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Guestwords: Hello, Jerry! And Goodbye . . .

Thu, 07/20/2023 - 09:41
Jerry Herman beneath the “La Cage aux Folles” marquee in New York in 1983.
Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection / Library of Congress

I am clearly, and indisputably, a musical theater geek, and have been since my mid-20s, when I managed to see “Chicago,” “The Wiz,” and “A Chorus Line” over three consecutive Saturday nights.

My previous experience of musicals and show tunes comes from a cast album my older sister brought home, “Oklahoma!” As an early teenager, I was transfixed, staring at the album cover: Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones atop the surrey with the fringe on top.

I was hooked.

Fast-forward to my first boyfriend in New York, Jim, who took me to see those shows mentioned up top.

And if I wasn’t sold enough, here’s what happened the night we saw “Chicago”: Liza Minnelli was replacing Gwen Verdon (on a two-week vacation) as Roxie Hart. And, unbelievably, after the show, both Liza and Chita Rivera popped into the bar across the street where Jim and I were having a few drinks. The two of them, still in stage makeup, sauntered over to the guy in the center of the room who was wearing a white tuxedo and playing a white baby grand, and whispered into his ear.

A minute later, he was playing “Nowadays” and “Class” (as in whatever happened to it), two numbers from the show. And those two giants of theater sang them.

Line and sinker.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, who did the music and lyrics to “Chicago” (and all that jazz, baby), are at the top of my list of favorites. Discovering Stephen Sondheim was a thrill that remains with every revival of his.

And then there’s Jerry Herman.

I saw “Hello, Dolly!” one time long ago — I don’t remember much of it, the Pearl Bailey version. But I saw it again during its semi-recent revival with Bette Midler. And again with Donna Murphy. And a third time with Bernadette Peters.

Only then did I swoon over the songs: “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “It Only Takes a Moment.” Clearly, though it’s a cliché, they don’t write them like that anymore.

Bernadette Peters, in concert long before she appeared in “Dolly,” sang a song “that haunts people,” she said. It was “Time Heals Everything,” from the ill-fated Herman musical “Mack and Mabel.” (More about that later.) And that song did haunt me. And haunts me still.

“La Cage aux Folles,” the opposite of a flop for Jerry, a Tony winner, beating out “Sunday in the Park With George” that year, cemented his genius. One song from the show, “I Am What I Am,” is now forever in the lexicon of the emergence, at the time, of gays being free. Also, “Song on the Sand,” a romantic number between two gay lovers, was a first in the very gay world of Broadway musicals. And in the middle of it all, “With Anne on My Arm,” a straight love song. Too much!

“Mame” gave us “If He Walked Into My Life,” a hit for the great Eydie Gorme in the 1960s, “Bosom Buddies,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” and more.

But no more. No more new Jerry Herman shows or numbers. We lost the man at the end of 2019. Lost the most upbeat and tuneful composer and lyricist there ever was.

Of course, he lives on. He lived on so very much one weekend when, at a Saturday matinee, I saw a revival of “Mack and Mabel” as part of the Encores! series in New York reviving semi-flops. I teared up over the songs. And the dancing! But “Time Heals Everything”: If you don’t know the song, get to it on YouTube or SiriusXM. Somewhere.

The very next day I went to the 92nd Street Y, where they were putting on a Jerry Herman tribute, “You I Like” (a song title from “Dear World,” a lesser show). The performers and the orchestra were staggering. More tears. It’s astounding the level of his work, the rousing “Best of Times,” the playful “A Little More Mascara.”

Sondheim, I love you.

Kander, old chum, yes.

But Jerry Herman, who I once thought of as underrated, I now think has never been given his proper due. Like a cheery Cole Porter, an Irving Berlin (Jerry’s mentor, apparently) without the politics, just lovely melodies and haunting, yes, haunting lyrics.

No one is Jerry Herman. One can only hope someone new will come along and try to fill those very optimistic shoes of his.

The musical theater geeks are waiting.

Hy Abady, formerly of Amagansett, is the author of “Back in The Star Again: True Stories From the East End,” a collection of his “Guestwords” essays.


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