The Jerry Herman We Determine

The Jerry Herman We Determine

Jerry Herman is often maligned for creating fizzy showtunes without substance, usually to populate splashy musical comedies based around a central, larger-than-life character. I am an enormous fan of both Herman's music and lyrics, and I'm glad to say that I continue to make amazing discoveries in the scores of his musicals. First: there is nothing wrong with bubbly optimism. In fact, this is often exactly what the doctor ordered, so kudos to Herman for writing the prescription for what ails our spirit. Second: Herman can hardly be pigeon-holed for ONLY writing fluff. He does, in fact, create well-balanced scores that span a wide range of emotions, that dabble in witty wordplay and stunning imagery, and that explore the emotional depths of his characters. This article is an examination of my top-ten favorite Jerry Herman showtunes that are above and beyond the generalizations that people have formed around his work.

"I Am What I Am" - La Cage aux Folles

Okay…for some people, this song may be “done-to-death” and the message may seem dated. Rewind to a less gay-friendly 1983 when this song first played in front of an audience and a homosexual drag queen named “Albin” took the stage and claimed his self-respect, and you have to admit that Herman captured something courageous, unique and bordering on poetry. “Life’s not worth a damn ‘til you can say “hey world, I am what I am.” It’s a life-defining moment for anyone who decides to embrace their individuality and push past the haters and the doubters. Herman packs this song with heart-wrenching honesty and just a slight edge of bullheaded determination.      

"Bosom Buddies" – Mame

Anyone who thinks Jerry Herman only writes songs of maximum energy and minimal wit has never listened to “Bosom Buddies” from Mame. They would be shown just how wrong they are. Quite truthfully, this ditty is exactly how old friends behave. Mame and Vera know where all of the bodies are buried and keep careful checklists of each other’s dark and sordid secrets. The song oozes with an acidic tang of two people who have loved each other in spite of their faults, but who revel in calling each other out on their delusions. No song has ever quite summed-up competitive friendship so perfectly. 

Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur sing "Bosom Buddies" in Mame.

"Before the Parade Passes By" - Hello, Dolly!

If you read my blog (and here’s hoping that you do) you will notice that I often speak with deep affection about this song from Hello, Dolly! It is, in fact, probably the most perfectly positioned song in any Jerry Herman musical. We’ve all felt, at one time or another, that we are fading into the background and have been rendered irrelevant in some way. When the matchmaker Dolly Levi steps up to the proscenium and speaks to her dead husband, recounting the love and adventures they have shared, but then asks for his blessing to return to the human race, we become choked up with this deep moment of raw humanity. This little monologue launches into the Act I curtain showstopper that celebrates joining the marchers and embracing the color of a big parade instead of standing on the sidelines and watching it pass us by.  

Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in Mack and Mabel.

"I Won't Send Roses" - Mack and Mabel

Love songs in musical theatre very often deny the possibility of love, with the irony that they often build the foundation for it. Think about it. How many love songs out-and-out just profess love? Instead they walk around its periphery (“If I Love You”), paint it as an illusion (“Old Devil Moon”), or try to stamp it out altogether (“People Will Say We’re In Love)? “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel is such a love song. Instead of making promises of all of things he will do, filmmaker Mack Sennet shares with film star Mabel Normand all of the things he won’t do if they are to be in love. True, theirs is a tragic love story and he is true to his word, but there is something in the song’s tone that lets you know that, just from the mere mention of these things, that he loves her so much that he believes she deserves them.   

"Love is Only Love" from the film of Hello, Dolly!

I am often surprised that this song doesn’t get more affection than it does. Since it was not written for the stage production of Hello, Dolly!, but was interpolated into the film, perhaps people see it as a song jammed into a story just to give the star another chance to shine. Maybe so, but in the case of “Love Is Only Love”, it lays out a different type of love we seldom encounter in musicals: practical love. Dolly (Barbra Streisand) admits that she had the great love of her life, and that was enough for her. The second time around she is looking for someone to share things with, but it is a quieter, more practical kind of love. This is a sentiment that resonates, especially when you consider Dolly’s chief intention is to marry Horace Vandergelder for his money. She finds ways to love him, even if it is with a logical and somewhat detached vantage point. 

Barbra Streisand in  Hello, Dolly!  film.

Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! film.

"Look Over There" from La Cage aux Folles

The most well-deserved musical guilt trip ever written, “Look over There” from La Cage aux Folles is like being taken out to the Broadway wood shed and getting a whoopin’ for bad behavior at your great aunt’s birthday party. Georges, the owner of the drag club “La Cage aux Folles”, has an ungrateful brat of a son named Jean-Michel who is embarrassed by Albin, his father’s partner. Albin has loved and raised him unconditionally. He is essentially Jean-Michel’s other parent. When his selfishness gets out of control and cuts Albin to the bone, Georges finally steps in with this gentle number reminding the ingrate of the person who has loved him more than just about anyone. It’s punitive and poetic at the same time.    

Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer in La Cage Aux Folles.

"Look What Happened to Mabel" - Mack and Mabel

First listening to this wonderful “I am” song from Mack and Mabel, one might say “This sounds like the usual Jerry Herman” peppy melody introducing a character. Closer inspection, however, reveals some witty wordplay and juicy puns all built around Mabel and her being a low-paid employee in a Flatbush deli. “The girl with the pickles who hustles for nickels” and “I know that you might think I’m balmy but the queen of corned-beef and salami” are such evocative lyrics that are at a humor level above and beyond what we have come to expect from Jerry Herman. Also, within the jokey premise you find an endearing earnestness when Mabel first sees herself on camera. Something comes to life in her, inciting this number, which is truly one of Herman’s best. 

Emily Skinner singing "Gooch's Song" in the musical Mame

"Gooch's Song" from Mame

If you were to ask me “What is one of the finest musical comedy monologues in the form of song ever written for the musical stage”, Jerry Herman’s “Gooch’s Song” from Mame would be toward the very top of my list. An innocent, dowdy woman is dressed up like a tart and coached to embrace life, then sent out into the world to live it. She returns months later, quite pregnant and confused, and sings this hilarious song about how she followed every instruction, but feels she may have missed a few points. The song is an over-the-top confection of innuendo and situation comedy.    

"Each Tomorrow Morning" from Dear World

On the surface, “Each Tomorrow Morning” sounds like a song of optimism, but in reality it is a hypnotic embrace of denial. Countess Aurelia, also known as “The Madwoman of Chaillot”, is dealing from a not entirely complete deck of cards. Her insanity helps her to see all of the happiness in the world, a reality that she manufactures when necessary (which is often). Dear World is the musical score that is most out-of-line with the Herman stereotype. It is so thoughtful and introspective that it negates the fizz and bang of Dolly and Mame. “Each Tomorrow Morning” is one of Herman’s finest examples of subtlety in his writing, something that is woven carefully throughout the entire show.     

Angela Lansbury in  Dear World .

Angela Lansbury in Dear World.

"Time Heals Everything" from Mack and Mabel

My third Mack and Mabel song on this list, “Time Heals Everything” is one of the saddest of all Herman’s songs. This is an ill-fated, deeply felt love affair that is spiraling out of control. In some ways, the romance parallels Mabel’s addictions, something that will never really go away, but is ever-present and burningly palpable. There is almost a resignation that comes through in the music and lyrics. We realize that Mabel knows her love for Mack should end, but she admits that it won’t. This is a Herman character we seldom see, melancholy and maudlin. Herman can go there, and when it suits the material, he does it beautifully.  

So much for stereotypes…

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