Hello, Dolly! composer Jerry Herman dies at 88

Herman won two Tony Awards for best musical.

Tony Award winning composer Jerry Herman has died at the age of 88.

Herman wrote the cheerful, good-natured music and lyrics for such classic shows as Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles.

His goddaughter, Jane Dorian, confirmed his death and said he died in Miami, where he had been living.

He was the creator of 10 Broadway shows and contributor to several more, and won Tony Awards for best musical for Hello, Dolly! in 1964 and La Cage Aux Folles in 1983.

He also won two Grammys — for the Mame cast album and for Hello, Dolly! as song of the year.

Obit Jerry Herman
Jerry Herman displays his autobiography Showtune (Jim Cooper/AP)

Tributes poured in on Friday from Broadway royalty, including from Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book of La Cage aux Folles alongside Herman’s songs.

“We lost one of the greats,” Fierstein tweeted. “A collaborator and friend for almost 40 years. I cannot thank him enough for his love, trust, encouragement, support and laughter.”

Writer and host Seth Rudetsky honoured Herman for writing “quintessential Broadway songs. Beautiful melodies and fantastic lyrics.”

Herman wrote in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, an optimistic composer at a time when others in his profession were exploring darker feelings and material.

Many of his song titles revealed his depth of hope: I’ll Be Here Tomorrow, The Best Of Times, Tap Your Troubles Away, It’s Today, We Need A Little Christmas and Before The Parade Passes By. Even the title song to Hello, Dolly! is an advertisement to enjoy life.

Herman also had a direct, simple sense of melody and his lyrics had a natural, unforced quality. Over the years, he said in 1995, critics had dismissed him “as the popular and not the cerebral writer, and that was fine with me. That was exactly what I aimed at”.

In accepting the Tony in 1984 for La Cage Aux Folles, Herman said: “This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theatre. There’s been a rumour 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 — “the simple, hummable show tune” — as a subtle dig at Stephen Sondheim, known for challenging and complex songs, but Herman rejected any tension between the two musical theatre giants.

Obit Jerry Herman
Carole Channing and Barbara Walters with Jerry Herman on Broadway (David Gould/AP)

Herman was born in New York in 1931 and raised in Jersey City. His parents ran a children’s summer camp in the Catskills and he taught himself the piano. He noted that when he was born, his mother had a view of Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre marquee from her hospital bed.

Herman dated his intention to write musicals to the time his parents took him to Annie Get Your Gun and he went home and played five of Irving Berlin’s songs on the piano.

After graduating from the University of Miami, Herman headed back to New York, writing and playing piano in a jazz club. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 contributing songs to the review From A To Z — alongside material by Fred Ebb and Woody Allen — and the next year 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.

Hello, Dolly!, starring Carol Channing, opened in 1964 and ran for 2,844 performances, becoming Broadway’s longest-running musical at the time. It won 10 Tonys and has been revived many times, most recently in 2017 with Bette Midler in the title role.

Mame followed in 1966, starring Angela Lansbury, and went on to run for more than 1,500 performances. She handed him his Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2009, saying he created songs like him: “Bouncy, buoyant and optimistic.”

Obit Jerry Herman
Jerry Herman accepts his Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2009 (Seth Wenig/AP)

In 1983 he had another hit with La Cage Aux Folles, a sweetly radical musical of its age, decades before the fight for marriage equality.

It was a lavish adaptation of a successful French film about two gay men who own a drag nightclub on the Riviera. It contained the gay anthem I Am What I Am and ran for 1,760 performances.

Many of Herman’s songs have outlasted their vehicles: British ice skaters Torvill and Dean used the overture from Mack And Mabel to accompany their gold medal-winning routine in 1982.

Writer-director Andrew Stanton used the Herman tunes Put On Your Sunday Clothes and It Only Takes A Moment to express the psyche of a love-starved, waste-compacting robot in the film Wall-E.

Later in life, Herman composed a song for Barney’s Great Adventure, contributed the score for the 1996 made-for-TV movie Mrs Santa Claus — earning him an Emmy nomination — and wrote his autobiography, Showtune.

He is survived by his partner, Terry Marler, a property broker.

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