fri 25/09/2020

Celebrating the musicals of Jerry Herman (1931-2019) | reviews, news & interviews

Celebrating the musicals of Jerry Herman (1931-2019)

Celebrating the musicals of Jerry Herman (1931-2019)

An immortal lyricist and composer leaves us plenty to be joyful about

Annabel Leventon, Betty Buckley and Rebecca Lock in the tea party sequence from 'Dear World' at London's Charing Cross TheatreEric Richmond

How is it that, in the nearly 900 pages of Sondheim's collected lyrics with extensive comments Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, with numerous special boxes celebrating other composers and lyricists, he managed to mention Jerry Herman only once, and in passing?

How is it that, in the nearly 900 pages of Sondheim's collected lyrics with extensive comments Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, with numerous special boxes celebrating other composers and lyricists, he managed to mention Jerry Herman only once, and in passing? Most perceptions of their differences overstate the case: Sondheim could write big, generous melodies as rich as Herman's, Herman's lyrics can be as literate and as laugh-out-loud funny as Sondheim's, and invariably they fit the tune just as well (chances are higher when, like these two and Cole Porter, you do both).

With Herman's death at the age of 88 on 26 December 2019, tributes tend to have focused on "composer of Mame and Hello, Dolly!," but those I love best are the ones with what were certainly at the time off-kilter subjects: Mack and Mabel (1974), Dear World (1969) and La Cage aux Folles (1983 - a then-unique celebration of a happily "married" gay couple).

How deftly, but also with what fun, Herman etches the turbulent relationship of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand and the times they lived through. Take some (any) of Mack's lines about his silents to make 'em laugh: "Let others do drama of sin and disgrace/While I throw a fish in the heroine's face...Let Mister Griffith deal with humanity's woes/I'd rather film the guy with the fly on his nose". Or, musically the most memorable number, Mabel's arrival sequence with its piquant harmonic sideslips married to catchy rhythms and the perfect set-up. Here Jane Krakowski manages to do her own thing, and no mere impersonation of Bernadette Peters (who created the role).


By and large, the Herman musicals preserve the straight (if that's the right word) interweaving of musical numbers and spoken dialogue; though the songs do further the action, there's less musical-theatre continuity than in Sondheim (which is not necessarily a criticism). One number stands out for virtuoso ensemble work, though: the crazy tea party of ladies with various idées fixes in Dear World. Exquisitely realised in the intimate setting of the Charing Cross Theatre underneath the railway arches back in 2013, this topical story of an eccentric eco-warrior versus big money in Paris (for which you could read grassroots activism versus fracking) has so many bittersweet, memorable songs. But the culminating three-part counterpoint here is something new for Herman, and unique for Broadway at the time.

No prizes for guessing the ultimate torch song in Herman's output: one could simply mine the YouTube archives for various treatments of "I am what I am" in La Cage aux Folles, drag artist Albin's celebration of his identity in a musical celebrating a loving, long-term gay relationship. Time for tenderness first, though, as his partner Georges tries a nostalgic reminiscence of a barely-remembered song ("something about sharing, something about always"). Unashamedly sentimental, but nothing wrong with that. Here's Gene Barry on the original Broadway soundtrack.

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Of course, though, the big number, one which changed so much for those who decided it was indeed "time to open up the closet", has to end our sequence - and it has to be the original Albin, George Hearn, 10 years on from the premiere. There's also a special appearance from the immortal creator, too.

Now, on with the show, and it's high time for a London revival of Mack and Mabel.

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