Goodbye, Jerry

A former theater critic recalls the Tony award-winning composer of "Hello, Dolly," "Mame" and "La Cage Aux Folles"

29 Dec 2019 | 04:28

Jerry Herman, composer of countless ear-worm Broadway tunes with inevitable sounding lyrics, died Thursday at 88. There were numerous awards, among them Tonys for “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame.” And there were star vehicles for the likes of Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler.

Winning the 1984 Tony for “La Cage aux Folles” meant something special to Herman, and not only because it was the first time a Broadway musical dealt, however gingerly, with the intimacies of a gay relationship. His acceptance speech included a comment about there still being room for his kind of pizzazz. At a time when brilliant composers like Stephen Sondheim were exploring dark subjects and presenting them with sophisticated music and ambiguous lyrics, Herman reveled in songs that sent audiences out of the theater singing. Many of them went on to become standards. Louis Armstrong’s version of the title song of “Hello, Dolly” was a world-wide phenomenon.

In the audience to review “La Cage,” I was surprised at the lump in my throat during the “Song On the Sand.” Herman wasn’t only about catchy tunes and up-beat lyrics. He shared the heart that was on his sleeve, and audiences responded.

A favorite memory of Herman took place far from Broadway. I was doing a story in Turku, Finland. From the window in my hotel, I could see the city square and a theater marquis. The show was “La Cage” — in Finland’s second language: Swedish.

I contacted Jerry Herman, and he graciously replied to assure me that, yes, he was receiving royalties for the production.

Herman is survived by his longtime partner, Terry Marler, and by millions of us who will be grateful to be reminded, as in his song, that “The Best of Times is Now.”