Jerry Herman, ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘Mame’ Composer, 88

January 2, 2020
Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Broadway composer Jerry Herman, whose brassy, showstopping tunes for “Hello, Dolly!” “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles” marked him as the heir to the Tin Pan Alley tradition of Irving Berlin, died Dec. 26 in Miami. He was 88.

Herman was born on July 10, 1931, in a hospital not far from New York’s theater district. He was the only child of Harry and Ruth Herman. His parents were teachers and amateur musicians who ran a summer camp in upstate New York. Herman was playing piano by the time he was 5, and wrote songs for the camp’s revues. But it wasn’t until he saw Ethel Merman in “Annie Get Your Gun” that he saw music as a career. “It was like a door opening; it really started everything moving in my life,” Herman told the Los Angeles Times in 1992.

He managed to get an audition with Frank Loesser, composer and lyricist of “Guys and Dolls,” who encouraged Herman to keep at it. Herman studied drama at the University of Miami and, after graduating in 1953, became a professional songwriter. His first Broadway musical, 1961’s “Milk and Honey,” about a group of American widows in Israel, was a hit, running for 543 performances and garnering Herman his first Tony nomination for original score. He would go on to win two Tonys, for “Hello, Dolly!” and “La Cage aux Folles.”

It also led to a call from producer David Merrick, who asked him to write samples for a musical based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.” Writing furiously over a weekend, Herman composed four songs — and got the job. The show was 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!” With 2,844 performances, it was, for a time, Broadway’s longest-running musical. Dolly Levi, the indomitable matchmaker, has been played by Merman, Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller and, in 1968, Pearl Bailey, leading an all-black cast. The show’s title song was a No. 1 hit for Louis Armstrong and knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. With the lyrics changed to “Hello, Lyndon,” it was the theme song for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign.

Herman followed up “Dolly” with another hit, “Mame,” starring Angela Lansbury, which ran for 1,508 performances. The original cast recording won Herman a Grammy.

Herman hit a dry spell after “Mame.” “Dear World” (1969), “Mack & Mabel” (1974) and “The Grand Tour” (1979) were commercial flops. But in 1983, he had another hit with “La Cage.” Based on a French farce, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, the story of two gay lovers and drag queens was a breakthrough for Broadway, running for 1,761 performances. “I Am What I Am” became a gay pride anthem, and it is the only musical to win two Tonys for best revival, in 2004 and 2010.

It also was Herman’s last musical. He retired with his partner, Martin Finkelstein, who died of AIDS in 1989. Herman contracted AIDS in 1985 but was able to control the disease with experimental therapies. He moved to Miami with his husband, Terry Marler, who survives him. On Jan. 7, Broadway theaters will dim their lights in Herman’s memory.

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