are not being sung by a lady with a bugle and a lady in a red headdress descending their respective staircases. For his work in the musical theatre he has won Tonys®, Grammys, Gold records, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, three Variety Critics Awards, and the Johnny Mercer Award. Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello, Dolly!” is the most popular number ever to come out of a show. Jerry was recently elected into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and the Theatre Hall of Fame.
“The Best of Times” is not simply a song from La Cage Aux Folles, it is a reflection of what the Broadway musical theatre was like in the heyday of the ’50s and ’60s and what Jerry Herman was lucky enough to be a part of. With this recording, listening to his music played for the first time by a symphony orchestra of seventy, it can truly be said that “the best of times” is now.
– Bill Rosenfield
Orchestrations by Richard Heyman, Hershey Kay, Philip J. Lang, Art Harris, Jim Tyler
Arrangements by Donald Pippin