Remembering Milk and Honey
Most musical theatre fans think of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles when they hear the name Jerry Herman. For this beloved composer-lyricist of the Great White Way, these were his three megahits, each running for several years and each winning several Tony Awards. Hello, Dolly! was his the earliest of three, but what many of us forget (or, at least seldom talk about), was the musical that really brought Mr. Herman to our attention, 1961’s Milk and Honey.
Theatre producer Gerard Oestreicher had his mind set on developing a musical set in Israel and his first step was to approach Herman, who was known at this point as the composer of some successful Off-Broadway revues, to visit the country to soak in its culture, hoping the composer-lyricist would be inspired. Herman was joined by Don Appell who would be looking for the impetus for a story set there. The experiment worked well. When the duo happened upon a tour group of little old ladies, most of them widows, they light turned on and they began putting together a premise for what would ultimately become Milk and Honey.
For the musical, the duo decided to expand upon their experiences with the old ladies, turning them into a busload of American widows (led by the funny Clara, played with zest by Molly Picon) who are making this jaunt to Israel about finding themselves suitable husbands. This story is set in and around contemporary Jerusalem and against the backdrop of a nation as it moves toward being recognized as an independent nation. An American man named Phil (Robert Weede), who is also visiting Israel to see his daughter, keeps having chance encounters with one of the widows named Ruth (Mimi Benzell). Phil is only separated from his wife and doesn’t feel right about pursuing Ruth. Their chemistry, however, it too strong, and they begin to plan the possibility of a life together. In the end, however, Phil sends Ruth away, and the two part with the hope that Phil will secure an official divorce from his wife and that he and Ruth will finally be together.
For his first Broadway score, Jerry Herman composed some catchy melodies and many thoughtful, witty lyrics. Anyone who has ever accused Jerry Herman of avoiding edgy or controversial lyrics need but hear the following from Milk and Honey:
“How about the border where the Syrians attack?
How about the Arab with his rifle in in your back?”
There was a definite tone throughout Milk and Honeythat reminded audiences that, even though the show was musical comedy, that it didn’t forget that the region in which it was set was not all about laughs. The title song of the show is just loaded with these little reminders, even as it celebrates everything Israel has to offer. In reality, Herman has never shied away from looking at the darker side of humanity (see Mack & Mabel, Dear World or The Grand Tour), he just excels so abundantly at optimism that it is easy to pigeonhole his music and lyrics as ONLY that.
Milk and Honey was directed by Albert Marre and choreographed by Donald Saddler.It enjoyed a solid run of 543 performances at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre. The musical opened to mostly favorable reviews and was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Herman’s score, Molly Picon’s performance, and for Best Musical. In the end, however, it took home no trophies. It was a big year for How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (Best Musical), No Strings (Best Score), and Best Actress being shared by Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival! and Diahann Carroll in No Strings in a rare tie. Milk and Honey would have to accept “also-ran” status, but it remains a terrific score and holds the distinction of giving rise to one of the greatest writers of the catchy of showtune… and, of course, Mr. Oestreicher finally had his musical that celebrated Israel.