Broadway Songwriter Jerry Herman Dies At 88

Dec 27, 2019
Originally published on December 27, 2019 4:14 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman wrote cheerful, optimistic songs for Broadway musicals like "Hello, Dolly!", "Mame" and "La Cage Aux Folles." He died last night at the age of 88. His lyrics were simple. His melodies were catchy. And critic Bob Mondello says he had one trick up his sleeve that always worked on audiences.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Remember when Pixar's animated robot WALL-E first met his mechanical soulmate EVE and took her home? To impress her, he showed her bubble wrap, a light bulb, a Rubik's Cube. And he popped in a VHS tape of a big production number from Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!"

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALL-E")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out.

MONDELLO: Using a garbage can lid as a straw hat, WALL-E started dancing along with the figures on his tiny screen. He'd watch this number a lot, had picked up its choreography. And when EVE decided to join in, she did so with a little more enthusiasm than he expected.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

MONDELLO: Perfectly understandable. That number had long been getting audiences excited, as had similar numbers in Jerry Herman shows, from "Milk And Honey" to "La Cage Aux Folles." And all that cheer must have seemed irresistible to WALL-E, an antidote to howling windstorms, upbeat, affirmative and with what I'd always thought of as the Jerry Herman pulse, a throb that came into what sounded at first like a sweet little song and told you it was going to build.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MAME")

ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Auntie Mame, singing) Open a new window.

MONDELLO: This one's from "Mame" - Angela Lansbury's Auntie Mame, singing to her nephew Patrick about how he should always be up for new experiences. They're alone when the numbers start. She's just singing to him. But before long, they're joined by the rest of the household and then by Mame's neighbors and, after a couple of choruses, folks on the street and eventually by what seems like all of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MAME")

COMPANY #1: (Singing) Soaking up life down to your toes.

MONDELLO: New Yorker Jerry Herman did write other kinds of ditties, sweet and sentimental when a love song was required, peppy for patter songs, torchy for big ballads. But as he established, especially after taking a hiatus when he had three flops in a row, this was the sort of song he owned. It didn't seem to crop up much in other writers' musicals. The cheer-up anthem that reminded audiences that for life to be OK, you just need a little Christmas in "Mame" or to put a little more mascara on in "La Cage" or to tap your troubles away in "Mack And Mabel." In "Dolly!" he wrote a first-act anthem for a long-sidelined leading lady who decided to rejoin life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HELLO, DOLLY!"

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Dolly, singing) Before the parade passes by...

MONDELLO: In "La Cage," his leading lady was a man in drag persuading a roomful of homophobes that...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "LA CAGE AUX FOLLES")

COMPANY #2: (Singing) The best of times is now.

MONDELLO: In "Milk And Honey," Herman wrote an anthem for the new nation of Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MILK AND HONEY")

COMPANY #3: (Singing) This is the land of milk and honey.

MONDELLO: And in "Dear World," he tried to buck up a whole decrepit planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "DEAR WORLD")

COMPANY #4: (Singing) Someone has beaten you, dear world.

MONDELLO: And again and again, as that heartbeat in the bassline came in, Broadway audiences reveled in what was always the overriding message in a Jerry Herman show - that, yes, life can come at you hard, but hold your head high. Face the future. March to that pulse because when others see your confidence, they will line up in support, filling the stage, arms in the air, singing to beat the band. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HELLO, DOLLY!"

COMPANY #5: (Singing) ...In the evening air. To town we'll trot to a smoky spot... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.