The composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the cheerful, good-natured music and lyrics for such classic shows as Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, has died aged 88.
Herman had a direct and simple sense of melody, and his lyrics had a natural, unforced quality. He said in 1995 that over the years “critics have sort of tossed me off as the popular and not the cerebral writer, and that was fine with me. That was exactly what I aimed at.”
He died of pulmonary complications on Thursday in Miami, where he had been living with his partner, Terry Marler, a real estate broker, his goddaughter Jane Dorian said on Friday.
The creator of 10 Broadway shows and contributor to several more, Herman won two Tony awards for best musical: Hello, Dolly! in 1964 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He also won two Grammys, for the Mame cast album and Hello, Dolly! as song of the year.
In accepting the Tony in 1984 for La Cage Aux Folles, Herman said: “This award forever shatters a myth about the musical theatre. There’s been a rumour around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway. Well, it’s alive and well at the Palace [theatre].”
Herman was born in New York in 1931 and raised in New Jersey. He noted that when he was born, his mother had a view of Broadway’s Winter Garden theatre marquee from her hospital bed.
Herman dated his intention to write musicals to the time his parents took him to Annie Get Your Gun and he went home and played five of Irving Berlin’s songs on the piano. “I thought: what a gift this man has given a stranger. I wanted to give that gift to other people. That was my great inspiration, that night,” he said in 1996.
After graduating from the University of Miami, Herman headed back to New York, writing and playing piano in a jazz club. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 contributing songs to the review From A to Z alongside material by Fred Ebb and Woody Allen and the next year tackled the entire score to a musical about the founding of the state of Israel, Milk and Honey. It earned him his first Tony nomination.
Hello, Dolly!, starring Carol Channing, opened in 1964 and ran for 2,844 performances, becoming Broadway’s longest-running musical at the time. It won 10 Tonys and has been revived many times, most recently in 2017 with Bette Midler in the title role, a 19th-century widowed matchmaker who learns to live again.
Mame followed in 1966, starring Angela Lansbury, and went on to run for more than 1,500 performances. She handed Herman his special Tony award for lifetime achievement in 2009, saying he created songs that were, like him, “bouncy, buoyant and optimistic”.
In 1983 he had another hit with La Cage aux Folles, a sweetly radical musical of its age, decades before the fight for marriage equality. It was a lavish adaptation of the successful French film about two gay men who own a splashy drag nightclub on the Riviera. It contained the gay anthem I Am What I Am and ran for 1,760 performances.