Hailed by The Stage’s former editor Peter Hepple as “the master melodist of our time”, Jerry Herman was arguably the last of his kind – a composer and lyricist whose concept of the Broadway musical was lavish, camp and, above all, lyrical and joyful.
Writing for the American Dramatists Guild journal in 1966, a year after Hello, Dolly! announced him as a major presence in musical theatre, Herman claimed: “I still believe in melody [and] that when somebody pays $20 to see a musical, he should be able to whistle something on the way home.”
Following this creative credo, he became the first composer-lyricist to have three shows register more than 1,500 performances on Broadway: Hello, Dolly!’s 2,844-show run followed by 1966’s Mame with 1,508 and La Cage Aux Folles reaching 1,761 after its 1983 opening. Nearly four decades later, only Stephen Schwartz has equalled his achievement.
Born in New York, Herman’s interest in musical theatre was sparked by childhood visits to Broadway and involvement in amateur productions staged in summer camps run by his parents.
Having begun to write in his mid-teens, aged 17 he was introduced to Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser, whose encouragement of the young would-be composer spurred him to drop out of architecture studies and enrol in Miami University’s drama department, where he wrote and directed the musical revue Sketchbook in 1953.
He subsidised early writing ventures by working as an interior designer and playing as a cabaret pianist, notably becoming accompanist to the English-born star Mabel Mercer.
The success of his 1958 revue Nightcap, which ran for two years, led to his Broadway debut contributing to the Hermione Gingold-starring revue From A to Z in 1960. The following year’s Milk and Honey earned him his first Tony award nomination.
His first collaboration with librettist Michael Stewart, 1964’s Hello, Dolly!, made Carol Channing the queen of Broadway while Mary Martin starred in its London run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Memorably filmed with Barbra Streisand in 1969, it has been revived in the West End three times and will be seen again at the Adelphi Theatre with Imelda Staunton later this year.
In 1966, Mame, composed in three days and with Angela Lansbury in the title role, secured Herman’s status, its Drury Lane premiere three years later delivering a musical theatre masterclass from Hollywood icon Ginger Rogers. Its 2019 revival by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, starring Tracie Bennett, will be seen in Northampton and Salisbury this month.
A series of disappointments followed, although with Dear World Herman became the first composer to have three shows running on Broadway at the same time in 1969. Closing after two months and considered a flop at the time, 1974’s Mack and Mabel remains his most problematic work despite boasting one of his best scores.
Its British premiere was delayed until 1981 at Nottingham Playhouse with Denis Quilley as the silent film producer Mack Sennett and Staunton as the starlet he made famous, Mabel Normand. Its profile was raised by ice skaters Torvill and Dean, who choreographed a World Figure Skating Championships-winning routine to the show’s overture in 1982, although its West End debut, at the Piccadilly Theatre, had to wait until 1995.
Herman’s last commercial success was La Cage Aux Folles in 1983, with its first UK appearance at the London Palladium in 1986. With a book by Harvey Fierstein, it provided a celebratory riposte to a period in which homosexuality was defined by the Aids crisis, Herman’s partner at the time later dying from the condition and Herman himself diagnosed with HIV in 1985.
The Best of Times, a compendium of Herman’s songs devised by Paul Gilger for the Bridewell Theatre in London, transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre in 1998.
In later years, Herman devoted his time to resurrecting his career as an interior designer. He published an autobiography, Showtune, in 1996 and received a lifetime achievement Tony award in 2009.
Gerald Sheldon Herman was born on July 10, 1931 and died on December 26, 2019, aged 88.