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Jerry Herman, composer of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and other Broadway hits, dies at 88

Jerry Herman with his book “Showtune” in 1996. (Jim Cooper/AP)

Jerry Herman, a Tony Award-winning composer whose contributions to the Broadway stage included such enduring classics as “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles,” among the first major musicals that overtly addressed gay relationships, died Dec. 26 at a hospital in Miami Beach. He was 88.

He had a pulmonary ailment, said his goddaughter Jane Dorian.

Mr. Herman was a prolific composer whose songs — including “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Before the Parade Passes By,” “I Am What I Am” and the title tune of “Hello, Dolly!” — often became celebratory anthems and sometimes pop hits.

An unabashedly old-fashioned musical theater composer in the tradition of Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mr. Herman prized what he called “the simple, hummable show tune.”

“I write for a mass audience,” he told The Washington Post in 2010. “I write for people, for a smiling public.”

His shows were sometimes criticized for not having the intellectual depth or musical complexity of those by his contemporary, Stephen Sondheim. But to Mr. Herman, the whole point of a musical was to offer spiritual uplift, a sweet melody and a soul-cleansing evening of pure entertainment.

“When people think of Jerry Herman, they think of big costumes, glamour, glitz — and he’s got that,” theatrical director Eric Schaeffer told The Post in 2010. “But take that off and there’s a great undercurrent of emotion. . . . He’s been underappreciated. As times change, people say, ‘Oh that’s so out of style and old-fashioned,’ and you’re like, ‘No, that’s great songwriting.’ People aren’t writing those songs anymore.”

Mr. Herman wrote the words and music for 10 Broadway shows during his career and won Tony Awards for his scores of “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964 and “La Cage aux Folles” two decades later. In 2009, he received a Tony for lifetime achievement, followed a year later by the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington.

His rousing, upbeat musicals often featured a bruised but defiantly proud woman in the central role: Dolly Levi, most memorably portrayed by Carol Channing, in “Hello, Dolly!,” which ran on Broadway for almost seven years and has been revived several times since; and the title role in “Mame,” which Angela Lansbury premiered on Broadway in 1966.

Even Mr. Herman admitted that his larger-than-life female characters, with their stunning costumes and showstopping songs, were stand-ins for his mother, Ruth Sachs, a onetime cabaret singer who encouraged her son’s musical career but died before he had a show on Broadway.

“She was glamorous like Mame and witty like Dolly,” Mr. Herman told People magazine in 1986. “On opening nights I stand in the theater and wish she could see my work.”

In 1969, with “Mame,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Dear World,” Mr. Herman had three plays running simultaneously on Broadway. A 1964 recording of the “Dolly” theme by jazz great Louis Armstrong became a hit, knocking the Beatles out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard pop chart. “Mame” included a memorable theme song — “You coax the blues right out of the horn, Mame” — and the cheery “We Need a Little Christmas,” which has become a standard.

During the 1970s, Mr. Herman continued to turn out musicals, including “Mack and Mabel” (1974) and “The Grand Tour” (1979), but with less success. He retreated for a few years, decorating some of the three dozen houses he owned over the years, before making a triumphant return to Broadway in 1983 with “La Cage aux Folles.”

Based on a French play and movie from the 1970s, Mr. Herman’s musical focused on two middle-aged gay men in a committed relationship. They are raising a son who is about to marry into a conservative family. The action takes place on the French Riviera, where the couple, Georges and Albin, run a nightclub. Albin comes alive when he puts on a wig, gown and makeup for his performances in drag as Zaza.

“The first song that popped out of me was ‘A Little More Mascara,’ ” Mr. Herman said in 1983, “in which you actually see a dowdy, aging, not-terribly-happy man transform himself into this glamorous creature.”

At the end of Act I, Albin sings the anthem “I Am What I Am,” which was soon adopted as a stand-up-and-shout celebration of gay pride.

“I did not do ‘La Cage’ to make a political statement,” Mr. Herman told The Post in 2010. “I did it because I thought it was great entertainment.”

The play, which ran on Broadway for four years, won the Tony Award for best musical, beating out Sondheim’s high-concept “Sunday in the Park With George.” “La Cage” arrived during the height of the AIDS epidemic and helped put gay life into the cultural mainstream at a time when many gay men were being stigmatized.

“We went to hell and back in those years, when nobody wanted to talk about anything but AIDS,” Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the dialogue for “La Cage” and has played Albin onstage, told The Post, “but because of ‘La Cage,’ we had a place to focus positive energy and discuss another aspect of being gay.”

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Herman, who was openly gay, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He lost his partner, Marty Finkelstein, to AIDS in 1989.

“When you’re first diagnosed as HIV-positive, your head spins and you think, I’m going to be next and I haven’t done half the things I wanted to,” he told The Post in 1995. “I honestly panicked.”

He was near death several times, but through experimental medical treatments he regained his health. He went on to present new productions of his work and appeared in theatrical revues, telling stories and playing the piano as singers performed his music.

“My whole reason for being,” he said in 1995, “is to entertain people.”

Gerald Sheldon Herman was born July 10, 1931, in New York City and grew up in Jersey City. His father was a gym teacher. Both parents played musical instruments at home and helped run a summer camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

Mr. Herman, who was self-taught on piano, often attended Broadway plays with his parents. After seeing Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1946, he came home and played several of the songs from memory.

“I thought, my God, what a gift this man has given me,” he told NPR in 1994. “And from that moment on, that’s all I wanted to do with my life.”

After receiving encouragement from Broadway composer Frank Loesser, Mr. Herman transferred from the Parsons School of Design in New York to the University of Miami, where he studied theater and wrote for revues. He moved to New York after his graduation in 1953.

He wrote incidental music and appeared in cabarets before his first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey,” was staged in 1961. He was nominated for a Tony Award for best score.

About a year later, Mr. Herman persuaded producer David Merrick to let him write some sample music for what would become “Hello, Dolly!” Over one weekend, he composed four songs, which he presented to Merrick on Monday morning.

“He stood up behind his desk,” Mr. Herman later recalled, “and he said, ‘Kid, the show is yours!’ ”

In addition to his three blockbuster hits, Mr. Herman had several popular revues, including “Jerry’s Girls” and “An Evening With Jerry Herman,” that played on Broadway and in national tours. He published a memoir, “Showtune,” co-written with Marilyn Stasio, in 1996.

Two of his musicals, “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” were made into films, both of which Mr. Herman intensely disliked — the former for its directing, by Gene Kelly, and the latter because he thought Lucille Ball was miscast in the lead role.

Survivors include his partner, Terry Marler, of Miami Beach.

Mr. Herman noted that “Hello, Dolly!” was not an immediate hit with audiences and required some tinkering during out-of-town tryouts. He scrapped a song at the end of Act I and, one night in a hotel room in Detroit, wrote “Before the Parade Passes By,” which became the emotional centerpiece of the musical. He quoted the lyrics in a 1995 interview with The Post:

Before the parade passes by

I’m gonna go and taste Saturday’s high life.

Before the parade passes by

I’m gonna get some life back into my life.

“I wrote that number for the character of Dolly Levi, who was brave enough to take one last chance in life,” Mr. Herman said. “I liked that about her. I certainly didn’t know I was writing about me at the time. But God knows, I was.”

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