Jerry Herman, the Broadway composer-lyricist who gave America the rousing, old-fashioned musicals “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” in the 1960s and Broadway’s first musical featuring gay lovers, “La Cage aux Folles,” in the 1980s, died Thursday at a hospital in Miami. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by Jane Dorian, his goddaughter.
Herman wrote music that left the nation singing — rich melodies with powerful lyrics that stopped shows, dazzled critics, kept audiences returning for more and paved Broadway with gold for producers and performers.
To millions, he was the postwar theater’s clearest successor to Irving Berlin, a throwback to an era of songwriters who touched the heart with sophisticated simplicity, bringing audiences to their feet at curtain calls and sending them home humming the unforgettable tune “Hell-oh, Doll-ee!”
In a half-century of work, he scored a dozen Broadway musicals and five off-Broadway revues, composed many of the nation’s most popular songs and was showered with awards, including Tonys for “Hello, Dolly!” and “La Cage aux Folles.”
He also made stage history as the first composer-lyricist to have three musicals run more than 1,500 consecutive performances on Broadway — “Hello, Dolly!” with 2,844, “Mame” with 1,508, and “La Cage” with 1,761 — and remains one of only two to achieve that feat. (Stephen Schwartz, with “Pippin,” “The Magic Show” and “Wicked,” is the second.) And “La Cage” (1983) was the only Broadway musical to win the Tony for best revival twice, for 2004 and 2010 productions.
At a time when Broadway musicals were exploring new boundaries, Herman was resolutely Tin Pan Alley. Unlike Stephen Sondheim and other contemporaries who experimented with dark, intricate melodies and witty, ambiguous lyrics, he wrote song-and-dance music that stuck to the storyline with catchy tunes and sunny phrases of hope and happy endings.
Some critics belabored “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” as schmaltz. But to Herman, they were just openhearted. Even in “La Cage aux Folles,” Broadway’s first musical to portray the intimacies of a gay relationship (although Broadway, Hollywood and television had previously dealt with homosexuality in more general terms), his score sidestepped polemics and delivered a story of pathos, comedy, dignity and ultimately acceptance of gay life.
Herman still wanted people to hum his tunes on the way home. “There are only a couple of us who care about writing songs that people can leave the theater singing,” he told The New York Times in 1984 after “La Cage” had won six Tonys. “To me, the powerful tune has always been the nub, the meat and potatoes of the American musical theater.”
Square-jawed, with a dimpled chin, high forehead and mischievous eyes, Herman resembled Rock Hudson at the piano-composing cabaret revues early in his career. One was his forgettable 1960 Broadway debut, “From A to Z,” for which he provided some of the songs, and which closed after 21 performances.
But his first full Broadway score, for “Milk and Honey” (1961), about American widows visiting Israel, got rave reviews, ran 543 performances and earned him a Tony nomination. Producer David Merrick was impressed and asked him to compose samples for a musical based on “The Matchmaker,” Thornton Wilder’s farce about a widowed matchmaker who makes a match for herself. Herman was given a weekend.
“I produced those four songs in two days of the wildest, most intensive writing binge of my life,” he recalled in a memoir. “I was like a crazed person, pacing up and down in the middle of the night, scribbling down lyrics and popping candy in my mouth. But I was young; I was full of energy; and I wanted this happy, brightly colored American musical score more than anything in the world.”
Herman took his tunes and a singer to Merrick’s office. “It was like a scene from a movie,” he said. “Merrick, who is supposed to be pretty dour, stood up with a big smile after we finished singing and said, ‘Kid, the show is yours.’”
The result was “Hello, Dolly!” Starring Carol Channing and directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, it opened Jan. 16, 1964, and ran nearly seven years, grossing $27 million. It was briefly the longest-running musical in Broadway history (it was soon surpassed by “Fiddler on the Roof), with Channing succeeded by Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman and others — including, heading an all-black cast that also included Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey.
The show became one of the great success stories of musical theater, sweeping 10 of the 11 Tonys for which it was nominated and generating $60 million in revenues as touring companies set box-office records across America and around the world. A 1965 London production ran 794 performances; the 1969 film, with Barbra Streisand as Dolly, was nominated for seven Oscars; and there were Broadway revivals, again with Channing, in 1975, 1978 and 1995. A 2017 production starring Bette Midler won the Tony for best revival of a musical.
Louis Armstrong’s recording of the title song became a smash hit, briefly hitting No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. During the 1964 presidential campaign it was turned into President Lyndon B. Johnson’s theme song, “Hello, Lyndon!” — sung by Channing at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Herman’s second triumph, “Mame,” starring Angela Lansbury, opened in 1966 and ran three years and seven months. Inspired by Patrick Dennis’ novel “Auntie Mame” and the subsequent Broadway play and film starring Rosalind Russell, it unfurled the freewheeling adventures of a flamboyant grande dame whose young nephew is taken along for a madcap coming-of-age ride. The show generated national tours, a 1974 film with Lucille Ball and countless regional, stock and school productions.
In 1983, after 17 years of flops and self-doubt, Herman’s last blockbuster, “La Cage aux Folles,” with a book by Harvey Fierstein, hit Broadway as a breakthrough for gay consciousness in mainstream entertainment. Its social and political implications were muted for what Variety called “the importance of human commitment, loyalty and self-pride.”
Based on a 1973 French play by Jean Poiret that was later made into a hit movie (and the basis of another hit movie, “The Birdcage”), it portrayed two middle-aged male lovers who run a club in St. Tropez featuring female impersonators, and who face a crisis when their son brings his fiancee’s straight-laced parents for a visit. It ran four years, and one of the songs, “I Am What I Am,” became a gay anthem.
Critics — gay and straight — called the show far too cautious, especially at a time when AIDS was becoming a full-blown crisis in America and homophobia was widespread. But Herman insisted that the musical stage was not a soapbox and said of the gay community, “One day when they are old and gray, they will realize what this show is doing for their cause and send a thank-you note.”
Gerald Sheldon Herman was born in New York City on July 10, 1931, the only child of Harry and Ruth Sachs Herman, and grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. His parents were teachers and amateur musicians who ran a summer camp in upstate New York. The young camper taught himself to play the piano, wrote songs and staged bucolic musicals.
In 1946, his parents took him to see Ethel Merman in the original Broadway production of Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was a life-altering experience, with a score that included “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and the blowout Merman-Ray Middleton duet, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”
“I can still remember coming home from the show and sitting down at the piano and being able to play parts of six songs I’d never heard before,” Herman told the Times. “I was truly inspired by Irving Berlin, by his simplicity, and by the fact that he was able to write in a vernacular that the entire country could grasp immediately.”
After graduating from high school in Jersey City, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design. But his mother arranged an audition with Frank Loesser, composer of “Guys and Dolls” and other shows, who recommended a songwriting career. Herman studied drama at the University of Miami. He graduated in 1953, then wrote revues and off-Broadway musicals for years until Gerard Oestreicher, a real estate developer and Broadway producer, suggested his musical about Israel.
In 1983 Herman met Martin Finkelstein, a designer. They were companions until Finkelstein died of AIDS in 1989. Herman, who learned he was HIV-positive in 1985, received experimental drug therapies that later stabilized his condition.
He lived in Miami Beach with his husband and longtime partner, Terry Marler, who survives him.
Herman’s last Broadway show was “An Evening With Jerry Herman,” a career retrospective in which he played piano onstage, which had a two-month run in 1998.
With Marilyn Stasio, he wrote “Showtune: A Memoir” (1996). Stephen Citron’s biography, “Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune,” appeared in 2004. A documentary by Amber Edwards, “Words and Music by Jerry Herman,” was shown on the Public Broadcasting Service in 2008. He received lifetime achievement honors from the Tonys in 2009 and the Kennedy Center in 2010.
“I’m a happy man who writes the way I want to write,” he told the Times. “If I had the choice of being the most brilliant and sophisticated writer that ever came down the pike or of being the simple melodic songwriter that I am, I would still have chosen the latter.”