The golden age of the Broadway musical was in full flower when Jerry Herman first burst upon the New York scene, and he was soon to become the musical's most successful composer/lyricist as the bloom started to wilt and the traditional Broadway musical started to go the way of the dinosaur. But for a few shining, golden moments, Herman crafted a series of classic shows, including "Hello, Dolly" and "Mame," before experiencing a series of commercial failures that nonetheless failed to dim his preternatural optimism.
This wonderfully crafted and engaging love letter to Herman is full of the sort of deeply felt anecdotes and frequently laugh out loud moments that are too often missing from career retrospectives. The fact that some of these ancedotes are provided by the recently departed Charles Nelson Reilly (a longtime friend and collaborator of Herman's) lends an added poignancy to the proceedings. When Reilly talks about going to a grocery store with Herman shortly after Herman's first Broadway musical, the Jewish themed "Milk and Honey", opened, and hearing the hit song from that score, "Shalom", pour out of the Muzak speakers, and then hearing Herman, several aisles away from Reilly, squealing with delight, it casts an unforced sweetness on Herman, something Herman himself evinces in his own on-screen reminiscences.
Born into a family that wisely recognized and encouraged his musical talents, Herman had the good fortune to meet Broadway legend Frank Loesser at any early age, who told his parents that Herman was going to make it big in songwriting one day. The writing was pretty much on the wall from that moment on, with Herman crafting catchy tunes and lyrics for his local Jewish Community Center productions, and later his college theater department's.
New York success wasn't too far in the future, with his first off-Broadway revue, "Parade," gaining rave reviews. He then wrote "Milk and Honey," followed within just a few years by "Dolly" and "Mame." Herman then wanted to stretch his writing muscles and adapted the Giraudoux play "Madwoman of Chaillot" into the musical "Dear World," which, while easily one of his most complex and brilliant scores, left audiences confused and feeling betrayed that they weren't seeing star Angela Lansbury in another outing as Auntie Mame.
Herman then weathered one professional heartbreak after another, with such failed (commerically speaking) shows as "Mack and Mabel" and "The Grand Tour." Even in these purported failures, however, Herman's unerring ability to write hook-laden tunes (almost invariably built on a vamp that modulates by half-steps) and character-revealing lyrics shines through unabated and has helped to make the scores for even his flops beloved by musical fans everywhere.
Herman reestablished his commercial credibility with the megahit "La Cage aux Folles," which may have also served as his official coming out (though his being gay had been no secret to anyone who knew him). Though Herman proclaims he meant nothing political in writing the show, the fact remains that "La Cage" stands as the first Broadway musical to ever attempt to show a gay lifestyle, and its first act anthem "I Am What I Am" has stood as a proud proclamation for anyone who has ever felt the outsider, for reasons of sexual preference or otherwise. "La Cage" had been open only for a while when the scourge of AIDS first hit the gay community so brutally (Herman himself is HIV positive, and his partner died of the disease), so the show has an added emotional resonance for those who lived through the terrifying first years of the virus.
This documentary (soon to be broadcast on PBS) features some wonderful memories from lifelong friends like Phyllis Newman, vocal arranger and orchestrator Don Pippin, and Michael Feinstein, as well as such stars of his shows as Carol Channing and Lansbury. It's easy to see that all of the participants love Herman deeply, something not hard to understand when seeing the unassuming manner of the master himself on this exceedingly well-produced and engaging biography.
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is very crisp and detailed. Some of the source video is in extremely poor shape, but Broadway lovers will be thrilled to see live (silent) footage of "Dolly," "Mame" and the rarer flops (all synched to the original Broadway cast recordings).
The standard Dolby soundtrack is wonderful, and contains a bounty of music both from the Broadway cast recordings as well as live performances by Michael Feinstein.
Three fascinating extras are offered: a vintage ABC News film of Carol Channing and the Broadway cast performing "Hello, Dolly" at the inaugural festivities for LBJ in 1965 (silent, synched to the Broadway cast recording); an amazing 1955 piece from Herman's college musical; and a 1982 Merv Griffin appearance featuring Ethel Merman (the last of the Broadway Dollys during that show's first record-breaking run) and Herman. There are significant sound problems on the Griffin tape, unfortunately.
Jerry Herman served as a bridge from the big, lavish world of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, to the more introspective and self-revelational work of such "newer" talents as Stephen Sondheim. Anyone thinking that Herman lacks Sondheim's sophistication, either musically or lyrically, need only listen to such pieces of genius as the Tea Party sequence from "Dear World" to realize that Herman has been there all along, happily drawing from the great melodic tradition of Rodgers and others, while just as boldly pointing the way to the future. It's wonderful that this PBS documentary is helping to give him the recognition he so richly deserves, and musical fans are certainly going to be richly rewarded by viewing it.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet