Written by: Michael Darvell
We’ve had “Side by side by Sondheim” and now it’s time for a compilation of the theatre songs of Jerry Herman. At the London Palladium on Sunday 4 May Jerry Herman himself will be appearing in “Jerry Herman’s Broadway”, presented by Barry J. Mishon in aid of CRUISAID, the charity that raises money for people with HIV and AIDS.
Among those appearing are Angela Lansbury, who has created roles in two musicals by Herman, “Mame” and “Dear World”. Sadly, Barbara Cook, whose repertoire always includes some of Jerry Herman’s songs, has withdrawn; but that leaves Ron Raines, Melissa Errico, Klea Blackhurst and Sal Viviano, all accompanied by long-time conductor of Herman’s shows, Donald Pippin, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, plus the cream of Broadway and West End musical talent.
Jerry Herman was born in 1931 in New York of musical parents who encouraged him to get involved in summer-camp theatre productions. From the age of 6 until he was 23 he was steeped in theatre and music. At age 17 he was introduced to Frank Loesser who approved of Jerry’s composing talents. After graduating from the University of Miami he started writing revue material. His first show in 1954, “I feel wonderful”, was an immediate success and he went on to write “Parade” (1958). By 1960 he had a Broadway revue “From A to Z” which also included material by Woody Allen and Fred Ebb. His first Broadway musical was “Milk and Honey” in 1961 which ran for over 500 performances. His mega-hit, “Hello, Dolly!”, came in 1964, and it picked up ten Tony Awards. “Mame”, “Dear World”, “Mack and Mabel”, “The Grand Tour” all followed but it wasn’t until “La Cage aux Folles” in 1983 that Herman had another enormous hit.
According to Jerry Herman’s website: “There is never an evening when, somewhere in the world, the music and lyrics of Jerry Herman are not being sung by a lady in a red headdress, or a lady with a bugle, or a middle-aged man in a wig and a boa.” This is undoubtedly a reference to Herman’s three biggest hit shows, namely “Hello, Dolly!”, “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles”. His shows are the essence of camp and he has created some marvellous leading roles for actresses in their prime. Just think of the female performers who have played Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Dora Bryan have all played the role while Barbra Streisand (miscast) did the movie version.
“Mame” originally starred Angela Lansbury, with Celeste Holm, Janice Paige, Jane Morgan and Ann Miller subsequently took over. Lucille Ball starred in the film version but it was too late for her to make a good impression in the role.
The epitome of camp was reached in “La Cage aux Folles” which for its time, twenty-five years ago, was a brave show to do on Broadway. Who would ever have thought that a gay French comedy film could give rise to such a successful mainstream musical? Its line-up of male chorines plus one token female managed to attract enormous audiences and some 1,776 performances on Broadway, a run for Jerry Herman that was second only to “Hello, Dolly!” at 2,846 performances.
Other shows have had shorter runs, such as “Mame”, a very respectable 1,500 or more with Angela Lansbury, but “Dear World” in 1969, an adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s “The Mad Woman of Chaillot”, struggled to reach under 200, even with Lansbury at the helm in her Tony Award-winning title-role. “The Grand Tour” reached less than eighty performances in 1979 and the earlier “Mack and Mabel” (1974) originally survived for barely seventy shows.
The relative flops of some Herman shows have no bearing on what the music and lyrics are like. “Mack and Mabel” was one of Herman’s least commercial shows but it probably has his best score with songs such as ‘Movies were movies’, ‘Look what happened to Mabel’, ‘I won’t send roses’, ‘Wherever he ain’t’, ‘Hundreds of girls’, ‘When Mabel comes in the room’ and, best of all, the great torch number, ‘Time heals everything’. “Mack and Mabel” is mainly remembered in the UK for the use of the overture by Torvill & Dean in their championship skating performances, and for being played incessantly by David Jacobs on his BBC Radio 2 programme. (Indeed, when Barry Mishon presented a gala concert performance of “Mack and Mabel” some years ago, David Jacobs introduced it.)
That performance contained one of the most memorable of chorus-numbers ever seen in the West End, when the theatre was inundated with literally hundreds and hundreds of chorus-girls from every show in town who danced their way through every entrance to the auditorium – absolute magic and sadly better than the real staging at the Piccadilly Theatre where “Mack and Mabel” had a short run. The trouble with the show has always been the book and, try as hard as he may, Herman has never cracked it satisfactorily, although the UK revival two years ago with David Soul and Janie Dee came close to being the definitive version.
Jerry Herman is the past master of the feel-good song. His most famous example of this phenomenon is ‘The best of times’ from “La Cage aux Folles”, but he has delivered other great numbers of an uplifting nature such as ‘Before the parade passes by’ from “Hello, Dolly!”, ‘It’s today’, ‘We need a little Christmas’, ‘Open a new window’ and ‘Bosom buddies’ from “Mame”, ‘Tap your troubles away’ from “Mack and Mabel”, and ‘I am what I am’ from “La Cage aux Folles”. No doubt many of these will form the basis of “Jerry Herman’s Broadway” at the London Palladium.
- Jerry Herman’s Broadway is at the London Palladium on Sunday 4 May 2008
- Tickets on 0844 412 4657
- Jerry Herman