There’s just no tune,
As a show tune,
Jerry Herman was born on June 10th, 1931. At an early age, he fell in love with the musical theater. Living near the NYC theater district his parents were frequent theater goers and when they came home they were filled with the music of the show they had seen. Jerry’s parents were also amateur musicians and their home was filled with music of the theater.
When Jerry was old enough his parents brought him along on their theater excursions and much to their surprise on arriving home Jerry was able to play much of the score he had heard that night. Jerry was born with Broadway in his blood.
The lyrics quoted above are a line from one of Jerry’s earliest songs. In a way, it is the philosophy behind every song Jerry ever wrote. To him, every song was about the character singing it. And into each song, he infused joy and enthusiasm for life. Even in his most grumpy characters such as Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly, you can’t help feeling that deep down he’s a cuddly bear when he sings “It Takes a Woman.
Jerry Herman began writing for Broadway at a time when Broadway was at its zenith. The 50s and 60s brought show after show and each was memorable. Many are still being revived on Broadway or are perennially used in community and regional theater.
This was the world of Rodger’s and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Meredith Wilson, Kander and Ebb. A young Stephen Sondheim was just getting started and Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were both queens of Broadway. This was the Broadway Jerry Herman entered. Broadway would never be the same.
I came across Jerry Herman in an off-beat kind of way. My mother loved musicals and would play records and sing at the top of her lungs every Saturday while cleaning. These records were always musicals. The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Funny Girl, and The Music Man were played almost every week but no Jerry Herman. I was not fond of musicals at the time. I was listening to The Archies and The Partridge Family. The theater bug bit me in the 8th grade when I was cast as Harry Macafee in our school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. I heard applause for the first time, just for me, and it changed something deep inside me.
From then on my record money went to original cast recordings and Hollywood soundtracks. Always looking for a bargain, I was a teenager on an allowance, I would delve into the bargain record bins at Jerry’s Records, a store in the Bazaar of All Nation in Clifton Heights PA. One day I found a copy of the movie soundtrack for Mame in the bin. I had never heard of it but it starred my favorite actress Lucille Ball and it was $1.99. I bought it and ran home. I played that record over and over. Everyone was telling me that Lucy can’t sing but I only heard gold and though I knew nothing of the story I fell in love with the music and lyrics of Jerry Herman.
Mame was amazing. I soon found a script for the Broadway show in our local library so I understood where the songs fit and knew the story. Eventually, I was able to order the book the musical was based on Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. I had to special order it at Walden Books and I got it but nothing compared to the music and lyrics of Mame.
Mame is probably the most uplifting and life-affirming musical ever written. Jerry had already had two successful shows on Broadway before Mame. The first was Milk and Honey the musical, as I understand it was about a group of older American Jewish women looking for husbands in The Holy Land or Israel. Two wonderful songs came out of that production, the title song Milk and Honey and a lovely ballad called Shalom. All the songs can be listened to by following the Youtube links.
You’ll find Shalom,
The nicest greeting you know.
It means bonjour, salute and skoal,
And twice as much as hello.
It means a million lovely things,
Like peace be yours welcome home,
And even when you say goodbye,
You say goodbye with shalom.
After that Jerry was asked to turn Thorton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker into a musical. That musical graced the stage and won the Tony Award for best musical in 1964. The show was Hello Dolly but more on that later. Back to Mame.
Mame came to Broadway in 1966 and also won the Tony for best musical. Mame was played by Angela Lansbury and is the story of Patrick Dennis an orphan who goes to live with his only living relative Mame Dennis in New York City. The opening of Mame takes place in the streets of New York where Agnes Gooch, Patrick’s nanny, and Patrick are looking for Mame’s Beekman Place apartment. They sing a prayer to St Bridget and arrive at Mame’s as she is throwing a lavish party. Mame appears at the top of the stairs blows a bugle and sings It’s Today
Light the candles.
Get the ice out,
Roll the rug up,
Though it may not be anyone’s birthday,
And though it’s far from the first of the year,
I know that this very minute,
Has history in it,
This song set the whole tone of the show and gives Mame’s philosophy of life. In this song, she sings the spoken line that is in all of Mame’s stage and movie adaptations. “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Mame raises Patrick for as long as she can using this state of mind. It becomes more clear in the song Open a New Window. This song is a joyous anthem about taking chances and never saying no to whatever life offers you. It feels good, it’s upbeat, and when you listen you want to go with Mame to wherever she leads.
If you follow your Auntie Mame,
I’ll make this vow, my little love,
That on the last day of your life,
You’ll be smiling the same young smile,
You’re smiling now my little love,
If you wake up every morning,
And you pull aside the shutter,
Ans promise me that these will be,
The first words that you utter.
Open a new window,
Open a new door,
Travel a new highway,
That’s never been tried before.
I could go on all day about the wonderful songs in Mame. My Best Girl, Bosom Buddies, We Need a Little Christmas, If He Walked into My Life and of course the title song Mame. But this whole blog would end up being only about that one show. This was my first introduction to Jerry’s music and what I didn’t know was there was more.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Lucille Ball’s portrayal of Mame. Some felt her voice and her age worked against her playing the role. I’m not sure that’s all true. My biggest problem with the film is the stuff they cut out and the script. After finally seeing the stage production and hearing the original Broadway cast album a lot of the story was left out and or changed and this was not necessary. The song That’s How Young I Feel was cut and it was key to describing Mame’s feelings as an older woman as she sings it when Parick has grown up. The script just didn’t work for me in parts. One change that I did enjoy was Lucille doing her best to get out of a store where Mame has been fired from wearing one roller skate. It was hilarious and true Lucy antics.
For a long time, Lucille’s portrayal as Mame was all I knew and I loved it. When VHS tapes came out and you could buy movies to own them for the very first time. My first purchase was Mame. The movie will always be dear to my heart.
I have to admit I keep hoping every year that NBC will decide to do Mame Live as they have done with The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Grease, The Wiz, Hairspray, and most recently Annie. NBC usually airs these television events at Christmas and Mame would be perfect, especially with a Christmas song embedded in the show. That is also my hope for the next Jerry Herman show we’ll discuss Hello Dolly.
Hello Dolly opened in 1964. It is the story of Dolly Levi a widow who has decided to “rejoin the human race.” She decides to accomplish this goal by marrying Horace Vandergelder the leading citizen of Yonkers New York. The musical takes place in 24 hour time period it has a prelude in NYC continues in Yonkers, goes back to NYC, and ends in Yonkers. Not bad for a day.
It took me a while to catch on to Hello Dolly. I wasn’t interested at all at first. All I knew of the show was the title song sung by Louis Armstrong and recorded in 1964. I was three years old and didn’t care much for it. My grandmother would be playing it while we visited her and it wasn’t a kid’s song. It took me a long time to find out where that song came from.
For a moment I want to take some time and talk about Jerry Herman the human being. Jerry’s songs were always joyful and filled with life. He came from a family that gave him that but he didn’t change when it came to being successful. Some folks when they make it big in their chosen professions don’t have time for others but Jerry was not like that as illustrated here by my good friend Richard Tyley Jordan. Richard has written the definitive book on the Character of Mame Dennis and it was over this book that Richard and I met. He is also the author of The Polly Pepper Mysteries which are great fun and have been called a cross between The Carol Burnett Show and Murder, She Wrote. Here is Richard’s story of his first meeting with Jerry Herman.
When I began writing my nonfiction book But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!, I sent a letter to Jerry Herman requesting an interview. I didn’t actually expect a response. Why would the legendary composer of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Mack and Mable, and La Cage Aux Folles, among other Broadway hits, deign to offer an audience to me, an unaccomplished kid (I was actually in my 30s, but I felt completely inferior compared to the great man)? I was equally terrified that he’d grant my request and find that I was an interloper in his rarefied world. I just happened to be in New York doing research for my book when I got the call. Yes! Jerry Herman would see me on Friday afternoon at 2:00! My world was spinning!
When I arrived at Jerry Herman’s brownstone, I was greeted by his amiable assistant, who guided me to the left and down two steps, and into Jerry’s wood-paneled office. A set decorator couldn’t have designed a more perfect room for showcasing career memorabilia of Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, framed gold records, and posters from Mr. Herman’s many Broadway triumphs. The assistant asked if I’d like a tea or coffee (“No, thank you.” I was too edgy as it was.) and said, “Mr. Herman will be with you shortly.” And then the moment arrived! Jerry Herman … in-person … appeared in the doorway, brandishing a friendly smile and a warm handshake. I was immediately instructed to drop the “Mr. Herman” formality and call him “Jerry.”
Jerry sat behind his desk (with a portrait painting of Carol Channing as Dolly Levi looking down from the wall behind him), and I sat nervously in a brown leather wingback chair. Neurotic me was trying very hard to appear intelligent and sophisticated so that he wouldn’t realize I was just a fan on a mission to chronicle the success of author Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame character. What I remember most about that afternoon is how gracious he was to me. For those two hours, we talked about how much he loved Mame and composing the songs for that show and how it was actually one of the easiest shows he’d ever worked on. But we also talked about how deeply and personally disappointed he was with Lucille Ball’s film version of his hit musical.
I guess I did something right that afternoon because when we concluded the interview, it was Jerry himself who offered to write the introduction to my book! This amazing man, whose songs I had admired my entire life, offered to personally contribute to my labor-of-love project! I’m still overwhelmed by his generosity. That’s the kind of man that Jerry Herman was. I’ve rarely known anyone more magnanimous. I will always be grateful to Jerry Herman, not only because he believed in my book and penned the introduction to it, but also because he gave me the soundtrack of my life:
I Am What I Am
If He Walked into My Life
It Only Takes a Moment
I Won’t Send Roses
Put On Your Sunday Clothes
Time Heals Everything
Although my book is long out of print (maybe I should release an e-book version), I am forever and deeply indebted to Jerry Herman, one of the finest men and talents I’ve ever known.
I don’t think much more can be said of the man. He was not only talented but he had a spirit of generosity to both see and nurture talent in others.This can also be seen in Angela Lansbury’s autobiography where she tells of Jerry so wanting her to get the role of Mame in the original Broadway cast that he coached her on how to sing the songs he wrote before she auditioned. This is the kind of man he was. Because of this generous, beautiful spirit music poured out of him.
Hello Dolly is a show about second chances. It’s a show about coming out of the fog and realizing you’re alive and life is worth living. It’s a show that tells you in no uncertain terms that you can begin again at any time of life. I of course saw Dolly first as a film starring Barbra Streisand. It may not have been my best introduction to the show but it was fun nonetheless and had a deep impact on my life. The music and lyrics are just as amazing as what Jerry would soon write for Mame but the theme was different. Mame is about knowing life is wonderful and teaching that lesson to the upcoming generation. Hello Dolly is about forgetting that life is wonderful and having to relearn the lesson. This didn’t mean much to me as a young man but it means a whole lot now.
In 2018 I had the privilege of seeing Bernadette Peters in a revival of Hello Dolly in NYC at The Schubert Theater. Watching Miss Peters was a revelation of what this show means. It’s for and about older people starting again. Anyone can start again, but there are plenty of movies and plays about young people starting again, not so many about our older generation. Right now, my generation. I came away from that show not only singing beloved songs but knowing I could start again. It took awhile but this blog is part of that second chance for me.
The songs of Hello Dolly are full of joy. I Put My Hand In, It Takes a Woman, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Dancing, Before the Parade Passes By, Etiquette, It Only Takes a Moment and of course the title song Hello Dolly.
Carol Channing the original Dolly in the musical tells the story of recording the cast album. In the recording studio the whole cast couldn’t contain themselves and they burst into the kicks while singing the title song. It has been said that the cast recording of Dolly is one of the few that makes you feel like you’re in the theater.
In the show Jerry’s Girls, the title song gives a list of many of the actresses that played in Jerry’s shows. One of those names is Lucie Arnaz. I reached out to Miss Arnaz about how she feels about performing the music of Jerry Herman. Miss Arnaz replied:
“Jerry writes about joy and, as a performer, it’s a vacation to sing his music.”
And that is about the best thing that could be said. Singing Jerry’s music can be a balm for me when I’m down. The songs from Hello Dolly are infectious. You can’t help singing along and if you have them in your heart you can’t help singing them when life has kicked you in the gut.
One such song from Hello Dolly is a sort of anthem for second chances. The song is Before The Parade Passes by
Before the parade passes by,
I’m going to go and taste Saturday’s high life.
Before the parade passes by,
I’m going to get some life back into my life.
I’m ready to move out in front,
I’ve had enough of just passing by life.
With the rest of them.
With the best of them.
I’m gonna hold my head up high.
I’ve got a goal again,
I’ve got a drive again.
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again.
Before the parade passes by.
Can you think of better words to say to the world that you still have something to offer, that you still count, and that you are part of the parade ready to do your bit and find a full life? In this respect, the roles of Dolly and Mame are very much alike. Both women are driven to find the best out of the life that they have and to have joy in that journey.
After his stellar success with Hello Dolly and Mame Jerry would write several more shows for the Broadway stage some successful and some not so successful. Even the shows that weren’t so successful had memorable moments and great music. One such show was Mack and Mabel.
Mack and Mabel opened in 1974 and told the love story of silent movie director Mack Sennett and silent movie star Mabel Norman. It opened with two Broadway legends as the leads, Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters. It had wonderful music. Movies were Movies, I Wanna Make the World Laugh, Look What Happened to Mabel, I Won’t Send Roses, Wherever He Ain’t and the ballad Time Heals Everything.
This show only played 91 performances which had to be a big letdown for the entire team. I have read that the show’s ending with Mabel’s death due to drug addiction was hard for the audience to watch. With all the upbeat music the show brings you down in the end. I have also read that the ending was reworked and is now not as dark. I have never seen a production of this show but I would love to. It does continue to be performed in regional and community theater. The cast album is great and I enjoy listening to it. No matter the ending you can’t help feeling happy while listening to the music.
Jerry’s Next Hit would come in 1983 with his show La Cage Aux Faux. La Cage is about two gay men who have raised a straight son who now wants to marry. I have not seen this show but the son wants his dads to act a bit more middle of the road which is hard to do when you consider that the dads own a club that features men in drag and one of them is the star performer.
The title in English translates to The Cage of Fools and it was originally a French film, but not a musical. After the musical opened an American version of the film was produced called The Birdcage and it starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams.
La Cage Aux Faux was a big risk for Jerry and Broadway. There had been plays about gay men before but they weren’t lavish musicals and this would be a big production. It also opened at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and gay men were again being attacked for who they were. But despite all of that La Cage was a hit and won the Tony award that year. To add to its honors the show was revived twice in 2005 and 2010 and won the Tony for best revival both times.
There are two stand-out songs in La Cage. One is almost a campfire song and Jerry himself describes it as such. The song has a great melody and is easy to learn. The song is The Best of Times.
The Best of Times is now,
What’s left of summer but a faded rose,
The best of times is now
As For tomorrow, well who knows
So make the moment last,
And live and love as hard as you know-how,
And make this moment last,
Because the best of times is now
The other song is an anthem for gay men and for everyone else who feels misplaced in society. It is a song for the marginalized, for people of color, for the odd kid at school that gets beat up because he’s different. The song is I am What I Am.
I am what I am
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Life’s not worth a damn,
‘Til you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am.”
I am what I am,
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.
I bang my own drum,
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.
And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,
Why not try to see things from a diff’rent angle?
Your life is a sham ’til you can shout out loud
I am what I am!
In 1996 Jerry Wrote the words and music for a Christmas television musical called Mrs. Santa Claus. It was aired only once as far as I know but it had a terrific cast and storyline and of course incredible music. The leading lady was Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Claus. She feels neglected sometime around 1900 and decides she knows a better route for Santa to deliver his toys. She takes the sleigh in order to go around the world only to be stranded in NYC on Avenue A where she meets and is befriended by many locals. In the few days she’s there she reunites a family, softens the heart of an evil toy manufacturer, and strikes a blow for women’s rights. All to the sound of some terrific and clever music.
My favorite song from the show is Almost Young a declaration of you’re as young as you feel and Angela proves it to a bunch of children who work in the toy factory
I’m holding back the hands of time
And though a fool might say I’ve passed my prime
My heart has always clung to staying almost young
A few grey hairs, A few gold teeth
Can never hide the kid that’s underneath
The kid whose hopes are hung
On staying almost young
My walk is swift and sporty
My disposition is evergreen
Why say I’m over forty, I’m over seventeen
I’ll still have all the speed it takes
When all the others have applied the brakes
And when my knell has run
I’ll still be struttin’ and kickin’
Like some little chicken
I’m almost young
Considering Miss Lansbury was 71 when she made this musical you can see she was still pretty spry if you follow the Youtube link.
I haven’t said much about Jerry’s Love songs and there were a good many. It Only Takes A Moment from Hello Dolly, Time Heals Everything and I Won’t Send Roses from Mack and Mabel, Loving You from the film version of Mame. My favorite is from Mrs. Santa Claus and it’s sung by a young couple who Mrs. Claus helps bring together. It’s called, We Don’t Go Together at All.
A girl with a drive and a fellow with a dream
Are like pickled herring with vanilla ice cream
So, as unromantic as my words may seem
We don’t go together at all
My big loud mouth and your quiet ways
Are like August evenings with December days
Are like corned beef and cabbage topped with mayonnaise
We don’t go together at all
We’re like chicken soup
And a slice of ham
We’re the big bad wolf
And the little lamb
Like a picnic lunch
That’s ruined by a sudden squall
No we don’t
No we don’t go together at all
Like an overcoat
And a hot July
Like a bowl of borscht
And a pizza pie
Like if I asked you
To come to the policemen’s ball
No we don’t
No we don’t go together at all
An onion roll at a Mayfair tea
Like a march by Sousa in a minor key
So forget all the magic that was meant to be
We don’t go together at all
A stable boy and a suffragette
Are about as peculiar as a pair can get
So it’s, oh, such a pity
That we even met
We don’t go together at all
I love the cleverness of the lyrics to this song. It also has a catchy tune and it’s fun to sing either the girl part or the boy part or both.
This is truly the longest blog I have ever written. I hope I captured the joy of Jerry’s music and the inspiration he has given to…well too many people to count. If you are unfamiliar with Jerry’s work the CDs are still available to buy and Spotify has all of his original cast recordings and soundtracks as well as many many different artists that have covered his songs in one way or another. If you can catch a performance of any of his musicals spend the time and money it is well worth it. Mrs. Santa Claus is available on DVD and well worth adding to your holiday film collection. The film Mame is available on DVD and electronically on platforms such as Vudo. Hello Dolly is available on DVD and electronically. It is also available to stream on Disney+.
I’m leaving you with Jerry’s first hit. It was used in the show and to advertise lunchmeat and as a presidential song for Lyndon Johnson. I don’t know if it helped but he won the 1964 election. For the election it became Hello Lyndon, For Oscar Mayer it was Hello Deli, for me it will always be Hello Dolly.
Well, hello, Dolly
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly
I can tell, Dolly
You’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’
You’re still goin’ strong
We feel the room swayin’
While the band’s playin’
One of your old favourite songs from way back when
Golly Gee, fellas
Find her an empty knee, fellas
Dolly’ll never go away again.
It is my Hope Jerry Herman will never go away too.
MPL and the estate of Jerry Herman have graciously given me permission to use the lyrics to Jerry’s songs. This author is grateful and I hope the article is a source of joy for many.