Thursday, July 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jerry Herman!

Today is the 77th birthday of Broadway composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, whose first big hits were almost fifty years ago (Milk and Honey opened October 10, 1961, and Hello, Dolly! -- which was once the longest-running show on Broadway -- opened January 16, 1964).

Herman -- whose other hits include Mame and La Cage aux Folles -- is now being introduced to a whole new generation of listeners with the soundtrack of WALL-E, the Pixar animated film currently in theatres.

WALL-E includes songs from the film version of Hello, Dolly! and opens with "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." On today's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR, WALL-E's director, Andrew Stanton, reveals that, in high school, he once played Barnaby Tucker in a production of Hello, Dolly!, and that is why that song was in his head as he was searching for an appropriate number to set the tone for the movie. It turns out (as I understand it, having not yet seen WALL-E) that Hello, Dolly! -- the film -- plays a pivotal role in the plot.

Like his contemporary, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman is that among that rare breed of musical theatre professionals who write both music and lyrics. (Almost every other hit musical of the past half-century is the product of a collaboration between a composer and a lyricist, most notably John Kander & Fred Ebb but also such teams as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, or Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.)

I am one of those who thinks that, despite receiving accolades like multiple Tony Awards and Tony nominations, Herman does not get the critical credit he deserves in comparison to his peers. While not as complex or intellectually challenging as Sondheim's, his music is harmonically distinct, almost idiosyncratic, yet it is also accessible, in the sense that it's "hum-hum-hummable" for the average theatergoer. His lyrics are often clever, often touching, always literate, and help define character and advance the plot; what more can you want?

When I was a kid, I wore out my vinyl copy of the OCR of Hello, Dolly! (it was the first Broadway show I ever saw in a legitimate house, rather than in its motion-picture adaptation) and I used to belt "Before the Parade Passes By" while mowing the front lawn. (Try not to imagine what an 11-year-old boy sounds like as he pushes a lawn mower and channels Carol Channing.) In high school, the late T. Brennan used a recording of the title song from Mame to audition dancers for Senior Follies and the spring musical. It was easy for non-dancers to adapt to the rhythms without feeling (too) awkward.

The sad thing is that the movie adaptations of Herman's biggest hits -- Hello, Dolly! and Mame -- turned out to be such disappointments. Many people know his work only from the screen, and thus may leave the cinema with a lesser opinion of his work than he deserves.

The good thing is that virtually every day, if not every hour, there is someplace around the globe where a Jerry Herman musical is being performed. Herman's work makes it possible for small-town kids to believe, truly, that "there's a world outside of Yonkers."

While there may not be any of his shows that will be mounted by the New York City Opera, they still offer hours of pleasure to audiences at every level: high school, college and community theatre, semi-professional repertory companies, and even revivals on the Big Stem.

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