Jerry Herman, Revered Broadway Composer and Lyricist, Dies at 88

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Jerry Herman

The four-time Tony Award recipient wrote what he called "simple, hummable tunes" for 'Hello, Dolly!,' 'Mame' and 'La Cage Aux Folles.'

Jerry Herman, the Tony-winning composer and lyricist whose musical anthems for Hello, Dolly! and Mame created and shaped a new golden age of Broadway, has died. He was 88. 

Herman died Thursday in Miami of pulmonary complications, his goddaughter Jane Dorian told The Hollywood Reporter. "He was an extraordinary man and musical genius and will be missed dearly," she said.

Herman received Tonys in 1964 and 1984, respectively, for his scores to Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles, and he was the first composer-lyricist to have had as many as three musicals (DollyLa Cage and Mame) run for more than 1,500 performances each on Broadway.

His songs, including "Hello, Dolly!" — a No. 1 hit for Louis Armstrong that bumped The Beatles out of the top spot — "The Best of Times Is Now," "Before the Parade Passes By" and "We Need a Little Christmas," are American songbook standards.

"He cares tremendously about matters of the heart and humanity and the warmth of relationships and people looking out for people," Angela Lansbury told The Washington Post in 2010 on the occasion of Herman being honored by the Kennedy Center. Lansbury originated the title role in Mame in 1966, which helped launch her theatrical career.

"Jerry's [music] is immediate and has an emotional tug and has a more universally acceptable and receivable message," she said.

Herman's work served as star-making vehicles for many theatrical icons, including Bernadette Peters, who starred in Mack & Mabel in 1974, and Carol Channing, who originated the title role in Hello, Dolly!

"The moment I met Jerry, I believed in him. I knew he knew that character," Channing said. "He appreciated the person he's working with. That gives you the power to do anything."  

Born Gerald Herman on July 10, 1931, he grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, and spent his childhood coming into the city to see Broadway shows with his parents. One of the first he saw was Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman, and her show-stopping tune "There's No Business Like Show Business" would inspire his own melodies for years to come. (Merman would also go on to star as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!)

Herman learned how to play the piano at a young age. His mother and father, both teachers, worked in New York's Dutchess County at Stissing Lake Camp, where he spent his summers for more than a decade. It was at camp that he first became involved in the theater, directing shows like Oklahoma! and Finian's Rainbow.

He met Frank Loesser when he was 17 (his mother's friend from bridge club knew the songwriter and helped set up the meeting), and Loesser encouraged Herman to continue working toward a career in theater. Loesser served as a valuable mentor.

"That wonderful man is responsible for my life in the theater," Herman told the New York Post in 2010. "I met him at that crucial point in your life when you don't know where you're going but you have secret hopes about where it's going to be."

Herman started off his studies in architecture at New York's Parsons School of Design, and he continued his love of design throughout his life, renovating and decorating more than three dozen houses. But he dropped out of Parsons after a year and continued his studies, now in theater, at the University of Miami.

At Miami, he produced, wrote and directed a musical called Sketchbook, which ran for 17 performances longer than scheduled thanks to audience demand. (One of the school's theaters is named the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.)

Herman's work in college would go on to be the basis for his early professional career in New York after graduation. He made his off-Broadway debut with I Feel Wonderful, a revue of music he'd written at Miami. He continued to write revues, including Nightcap, which ran at a downtown jazz club for two years; Parade, which opened at the same jazz club before moving to The Players Theatre in 1960; and From A to Z, which marked his Broadway debut. 

Parade put Herman on the map, and producer Gerard Oestreicher saw the show and asked him to write his full Broadway musical, Milk and Honey, in 1961. Three years later, he would join forces with producer David Merrick, writer Michael Stewart and Channing to create Hello, Dolly!

The original production ran for 2,844 performances, making it the longest-running show at the time, and it reeled in 10 Tonys, including the one for best musical, making it the most celebrated musical until The Producers bettered its record with 12 wins. The show has been revived on Broadway three times, most recently in 2016 with Bette Midler in the role. 

Two years later, Herman wrote Mame with Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. Starring Lansbury, the musical was based on the 1955 novel and followed a woman whose life is upended during the Depression when her brother's son comes to live with her. Lansbury won a Tony for her performance, and the musical ran for four years. 

His career and life were not without its flops and hard times. The shows he wrote after Mame — Dear World, Mack & Mabel and The Grand Tour — didn't receive anywhere near the success of Dolly or Mame, though they have generated cult status among musical theater fans. 

Herman was discouraged and didn't write another musical until he watched the French film La Cage Aux Folles, based on the play of the same name, and he knew he'd found his next project. He collaborated with the young writer Harvey Fierstein, who penned the book, and the musical opened on Broadway in 1983. Its story about love and acceptance proved an important message during the AIDS epidemic, which took the lives of many of the musical's castmembers, and the song "I Am What I Am" became a resounding anthem for a generation. 

Herman was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985, but he lived to see experimental treatments, even though his partner, Marty, died from the disease. La Cage won the Tony for best musical and has been revived twice, winning for best revival each time, making it the only musical to receive this honor every time it's been staged. 

''I never dreamed that kind of success would happen again,'' he told The New York Times in 1985. ''I'm certainly aware of how different popular music is today from when I started in this business, and I realize that my kind of songwriting is not generally in fashion. But La Cage has made me feel secure about going on and just being what I am and writing simple, hummable tunes.''

When asked about his creative process for the TAMS newsletter Musical Show, Herman said that he wrote music and lyrics at the same time, not one before the other. He also said he was never interested in writing the book of a musical. 

"I find the most successful way of working is to treat the whole thing like a jigsaw puzzle, letting a lyric inspire a few bars of music, and then letting those few bars of music lead me to a further lyric development," he said. 

Although he hadn't penned a musical since La Cage, he witnessed several revivals of his work and put together revues including Jerry's Girls and An Evening With Jerry Herman. He received an Emmy nomination in 1997 for his work on the TV special Mrs. Santa Claus, starring Lansbury, who presented him with a Tony for lifetime achievement in 2009.

"I write for a mass audience," Herman said in his Post interview. "I write for people, for a smiling public. … I don't think there's anything more gratifying in my business than to know the work will go on after I'm not here anymore. Because I don't write for 1964, or for 1997. I write songs that I hope will still be hummed years from now."

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.