Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune

Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune

by Stephen Citron

ISBN: 9780300100822

Publisher Yale University Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

if you believe

In November 1961 Milk and Honey, the first musical set in the young state of Israel, opened to splendid reviews. It was Jerry Herman's Broadway debut as a composer-lyricist. Less than two months later, his next musical, Madame Aphrodite (written earlier, but its production delayed), had its premiere at the Orpheum Theatre off Broadway. This time the critiques were dreadful, and the eerie musical about a crone who sells fake "beauty cream" hoping to "scar the world" closed after thirteen performances.

Milk and Honey was doing capacity business and would remain firmly ensconced at the Martin Beck Theatre for the next fourteen months. Its acclaim would do much to offset the blow Herman's Greenwich Village fiasco had dealt his ego.

Herman has never lacked optimism, and so by the following spring, with the failure of Madame Aphrodite fading in his memory, he looked forward to beginning another show. Small of stature and compact of frame, usually wearing a winning grin beneath his smiling brown eyes, he looked like someone who had just graduated from high school. At thirty-one he was the youngest of the composers then represented on Broadway, which made good copy for the newspapers. Herman reveled in his newfound fame, and neither he nor his publicity agent bothered to correct the error when papers and annals printed his age as twenty-nine.

Although hugely ambitious and protective of his work, Herman remains inordinately shy with strangers. "If I go to a party and somebody comes over and talks to me, I am just fine," he confided to me. "In fact, I usually end up using that person as my security blanket for the whole evening." Because Herman hated meeting new people, the Milk and Honey cast, most of whom he had coached in their roles, became his family. The Martin Beck turned into his hangout and Molly Picon's cluttered dressing room his special warming place. Hiring this star of Second Avenue's Yiddish theater for her musical debut uptown on Broadway-the librettist Don Appell's inspiration-had paid off handsomely at the box office. It also had provided Herman, whose own mother had died before he had achieved any major success, with the maternal figure he would always yearn for. Herman has spent the greatest part of his career writing about women: strong, idealized, maternal women like Dolly, Mame, Countess Aurelia in Dear World, or even Zaza, the mothering drag queen in La Cage aux Folles. Molly Picon was the closest to his actual gregarious, theatrical, singing Jewish mother, Ruth.

Herman was elated and somewhat astonished when May came and Milk and Honey was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Musical. It was a foregone conclusion that Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying) would sweep all the awards, but to have his show proposed on the same ballot as Richard Rodgers and Loesser was exhilarating. He felt doubly honored knowing he had been nominated in the Best Composer category as well. Fellow nominees for that award were all experienced hands. Richard Adler had been nominated for the exotic Kwamina, Loesser for the superhit How to Succeed. Rodgers, the undisputed master of musical theater, having recently lost his partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, dauntlessly carried on by writing both music and lyrics to No Strings, thereby winning the award for best score. (Not until the next year were separate awards given for composer and lyricist.)

Even though Milk and Honey won no Tonys, Herman derived intense pleasure in seeing his name gleaming from the Martin Beck's marquee as he made his nightly visits to the theater. So all-consuming was his ambition that Herman could think of almost nothing else but what his next project would be. He scoured Variety, Billboard, and the other trade papers and talked to as many Broadway insiders as he could find to learn what musicals were scheduled to be produced that fall or the following spring. He was especially interested in those in their early planning stages, even those still embryonic.

Priscilla Morgan, his agent, had paired Herman with Appell, and the libretttist had introduced him to the producer Gerard Oestreicher, who had gotten Milk and Honey to Broadway. But Herman, who had heard that David Merrick was looking for a composer and lyricist to write the score for his musicalization of The Matchmaker, did not believe that Morgan had the clout to arrange a meeting for him with one of the most prominent producers on Broadway. Herman was acquainted with Leo Bookman of the powerful William Morris group, and he prevailed on Bookman to make the momentous phone call to David Merrick.

Merrick had been told about Herman's gifts by the librettist Michael Stewart, who had come down to Greenwich Village during the short run of Madame Aphrodite and had admired the sensitivity of this unusual score. Stewart, who had written the first draft of what would eventually become Hello, Dolly!, knew that the producer was looking for a composer-lyricist who could capture the Gay Nineties sound in old New York, and who could write hard-hitting showtunes tailored for Ethel Merman, the star he had in mind. He had rejected the slim current crop of those who wrote both music and lyrics as "too angular" and the well-established ones as "too fustian."

Now, urged by Bookman and Stewart, Merrick went to see Milk and Honey and had his secretary call Herman the next day to set up an appointment.

"I went up to his office in the Sardi building with great anxiety and terror," Herman said, aware of Merrick's well-known temper. (The producer's sobriquet on Broadway, "the abominable showman" was to come later, when his venom and spite were as renowned as his many successes.) "I was doubly apprehensive when I went into his private lair because I had not gone through my own agent," Herman noted. "The way Merrick presented himself, standing behind a gigantic desk with gargoyles on it, with his black hair combed to one side, terrified me. The walls of the room were felted in blood red and the wall-to-wall carpet was the same vibrant color. The room was quite stunning but very off-putting because it made his jet hair, cut in Hitler fashion, his black moustache, and eyebrows stand out against his pasty skin."

"I went around the corner and saw your show last night," Merrick told Herman rather offhandedly. "I was impressed," he added, "but I don't know if you're American enough for this play-a Thornton Wilder piece. Have you ever seen The Matchmaker?"

Herman had to admit that he had not, but Merrick's slur, implying that his music might be too Jewish, got his dander up. "With two parents who were schoolteachers, I consider myself to be the most American person that ever was put on this planet," he retorted. "I don't blame you, Mr. Merrick, after seeing Milk and Honey, my Israeli operetta, for thinking I'm a little Jewish kid who can only write this kind of music-but aside from that show all my other work has been as American as apple pie."

"I saw the script on his desk. It had a tattered cover, red-what else? And I made out the title upside down: Matchmaker Draft #1. And from somewhere I mustered the courage to say, 'If you would give me that and let me spend a little time with it, I would be very happy to present some of my work to see if you like it.' That was on a Friday morning and I promised to have the script back to him by next Monday afternoon, three days later."

"Keep the script, I have plenty more," Merrick offered, "but I'd be curious to see what you can come up with in that time."

Herman was ecstatic. He hurried home to his apartment in Greenwich Village, eager to begin working on Stewart's libretto. He stopped for weekend provisions at the deli on the corner of his one-room walk-up on East Tenth Street and laid in a stock of Baby Ruths and O Henrys. Herman is a chocoholic who frequently rewards himself after writing a song by devouring several of these, his favorite candy bars.

First, he read the mimeographed script three times. Then he called all his friends to tell them the news and to ask them "not to phone me, because I'm going to work all weekend." Finally, he rang Alice Borden, a young singing actress he had known since her childhood. Alice, a quick study, possesses a lovely voice and had frequently done backers auditions-performances to raise capital-with him. He asked her to come over on Sunday to learn the new songs he was about to write-and to keep Monday free, when they would perform them for Merrick.

Then he sat down at the piano and began to work out the songs. Herman composes his songs at the keyboard by playing and singing them over and over. Once an extended section satisfies him, he makes notes-first of the lyrics, later of the melody-on music paper. Although he has never been trained to make a full piano-vocal score, he can notate a melody, add the chords by name, and put his lyric under the melody line, essentially making what is called a lead sheet.

The first song he wrote for this new project was to become the cornerstone of the first act, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." "I wrote it word for word the way it is when you hear it in the show," he says. And no wonder it was the first piece he turned to. The stage direction in the script would intrigue any composer. "The Feed store moves, and we arrive at the Yonkers Railroad Station," Stewart writes, "where we find the other passengers dressed in their Sunday best. During the song the train arrives, is finally boarded, and we're off to New York."

This scanty outline encompassing the themes of "Sunday best" and "train" had enough kinetic energy to inspire an opening melodic line that works against an ostinato (a small repeated figure) that suggests a locomotive. Herman kept the chugging first six bars of the song to the single chord of D. Does it sound like it might get boring? Not at all, for his melodic line has tremendous rhythmic energy and ends on a most unexpected note. That very note has an urgency that further propels the music.

This song has been led into by Cornelius, the clerk in the Yonkers feed store who wants to intrigue his assistant, Barnaby, into joining him in playing hooky from their jobs. Cornelius sings the verse broadly:

Out there, there's a world outside of Yonkers, Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby, There's a slick town, Barnaby ...

and then, as Barnaby sits mesmerized at his feet, Cornelius captivates him with the chorus:

Put on your Sunday clothes, there's lots of world out there, Get out the brilliantine and dime cigars. We're gonna find adventure in the ev'ning air, Girls in white in a perfumed night Where the lights are bright as the stars.

After an opening in which the rhythm of the locomotive would make rhyme redundant, Herman bombards us with what is almost a quadruple rhyme (white, night, bright, and even lights, for the s is sung as part of the word are) in the consequent eight bars. And he carries on this feat throughout a twelve-minute musical scene which becomes the raison d'etre for the entire musical. Herman's lyric builds from Cornelius's promise to Barnaby, "and we won't come home until we've kissed a girl," to the conventional plot device of musicals-this time intriguing his bucolic coworker: "and we won't come home until we fall in love." Could any teenager resist such an invitation? Of course Barnaby would be hooked and eager to get into his Sunday clothes and get out of Yonkers. Next, Herman went back and tackled the very opening of Stewart's script, limning Dolly, making her almost a cartoon character, without turning her into a buffoon. Her song "Call on Dolly" gives us the idea of this enterprising woman's matchmaking ability. It is followed by her boasting "I Put My Hand In," which goes even deeper into her meddling in other people's lives-always for their own good. An excerpt from the lyric will give an idea of this remarkable woman's style.

And a girl over six-foot-three Loves a man who comes up to her ear, Surely it's obvious she'll never be seduced Till some kind soul condescends to give her beau a little boost! So I put my hand in there, I put my hand in here.

With the opening, a big brassy number, and the incipient plot out of the way, Herman could concentrate on the gentler aspects of Stewart's script. The next scene takes place in a hat shop in New York and climaxes when Dolly tries to teach these two oafs from the hinterlands to dance. Their partners will be Irene Molloy, the owner of the shop, and her assistant, Minnie Fay. The two couples, immediately attracted to each other, become the romantic focus of the entire musical. "Dancing," a lush waltz in the old-fashioned tradition-but not deja vu-is a director-choreographer's dream. When staged by Gower Champion, who eventually became one of the driving forces behind Hello, Dolly!, the number was beguiling.

The mature Herman admits to a certain elation at having written this number because the subject of dancing has always been painful for him. As a child, small for his age, he didn't always do what other youngsters were doing. When everyone else was playing baseball, he was playing the piano. And when he was a teenager and everyone else was dancing, he was still the one who was playing the piano. Dancing was something he had stayed away from because, as he says, "I never felt comfortable doing something I couldn't do really well. In four years of college I never got out on the dance floor-I was always at the piano-where I felt like somebody.

"Looking at this script, I was charmed by the way Dolly is able to take a clod like Cornelius and turn him into a dancer. That's why I wrote that song, because it's really me wanting to dance and not having the guts to try it."

Adding to his weekend accomplishment, Herman next tackled a solo for Irene Molloy that would precede "Dancing." Modeled after an old English ballad with an Irish lilt, the song tells the audience that Irene is a young widow who still cherishes the memory of her late husband. It opens with the circuitous line, "I still love the love that first I loved when first in love I fell." Although intended as a pastiche, the song's melody has a wistful charm, but its unwieldy lyric dooms it to the reject pile.

Polishing the lyrics and playing these four songs over and over, Herman was working on pure adrenaline. "I was like a crazed person, pacing up and down in the middle of the night, scribbling down lyrics and popping candy into my mouth," he said. Herman was desperate to have this show because of the strong title character Dolly represented, but more so because he adored Ethel Merman, and thought it would be the apogee of any songwriter's career to have the opportunity to write for her.

It was essential that "Sunday Clothes," which was to be sung by Cornelius and Barnaby, be performed with two voices, and the other songs he had written sounded better when sung in harmony. So that Sunday afternoon, when Alice Borden joined him, he taught her the harmony part of all the songs. They worked around the clock, memorizing their parts for presentation to Merrick the following day.

"It was an enormous amount of material to learn," Alice remembered, "and Jerry wanted our performances, without referring to any music, to be perfect." "We were both full of energy," Herman says, recalling that day, "and I wanted this happy, brightly colored, American musical more than anything in the world. We practiced Sunday night until about 2 A.M. and met the next morning at 11:30 in front of Merrick's office on 44th Street."

"God, was I scared!" Alice reported, "when we went up in the little elevator in the Sardi Building and finally into Mr. Merrick's red office. He was so imposing and so frightening. Mike Stewart was there and Neil Hartley, his stage manager, and I don't know who else."


Excerpted from "Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune" by Stephen Citron. Copyright © 0 by Stephen Citron. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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