Jerry Herman was one of the most successful songwriters for the musical theater in his generation, providing music and lyrics to three long-running Broadway shows -- Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles -- as well as four other Broadway productions between 1961 and 1983. Unlike such contemporaries as Stephen Sondheim and the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, Herman was not much interested in developing the art of the musical theater in new, more serious, or avant-garde directions. On the contrary, he was quoted as saying that he wished he had been born 30 years earlier, so that he could have worked in the era of light musical comedy as purveyed by predecessors like Irving Berlin. He wanted to write optimistic, entertaining shows with catchy tunes and happy endings. Accordingly, while his lyrics could be witty, they were usually light-hearted, and his music simple. His biographer, Stephen Citron (Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune) claimed that simplicity could be deceptive, however, noting Herman's "ability to hone sharp, original-sounding melodies out of harmonic clichés." "… Herman's melodic gift depends not on complex chord relationships," Citron says, "… but rather on taking a harmonic cliché and infusing it with life and color." In an era when some in the musical theater were exploring dark themes and looking for original ways to express them, Herman's approach was sometimes derided as old-fashioned. He persevered, nevertheless. "There's been a rumor," he told the audience at the 1984 Tony Awards in accepting his statue for best score, "that the simple hummable show tune is dead on Broadway. Well, it's alive and well at the Palace [where his show, La Cage aux Folles, was playing]!"
Herman was born Gerald Sheldon Herman in New York City on July 10, 1931. (He legally changed his name to Jerry Herman in 1961.) He grew up in Jersey City, NJ, the only child of Harry Herman, a high school gym teacher, and Ruth (Sachs) Herman, a high school English teacher. Both parents were amateur musicians, and he began playing piano by ear at the age of six. He never took lessons, and did not learn to read music. Also when he was six, his parents began running Stissing Lake Camp, a summer camp in Pine Plains, NY, where they had worked as counselors. Herman spent his summers at the camp, and in his teens, staged musicals there. Initially, he attended college at Parsons School of Design to study interior decorating, but after he showed some of his songs to songwriter Frank Loesser and was encouraged to pursue composing, he transferred to the University of Miami, where he majored in drama and wrote the school shows. The last of these was a revue called I Feel Wonderful, and after he graduated in 1954, his father produced a revised version of it Off-Broadway that opened in October and ran nearly 50 performances.
Herman took jobs as a cocktail pianist, working up to writing special material for such nightclub entertainers as Tallulah Bankhead, Jane Froman, and Hermione Gingold. While employed at the Showplace club, he wrote another revue, Nightcap, that opened in May 1958 and ran for two years. Parade, a revised version of the show, opened in an Off-Broadway theater in January 1960 and ran 90 performances, resulting in a cast album. Herman was next hired to write his first Broadway musical, Milk and Honey, an original story about Americans touring Israel and finding romance. It opened October 10, 1961, for a run of 543 performances, and it was recorded for a cast album. That led producer David Merrick to hire him to write the songs for a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker. The show was called Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman until Kapp Records hired Louis Armstrong to record a song from it called "Hello, Dolly!" It opened on January 16, 1964, and Armstrong's single was on the charts within a month, where it rose to number one, leading to a Song of the Year Grammy Award for Herman. The cast album also hit number one, as did Armstrong's Hello, Dolly! LP. The show won Herman the Tony Award for best score, and it went on to run 2,844 performances, which made it the longest-running Broadway musical in history up to that time. It was made into a movie in 1969, with a soundtrack album that charted. Hello, Dolly! was revived on Broadway in 1975, 1978, and 1995.
Herman next turned to another musical with a strong female character, an adaptation of Patrick Dennis' novel Auntie Mame. Again, it was led by a title song, as Al Hirt, Bobby Darin, and Louis Armstrong all charted with cover versions of "Mame" prior to the show's May 24, 1966, opening; Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass had the most popular version at the end of the year, reaching the Top 20. (Eydie Gorme also reached the charts with her recording of "If He Walked into My Life" from the score.) The Mame cast album reached the Top 40 and won Herman the 1966 Grammy Award for Best Score from an Original Cast Show. The musical ran 1,508 performances, and was adapted into a film that opened in 1974 with a charting soundtrack album. It was revived on Broadway in 1983.
Although Dear World, Herman's next musical, again featured a strong female lead, it was a more experimental effort based on Jean Giraudoux's allegorical fantasy play The Madwoman of Chaillot. Opening on May 31, 1969, it was a commercial failure, running only 132 performances, although the cast album reached the charts. Involved with the movie versions of Hello, Dolly! and Mame, Herman did not mount another new musical until 1974, when he returned to Broadway with Mack & Mabel, a dual stage biography of silent-film director Mack Sennett and silent-film star Mabel Normand. Running only 66 performances after its October 6, 1974, it was a discouraging failure that led Herman to suppose that his style of musical comedy was out of fashion. He abandoned songwriting and used his interior decorating skills to launch a business buying, renovating, and re-selling houses. (Before that happened, however, he stopped into the Lyrics & Lyricists program at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York on November 24, 1974, for "An Evening with Jerry Herman," resulting in an album of that title released in 1978.) When he did return to Broadway with The Grand Tour on January 11, 1979, he suffered another 61-performance failure.
In 1981, Jerry's Girls, an Off-Off-Broadway revue of Herman's songs, opened in a night club in New York for a run of two years. It undertook a national tour in February 1984, and finally got to Broadway for a run of 139 performances on December 18, 1985. Meanwhile, Herman had scored a major comeback with La Cage aux Folles, based on the French comedy film about a gay couple running a club for female impersonators in St. Tropez. Opening on August 21, 1983, it went on to run 1,761 performances. The cast album went gold, and Gloria Gaynor's recording of the defiant song of gay empowerment "I Am What I Am" was a Top Five hit in the Dance/Disco charts. Herman triumphed at the Tony Awards, taking home the award for best score. La Cage aux Folles was revived on Broadway in 2004 and 2010.
Herman did not write another musical for Broadway after La Cage aux Folles, but he remained active. In 1988, he participated in a concert performance of Mack & Mabel at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London, that was recorded for an album. (The show was revived in London in 1995.) In March 1989, he launched a night club act in which he sang his songs and played piano, also accompanying other singers. Eventually, as An Evening with Jerry Herman, it opened on Broadway for a short run in 1998. There was also another album called An Evening with Jerry Herman, recorded in 1989. In 1996, he wrote the music for a television musical, Mrs. Santa Claus, broadcast during the holiday season. After being commissioned by hotel owner Steve Wynn to write a musical specifically to play in Las Vegas, Herman came up with Miss Spectacular, which was recorded for a concept album released in July 2002. But without warning, Wynn divested himself of his Las Vegas holdings, and his successors canceled the project.