Broadway lights will dim on January 7, 2020 at 6:45 p.m. for Jerry Herman, who died on Thursday, December 26 at the age of 88, and at the end of a year that saw at its beginning the death of Carol Channing, who was the first star of his biggest hit, Hello, Dolly!. Eighty-eight is the number of keys on a piano, an instrument that the celebrated composer and lyricist started playing more than eight decades ago, and led to his first musical 65 years ago, I Feel Wonderful which ran Off-Broadway at what is now the Lucille Lortel Theater. Jonathan Mandell, Goodbye, Jerry Herman
Richard Seff remembers the start of Jerry Herman’s career.
I met Jerry Herman through his boyhood friend Leo Bookman who was my partner in our own talent agency. It was in 1954 and we were both young and happily involved in discovering talented people whose futures, in our opinions, looked promising. Leo had grown up in New Jersey, and his two closest friends were Jerry Herman and Phyllis Newman. If you’ve ever seen Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along, you could imagine his song “Old Friend” being written about Herman, Newman, and Bookman, for they were indeed three talented youngsters who discovered show business at early ages and moved to New York where they thrived.
Phyllis Newman was a gifted performer and writer who won a Tony Award for her first appearance on Broadway in Subways Are For Sleeping. Leo Bookman became an important theatrical agent working primarily in film, and Jerry Herman became a major composer-lyricist in those decades we now call The Golden Age of Musicals.
Herman was the first composer-lyricist ever to have three shows run longer than fifteen hundred performances. His musicals Hello,Dolly! , Mame and La Cage aux Folles enjoy constant revivals all over the world, and Mack and Mabel (an early less successful show) will be revived in New York in February as an Encores! production at City Center.
And now for some stories about Jerry Herman you probably don’t know.
Amidst these famous works, I was privileged to share one shining moment with Jerry over sixty years ago…
Herman had grown up in Jersey City where he was taught to play the piano as a small child by his mother, a piano teacher. His Dad was a gym teacher who was head counselor at a summer camp in the Berkshires where Jerry worked every summer until 1954 when he left the Parsons School of Design to get a degree at the University of Miami which had a strong theatre department.
While there, he put together a revue using his own material which he called I Feel Wonderful. The cast included his friend Phyllis Newman and it managed a run of forty-eight performances when it transferred to an off Broadway house in New York. Soon a young agent at William Morris signed him; but, since there were no producers interested in hiring him, Jerry wrote another revue called Nightcap in 1958. Subsequently, in 1960, that show (now revamped as Parade) attracted the attention of Gerard Oestreicher who engaged him to write the score for Milk and Honey, a Broadway musical about the birth of the state of Israel. After opening in 1961 it ran for over 500 performances, but no one offered him a new assignment.
It was about this time in 1962 that Leo Bookman and I joined with Stark Hesseltine to open the own small agency I mentioned earlier. I immediately asked Jerry to be our client since I was now on my own and building my own short list. Jerry was thrilled since he longed to be with a group which included me and his dear friend Leo. By 1962 I had had 8 years of experience at MCA (Music Corporation of America, a prominent international talent agency), and when it suddenly closed I was able to take a dozen or so clients I’d worked with to our new home. Jerry told us that his contract with William Morris was to end in December of 1962, and it was already October. So he asked me to see if I could come up with an offer for him to write a second show for Broadway.
In those days I played poker (small stakes but lots of fun) once a week in a New York apartment. At the very next game one player was Michael Stewart, a young comedy writer who had already written the books to the musicals Carnival and Bye Bye Birdie, who said he was about to start work for the major Broadway producer David Merrick on a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play The Merchant of Yonkers, and no one had yet been assigned to write a score. I suggested Jerry Herman to Michael; and, though they’d never met, Michael admired Milk and Honey enough to like the idea.
“When they passed out talent, Jerry stood in line twice.” Carol Channing
Merrick felt that Milk and Honey was decent enough, but it didn’t have anything in it that indicated Herman could write in the vernacular required for the turn-of-the-century New York of Wilder’s source material. Reluctantly, he told Jerry he’d have to write some songs on spec—songs tailored to the Wilder play. That was exactly the sort of challenge that Herman relished, and over the weekend he wrote four songs and then played them for Merrick on Monday.
I’ll never forget the phone call addressed to me minutes later. “I got it!” Jerry yelled, “Merrick’s agreed not to announce anything till next month when I’ll be free to become your client. He’s given me a production date of a year from now, so there’s lots of time to finish the score.” We opened the champagne we’d been given when we opened the agency; and when Jerry arrived at our office, flushed with the miracle he’d just pulled off, we toasted what would be the musical’s new title, Hello, Dolly!.
The next day we got another—less jubilant—phone call; this one from Robert Montgomery, Jerry’s attorney. He’d gone over Jerry’s papers and discovered that his commitment to the William Morris Agency would not expire until December of 1963, a year later, so we couldn’t make his deal after all! But he acknowledged that I had made the phone call that led to his engagement for the job, and he insisted on paying us the 10% commission that is an agent’s fee—in addition to the 10% he would pay to William Morris. We were stunned. We thought it over, and couldn’t accept his generous offer. We told his lawyer we’d be happy with half, and he agreed that we would never tell the Morris office that, though they would be the agent of record, we’d be receiving 5% of all moneys Jerry earned.
We had no idea at the time that the musical would run for eight years, have an equally successful road tour, and sell to the movies for many millions. Jerry Herman had single-handedly given our brand new agency an insurance policy that would protect us through all of our formative years. Our business partner Stark Hesseltine is gone now, but Leo Bookman and I are both here to tell the world how grateful we have always been to Jerry Herman.
Jerry wrote ten musicals for Broadway. Not all were the kind of financial successes of the three that continue to delight to this day; but all of them have brightened our lives; and all of them contain musical material that is first rate. There are songs from Dear World and The Grand Tour and Ben Franklin in Paris and others that will outlive the shows they enriched. A bright light has faded, but the glow that emanated from it will be around as long as there is music in the air.
From intimate moments to showstoppers, how Jerry Herman poured his heart into those 88 keys, seen here in this PBS special.