Hello, Jerry Herman!

Mar 29

Saw a fantastic documentary last night that I highly recommend: Word and Music by Jerry Herman. It was on PBS for about a second, but it’s available via PBS Home Video.

Clearly this was a labor of love for Amber Edwards, who produced, wrote, directed and edited the 90-minute movie. She adores Herman, and it’s easy to see why. He’s frank, funny and endearing. He and Edwards do corny things like visit his childhood home and grade school, but the better part of the film is spent concentrating on Herman’s extraordinary work. And it is extraordinary. Too often Herman is dismissed for not being Sondheim. But there’s something to be said for a man who writes music and lyrics that inspire joy, or at the very least, a smile. Herman is more than capable of doing that.

Of the many talking heads, Michael Feinstein is the most eloquent about Herman’s musical skill, which is underrated. Feinstein demonstrates Herman’s skill by singing a song cut from Hello, Dolly! called “Penny in My Pocket,” then he unleashes Herman’s genius for lyric and melody when he sings “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel.

There’s great footage — seemingly from somebody’s home movie camera — from the original Broadway productions of Dolly and Mame. Of particular interest to me was the section on Dear World, the flop the followed hot on the heels of the Dolly-Mame juggernaut. Angela Lansbury starred in Herman’s musical adaptation of Giradoux’s The Mad Woman of Chaillot. It’s my favorite of Herman’s scores, and, somewhat ironically, it contains some of his worst songs. I’ll gladly tolerate the mediocrity of the title song (which Herman admits was a mistake) to revel in the rich musical pleasures of “Each Tomorrow Morning” or “I Don’t Want to Know.” Lansbury says she must take some of the blame for the show’s failure (in spite of the Tony Award she won for it), but the divine Angela can’t really be blamed for anything but being a consummate pro.

Another of the movie’s heroes is George Hearn, who did drag in a big way in Herman’s La Cage aux Folles. I had no idea that Hearn, who was genius in the role of ZaZa/Albin, was embarrassed by the drag — at first. He got used to it. Hearn is clearly moved by the experience to this day and the effect the musical had on people.

The extras on the DVD are few but delectable. We get the full title song from Hello, Dolly! as performed at Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural ball in 1965 (black and white, small stage, synched to the original cast recording). Carol Channing is at her preening best. There’s also a well filmed clip of a number called “Dancin’ Shoes,” which Herman wrote for his 1955 college show at the University of Miami. It’s very Gene Kelly-ish. And finally, from The Merv Griffin Show, we get a great clip of Herman playing piano while Ethel Merman sings “Before the Parade Passes By.” We don’t get much of Ethel and Jerry’s time on Merv’s couch (where Lucille Ball, curiously, is a guest), but we get a tasty morsel.

Seeing Herman’s body of work together like this — from Parade and Milk and Honey to The Grand Tour — helps foster new appreciation for a great American composer who, when all is said and done, will find his place next to greats such as Irving Berlin and, yes, Stephen Sondheim.

For more information visit www.pbs.org.

Here’s the brilliant George Hearn singing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles.”

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