Jerry Herman: Broadway composer whose hit shows included Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles

The Tony Award-winning composer with his autobiography in November 1996: AP
The Tony Award-winning composer with his autobiography in November 1996: AP

Jerry Herman was one the most successful composer-lyricists in musical theatre history, and the only one to have three shows – Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles – run for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway.

Herman, who has died aged 88, was first exposed to music at the age of seven when his mother, a singer-pianist, gave him piano lessons. When he was 14, his parents took him to see Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.

“That show had the most profound effect on me,’’ he wrote in his memoir. “When we got home from the theatre that night, I went straight to the piano and played ‘They Say That Falling in Love is Wonderful’, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and snatches of other songs I remembered.’’

He soon began writing songs of his own, but regarded music as merely a hobby, and enrolled in New York’s Parsons School of Design to study architecture and design. His mother, however, arranged a meeting with the composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, who was so impressed with the 17-year-old Herman’s songs that he urged him to make songwriting his career.

Dutifully leaving design school, Herman enrolled in the University of Miami because of its highly respected theatre department. After graduating, he brought his college revue I Feel Wonderful to off-Broadway. After two more small shows, he was offered his first Broadway musical, Milk and Honey (1961). Set in Israel, it ran 543 performances, and went down in Broadway history as the first musical in which a goat was milked onstage every night.

Herman’s next musical, Hello, Dolly! (1964), enjoyed a Broadway run of 2,844 performances, a record for the time. Carol Channing, who created the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, was succeeded during the Broadway run by such stars as Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Lamour, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman. (The show’s successful title song involved Herman in an infringement action when the composer-lyricist Mack David found the opening bars of “Hello, Dolly!” identical to those of his 1949 song “Sunflower”. The suit was settled out of court for a quarter of a million dollars.)

Herman’s next show Mame (1966) was another hit, achieving a Broadway run of 1,508 performances and making Angela Lansbury, Herman’s choice for the title role, one of the top stars of the American musical theatre. She also starred in his next show, Dear World (1969), a musical version of Jean Giraudoux’s 1943 play The Madwoman of Chaillot, but the audiences didn’t want to see the stylish Lansbury as a delusional octogenarian living in a sewer, and it closed after 132 performances.

Carol Channing in the title role of Dolly Levi, taking a bow in the 1964 Broadway production (Granger/Rex)
Carol Channing in the title role of Dolly Levi, taking a bow in the 1964 Broadway production (Granger/Rex)

Herman was particularly disappointed at the failure, after 65 performances, of Mack and Mabel (1974), which he felt boasted his best score. Next came The Grand Tour (1979), a musical version of Jacobowsky and the Colonel, Franz Werfels’ 1944 play about the flight of an endearingly resourceful Jewish refugee and an antisemitic Polish army officer across wartime France, one step ahead of the invading Nazis. Despite a winning performance from Joel Grey as Jacobowsky, The Grand Tour too was a failure.

“My biggest problem in writing musicals,” Herman once said, “has always been finding the right source material.” After a long wait, he found the ideal subject matter in the French film La Cage aux Folles. His 1983 stage show of that title notched up 1,761 Broadway performances. Set in a St Tropez nightclub, the show won Tony awards for Best Score, Best Musical, Best Costumes, Best Director, Best Book and Best Actor in a Musical (George Hearn). There were also hit singles of three La Cage songs: Perry Como recorded “Song on the Sand” and “The Best of Times” and Gloria Gaynor scored with a disco version of “I Am What I Am”.

In 1985 Jerry’s Girls, a revue composed of Herman’s songs, opened on Broadway after touring America for four years. In 1996 he wrote the songs for Mrs Santa Claus, a television musical which reunited him with Angela Lansbury.

“Early in my career people used to put me down for writing upbeat songs – as if the feelings I put into them were not genuine,” he wrote in his 1996 memoir Showtune (co-authored by Marilyn Stasio). “It has taken me the better part of my lifetime to make people understand that I write the way I feel, and that these sentiments are honest. I can’t help writing melodic showtunes that are bouncy, buoyant and optimistic. That’s me. And I am what I am.”

He is survived by his partner Terry Marler.

Gerald (Jerry) Herman, lyricist and composer, born 10 July 1931, died 26 December 2019

Dick Vosburgh died in 2007

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