Jerry Herman wrote happy shows - Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles - and got little thanks for them from the critics. I confess he could sometimes be a little too perky for my own tastes : The cajoled jollity of "We Need a Little Christmas", for example, grates on me - except when stripped down to the downbeat ballad treatment by Nancy Sinatra that I played here. But Jerry himself was a lovely chap, and generally delightful company. I interviewed him rather a lot over the years (you can hear part of one such here) for The Independent and Telegraph and whatnot, and ran into him socially at various dramatico-musical soirées even more.
The penultimate time we sat down for a newspaper story I assumed it would be the last: He had a sunken skeletal face, a hacking cough that sent the needle of my tape-recorder off the dial, and a Niagara of sweat poured off him for the full hour. Back then, everyone on Broadway was dying of Aids, because that's all you could do with it. But Jerry Herman became the first celebrity to survive it, before Magic Johnson, Charlie Sheen et al, and ended up living another third of a century after his diagnosis. He also was the first major Broadway composer to "come out", which seems almost ludicrous now, especially given that, with a near parodically effeminate voice, I doubt he ever met a single person anywhere on the planet who took him for heterosexual.
But, as I said, what appeared to be our final newspaper interview was in fact merely the penultimate. Here is the last, from The Daily Telegraph of November 24th 1998, over afternoon tea at the Savoy, when I arrived expecting to ask him about this song and that show and found him bubbling merrily about T-cell counts and protease inhibitors:
"I promise you a happy ending," wrote Jerry Herman in Mack and Mabel - and on the whole, from Hello, Dolly! through Mame to La Cage aux Folles, he's kept his word. Sondheim writes bleak; Kander & Ebb write sardonic; Lloyd Webber writes grandiloquent; but what's left of old-time, good-time musical comedy belongs to Herman. The only person he couldn't promise a happy ending was himself.
Among show folk it was no particular secret that Herman was HIV-positive - at least in the sense that on Broadway anyone who comes down with a heavy cold is assumed to have the big A. A few years back, I ran into him at a songwriters' get-together in New York and he already had "the look" - the unmistakeable Aids signature with which your face is consigned to a grim, two-year, out-of-town tryout for death.
The love of his life had succumbed, so had half the cast of La Cage, and so had the show itself. With the coming of Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome, George S Kaufman's famous image of Broadway as the "fabulous invalid" became literal. Herman sold up in New York and retreated to California, to attend the occasional all-star salute to himself and await the inevitable.
But sometimes life is like a musical comedy and the happy ending belatedly shows up. Here we are in 1998 and Jerry Herman is in London for a new revue of his songs at the Vaudeville. He's sipping tea at the Savoy, brimming with good health, and miraculously restored once again to the small, dapper man seen squiring Angela Lansbury, Lucille Ball and other leading ladies from theatre to nightclub in Sixties showbiz clippings.
"My T-cell numbers were down to two digits," he says, "and then one magical day my doctor said, 'There's a new test going on - I can't guarantee anything but I wonder if you'd be interested.' And I said, 'Any hope would be better than what I'm feeling now.' And I got on this Abbott Laboratories test, and about three weeks later I woke up one morning and said, 'You know, I feel terrific.' "
It seems odd to be talking, publicly, about T-cells and protease inhibitors with a major Broadway figure. Everyone knows musical theatre is full of homosexuals in general, but particular ones are harder to pin down. Stephen Sondheim has been the subject of a million books analysing every aspect of his life, including one which devotes two pages to his decision to grow a beard. But not until this year's biography by Meryle Secrest did he stun the last three members of a remote New Guinea tribe who'd yet to figure it out that he was, in fact, gay.
Aids posthumously outed dozens of show folk, but Herman, in his 1996 memoir Showtune, was the first actual living big-time Broadway writer to emerge from the closet. It was a surprisingly bold move for a man whose shows have always been middle-market, wholesome, family entertainments - shows for Mr and Mrs America, the out-of-towners, the tourists and tired businessmen and Rotarians, what smart Manhattanites dismiss as the bridge-&-tunnel crowd.
"Well, it just happened to be me," he says, "and it was very healthy. But that juxtaposition is true - I'm the wholesome one, and I'm the one who came out and talked openly about my sex life. But those people know what my life is. In fact, many of them come up to me to ask me to sign the book, so it hasn't changed their affection for me at all. They feel that I'm part of their lives."
Earlier this year, appearing in a Broadway revue of his work, he was met each night by a hundred or so fans waiting outside. "A woman came over and said, 'We used "It Only Takes a Moment" at my daughter's wedding and we used "The Best of Times" at our son's bar mitzvah, so you're part of our family.' And she kissed me."
"The Best of Times", pressed into service at the Vaudeville as a title song, is quintessential Jerry Herman - a big, full-throated number with a lyric of deceptive simplicity:
Because the best of times is now...
Now! Not some forgotten yesterday
Now! Tomorrow is too far away...
The last time I heard the song sung live was when my BBC producers and I wandered into a Greenwich Village bar, packed with skinny drama queens gathered round the piano for an impromptu singalong and determined to hold this moment fast, because, for many of them and their emaciated, cadaverous friends, tomorrow was indeed too far away.
When Herman wrote it for the flamboyant transvestites of La Cage, could he have had any idea of the catastrophe about to engulf Broadway's workforce? Or was he, in the best tradition of musical comedy songwriting, just enlarging and universalising the situation?
"I didn't see it because I didn't know," he says. "But it was 1983 and I was diagnosed about two years later, so I may have been infected when I wrote that song. But it's always been my philosophy - to seize the moment. It was just a statement that I wanted to make and it is interesting the way that it connects to other things."
Herman is the most consistently underrated of Broadway writers, in part because, while everyone else argues about what direction to push musical theatre in, he cheerfully admits to wanting to drag it backwards, to "hold on to the good things from the past". How strange then that the composer of the most determinedly old-fashioned music on Broadway (rather than, say Sondheim) should have wound up providing it with both its anthem of liberation ("I Am What I Am") and its consolation for the most ruthless of scourges.
For statements about his own life, you have to look beyond Broadway. So I ask Herman what music he and his late partner had listened to. Marty, an interior designer with whom (in his other great enthusiasm) Jerry remodelled a couple of dozen Victorian houses in Key West, died of Aids in 1990, at the age of 36. When it came to an "our song" song, they found it not in Jerome Kern or Rodgers & Hart but in Marty's CD collection.
"Longer Than," murmurs Herman. "By Dan Fogelberg." And he remembers the words:
There've been fishes in the ocean
Any bird ever flew
There've been stars up in the heavens
I've been in love with you...
It's a kind of fey soft-rock singer-songwriter take on Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean?" "The one thing I was guilty of," says Herman, "was only listening to the kind of music I really adore, which is show music - not just Irving Berlin, but everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Sondheim. But I didn't really open my head to contemporary stuff or to jazz or country music. And Marty taught me to appreciate a lot of that.
"I cannot stand false rhymes, and I shudder a lot because I care about words. But Dan Fogelberg is honest about his rhymes, and his thoughts are very lyrical:
Through the years
As the fire starts to mellow
In the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks
And the pages start to yellow
I'll be in love with you...
"'The pages start to yellow'," says Herman, his eyes moistening. "That's very, very nice. And it doesn't have anything to do with theatre," he adds, firmly.
Jerry Herman means that last point. He's not one of those people who thinks Broadway needs to be wooing Dan Fogelberg or Billy Joel or Paul Simon. In fact, Jerry Herman thinks that what Broadway needs is another Jerrry Herman musical. He has been on the cover of Poz, the magazine for the HIV-positive, and he mails chin-up letters to lonely gay men who write to him from small towns in the heartland, but, fifteen years after his last Broadway show, Herman - like Dolly Levi returning to Harmonia Gardens - is ready to come home.
"This is a second chance. This time is a gift, so I have to use it well. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair to whoever's watching over me. So I want to write a new musical. I just don't know what it's going to be. If you have any ideas. . ."
~from The Daily Telegraph, November 24th 1998
I did have an idea, and I passed it on to him a few years later. It would still make a good show, but it would have made a great Jerry Herman show. He turned down more obvious propositions than mine (The Producers), and in the end there would be no new musical for the gift of an extra third of a century. Instead, he came to accept that, while this time was indeed a gift, he could use it in other ways than on the ever diminishing returns of Broadway's roulette wheel. Join me later today for a Jerry Herman Song of the Week - and on New Year's Eve to bid farewell to others we lost in 2019.
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