Operetta Research Center
27 December, 2019
Some will claim that Hello Dolly, Mame or La Cage aux Folles are among the greatest modern operettas in the Broadway canon. Now, on 26 December 2019, their composer Jerry Herman has died at the age of 88.
His goddaughter Jane Dorian confirmed his death to The Associated Press early Friday. He died of pulmonary complications in Miami, where he had been living with his partner, real estate broker Terry Marler.
Herman was born in 1931 in New York and brought up in Jersey City. His parents ran a children’s summer camp in the Catskills (of recent The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel fame) and he taught himself the piano.
After he graduated from the University of Miami, Herman headed to New York, writing and playing piano in jazz clubs. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 contributing songs to the review From A to Z — alongside compositions by Fred Ebb and Woody Allen — and a year later tackled the entire score to a musical about the founding of the state of Israel, Milk and Honey. It earned him his first Tony nomination.
Then, in 1964, Hello Dolly opened,starring Carol Channing. The rest is history. That show was based on the 1842 Viennese play by Johann Nestroy, Einen Jux will er sich machen. It had been updated by Thornton Wilder, and then adapted as a musical that was praised for its ‘nostalgic charm’ and over-the-top title role, a role that many Broadway legends have played over the years, most recently Bette Midler. A 2020 revival in London’s West End is in the planning.
Some of the songs have found their way into very unusual projects, for example the glorious “Out There/Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello Dolly ended up, years later, in Wall-E, making a whole new generation fall in love with this music.
Herman’s career continued. He later wrote blockbusters such as Mame for Angela Lansbury. And in 1983 he created La Cage Aux Folles, the first XXL-sized show to put an openly gay happy couple with children on the Broadway stage. The text was written by Harvey Fierstein, spanning a wide arch back to Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan from 1868, the first discussion of a same sex marriage on the musical theater stage.
La Cage might not have had the immediate impact in the English speaking world, because of the devastating AIDS crisis and homophobia of those years, but in German speaking regions it became very popular in local theaters and operetta houses, because it connected well with the post-war German and Austrian tradition of glitter-and-be-gay productions. Helmut Baumann starred as Zaza at Berlin’s Theater des Westens for years, before he later returned to the stage in Abraham’s Ball im Savoy at Komische Oper Berlin.
When accepting the Tony for ‘Best Musical’ in 1984 for La Cage aux Folles, Herman said, “This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theater. There’s been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it’s alive and well at the Palace Theatre.”
Some saw that phrase as a subtle dig at Stephen Sondheim.
Jerry Herman is survived by his partner, Marler, and his goddaughters — Dorian and Dorian’s own daughter, Sarah Haspel.