The composite image of a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, who has died aged 88, is of a brassy, glamorous woman bedecked in pearls and feathers sashaying down a staircase to deliver a big take-home number surrounded by a deferential male chorus line of waiters, or valets, or drag queens.
The three big Herman shows that many people know are Hello, Dolly! (1964), starring Carol Channing as the widowed matchmaker Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie directed by Gene Kelly); Mame (1966), starring Angela Lansbury as another widowed matchmaker with a nephew in tow (Lucille Ball in the 1974 film directed by Gene Saks); and La Cage aux Folles (1983), starring George Hearn as a nightclub entertainer, Zsa Zsa, declaring himself vindictively “out” as he throws off his wig and melodically bellows I Am What I Am.
Dolly and Mame signalled the high point, and last hurrah, of the American musical as an agent of delirious combustion, emotional uplift and rousing self-assertion, and they owed everything to the example of Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun (1946) which Herman saw, aged 14, and played from memory on the piano the instant he got home. The die was cast. This was his mission.
His natural talent for songwriting – he usually wrote words and music simultaneously – was allied to a gift, and a penchant, for placing the numbers in a dramatic framework. When he could not find that structure, his shows flopped, but his style, more flashy and strutting than Berlin’s, was rooted in the cakewalk, the big build and then the firework display.
Many of his quieter numbers, however, have a lyrical finesse and beauty that have been tellingly exploited by singers such as Eydie Gormé, who transformed one of the many superb songs in Mack and Mabel (1974, one of the flops), If He Walked Into My Life, into a glorious, mellow, slowed-down torch song.
With La Cage, Herman, together with his book writer, Harvey Fierstein, and director, Arthur Laurents, hit pay dirt for the third and last time by almost nonchalantly adapting a delicious 1978 French film into a musical love story of two middle-aged men in the south of France. Albin (aka Zsa Zsa) forces the sexual/gender identity issue when his partner’s biological son from a former life comes home to announce his engagement to the daughter of a homophobic politician.
This was Broadway’s first mainstream gay musical. Crusading critics, and even Fierstein himself, felt the “queerness” was compromised by the decision to have non-queeny actors in the leading two roles. Laurents said that if they had kissed on stage, the audience would have got up and left. Instead they stayed. And got to their feet only at the end, when they roared their approval. This was something.
At the same time, the social moment was captured in the show’s rousing item The Best of Times, as Aids spread through New York and indeed the cast of the show. Shortly after La Cage opened, Herman had met Marty Finkelstein, with whom he restored, developed and sold property in Key West, Florida – he felt his time in theatre was over – before nursing him through his final illness. Then he himself discovered he had the HIV virus and lived with it on medication for the rest of his life in Florida and Palm Springs.
Herman was born in Manhattan in a hospital near the Winter Garden theatre (where Mame would be produced), the only child of Harry Herman, a gym instructor, and his wife, Ruth Sachs, a piano teacher. They lived in Jersey City, and Harry and Ruth ran a summer camp in upstate New York, where Jerry made costumes, painted scenery and wrote revues. Ruth got him an introduction to Frank Loesser, the composer of Guys and Dolls, who liked his songs and declared he had a future in the musical theatre.
At this crucial point Jerry transferred from the Parsons School of Design in New York to the University of Miami, where he majored in drama in 1953 and wrote more revues. After a couple of off-Broadway revues, he was commissioned to write his first Broadway musical, Milk and Honey (1961), as a Jewish theatre party special; after visiting Israel with his librettist, David Appell, he wrote a score of Jewish harmonies and American idioms for a tale of middle-aged romance blossoming for a party of widows in the desert.
This led to an audition with the fearsome producer David Merrick to write Hello, Dolly!, which opened two months after the assassination of John F Kennedy and, winning 10 Tony awards, became the longest running Broadway musical until eventually overtaken by Fiddler on the Roof, which had opened in the same year. Ethel Merman had turned down the leading role. Channing was succeeded by Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller, Pearl Bailey – who later led an all-black revival with Cab Calloway – and Merman herself.
After Mame, which was basically Hello, Dolly! mark two (with Mary Martin following Merman in turning down the lead but taking it much later in the run), Herman ran into a brick wall with Dear World (1969), another vehicle for Lansbury that was based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot.
He fared little better with Mack and Mabel (1974), which starred Robert Preston as the silent film-maker Mack Sennett and Bernadette Peters (her breakthrough role) as his tragic muse Mabel Normand, nor with The Grand Tour (1979), about an antisemitic Polish colonel and a Polish Jew (Joel Grey) escaping together from occupied France, derived from earlier plays by SN Behrman and Franz Werfel.
Herman’s big three shows are constantly revived – in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s 2007 revival of La Cage was a small-scale revelation with Douglas Hodge, then Graham Norton and Roger Allam as Albin; Imelda Staunton is slated as Dolly Levi at the Adelphi in August 2020 – and the British theatre refuses to give up on Mack and Mabel, which flopped in the West End in 1995 but won legions of new fans in a pocket-sized production at the Watermill, Newbury, in 2005, transferring to the West End with David Soul and Janie Dee. It also surfaced more extravagantly once more at the Chichester Festival theatre in 2015, Michael Ball paired with the American singer and songwriter Rebecca LaChance.
The Grand Tour, however, remains a lost voyage – Grey was never thought to have the humanity or humour of Danny Kaye in a 1958 film from the same source material – while Dear World, directed by Gillian Lynne with Betty Buckley at the Charing Cross theatre in 2013, proved to have a quirky charm but not a lot more.
Herman kept an eye on all major revivals and collaborated on revues such as Jerry’s Girls (1985), starring, on Broadway, a peerless trio of Dorothy Loudon, Chita Rivera and Leslie Uggams.
His last Broadway show was An Evening with Jerry Herman (1998), and he wrote a TV musical for Lansbury, Mrs Santa Claus (1996). In the same year, with Marilyn Stasio, he produced a frank and entertaining autobiography, Showtune. He remained busy to the end and is survived by his husband, Terry Marler, a real estate broker.
• Jerry (Gerald) Sheldon Herman, composer and lyricist, born 10 July 1931; died 26 December 2019