You're Looking Swell, Dolly

jerry herman, songwriter Jerry Herman just might be the least-heralded Broadway "great" of the 20th Century. As a composer his body of work is not as prodigious as some, and thus his name does not have the universal recognition of an Andrew Lloyd-Webber, a Richard Rodgers, or an Irving Berlin. While there are many Americans who cannot say "why" they know these names, most will say that they are positively familiar with them. But Jerry Herman?

If you happen to be a fan of Broadway, you're scoffing at this statement. You're probably thinking that Herman is one of the few composers who has bridged the gap of today's Broadway and the Broadway of the golden age. More significantly, he is the only composer to rack up three shows that ran for more than 1500 performances each. And you're wondering how anyone could say they don't recognize Jerry Herman's name. Thus, this article is intended for the fan of American Popular Song who is less familiar with the role Broadway has played in assembling the Great American Songbook. Of course the Broadway enthusiast is welcome to join us, as we may uncover a gem or two you hadn't thought of. Here goes...

Jerry Herman's "first" Broadway musical -- he participated in an earlier review -- was a successful 1960 effort called Milk and Honey. The show yielded no memorable songs despite the universal reviews and opinions that described the music as "captivating." It was an auspicious beginning: Although Herman had slugged it out in piano bars and the off-Broadway trenches for a few years, it seemed to fans of the Great White Way that he was an overnight success.

The musical numbers in Milk and Honey caught the attention of legendary producer David Merrick, who was riding the crest of early 1960s hits like Carnival and Oliver!. Merrick wanted to develop a musical production of a play he had produced in 1955, Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. He believed that the role of Dolly Levi would be an ideal vehicle for Ethel Merman, but she dropped out of the project before it was complete. Merrick eventually settled on Carol Channing, a proven Broadway talent but with little name recognition. Channing took Merman's part and made it her own, and in 1964 Hello Dolly was an immediate smash.

The title tune had been recorded by Louis Armstrong for promotional use, but in the aftermath of the show's immediate success it was released as a single. Interestingly enough, it was the first song to crack the juggernaut of the Beatles' string at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It also topped the Easy Listening charts, known today as Adult Contemporary. Herman garnered a Grammy Award for best song in 1965. Interestingly enough, Armstrong had already won a Grammy for "Hello Dolly" in 1964's best male vocal category...one of the few instances where the same song resulted in Grammies in two different years.

Unfortunately the song "Hello Dolly" would mark both the high and the low point of Herman's career. Mack David, a seasoned composer who had penned music for numerous films and television ("Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" among the best known) believed that the first four bars of "Dolly" were the same as a 1948 song he had composed for Frank Sinatra called "Sunflower." Herman naturally wanted an opportunity to defend his tune in court, but didn't want to drag down the Dolly franchise with a film version pending. Herman and David settled out of court. The widely reported quarter-million dollar settlement made "Dolly" -- a song he didn't write -- the most profitable of Mack David's career.

Thus Herman's "Dolly" legacy is slightly tainted...but it shouldn't be so. With a listen to each record, the differences in pacing, and some overall deductions, we present the following assessment: Like today's "sampling," it seems that David's composition inspired Herman, but that's about all. Herman claimed to never have heard "Sunflower." While that may be true, it isn't likely to be true. Because of Herman's earlier stint as a jazz club pianist, it is more likely that he heard the song, and possibly even played it. It doesn't really matter -- the first ten notes may follow the same melody, but the timing is different, and the songs diverge completely afterward. We'll accept Herman's word that he hadn't heard it, because in his mind that was what happened (or didn't happen). It's more likely he had forgotten it, and it came out in a few lines subconsciously...a far cry from copyright infringement. Considering the melody's ragtime feel, it's quite likely that a far earlier piece provided the same sort of inspiration for Mack David.

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featured performance

This is a video of Carol Channing performing Dolly's "talk with Ephram" scene and the popular "Before the Parade Passes By." Please note that you have to click the arrow twice to make the video play.


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Hello Dolly would go on to a then-record 2844 performances, and Herman's course in life was clear. Incredibly, his next Broadway musical was also a smash hit, the Angela Lansbury vehicle Mame. In addition to the title tune, "Bosom Buddies" and "If He Walked Into My Life" are among the notable numbers that have become standards. And lest we forget, this show also yielded another unlikely pop standard, "We Need A Little Christmas." Mame racked up 1508 performances in its first run.

Herman's next shows are best summed up as "what might've been." His first after Mame was 1969's Dear World, also starring Lansbury. The key song "I Don't Want to Know" was a minor easy listening hit at the time, but hasn't quite held up. The show was panned by critics, and closed after 132 performances. Surprisingly, Lansbury won a Tony Award for her efforts. The show lives on -- somehow -- in occasional revivals here and there around the globe. It seems that Herman's score is highly regarded by producers and performers; the universal opinion is that if the book were scrapped and re-written, Dear World would be a major hit.

The next show seemed like a surefire winner: Mack and Mabel, starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters. With book by Michael Stewart and produced by David Merrick, this 1974 show included what Herman felt was his best work. Unfortunately the music and the production clashed with what is an inherently dark story line, and the show closed after 66 performances. It was Herman's first full blown flop, and he was reportedly devasted by the experience.

Herman maintained that it was arguably his best effort, that the show deserved better. It wasn't until the next decade that his composition received the recognition it was due. Legendary British ice skaters and Olympic gold medalists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean dug up the overture from Mack and Mabel for the World Figure Skating Championships of 1982. The public response was unbelievable -- the original cast recording was re-released and rocketed up the adult contemporary charts. Eventually Stewart re-wrote the story, and the show became a hit in Great Britain. It subsequently migrated back to the USA, where it remains a staple of summer stock. Two of the better known songs from the show are "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything."

Back to the 1970s, Herman worked on a show called "The Grand Tour," which would star Joel Grey. It opened in 1979 and promptly tanked, going down as Herman's shortest run. It is a largely forgotten effort, despite the fact that critics applauded the score. Thus it was Herman's third consecutive flop, although we can only wonder what "might've been" had the story equalled the music.

But don't feel too distressed for Mr. Herman; remember that he is the only person in history to compose music for three Broadway shows that each exceeded 1500 performances of the original production. Although the 1970s certainly weren't kind to Jerry, he would receive his third smash and greatest critical acclaim in 1983: La Cage aux Folles. Among the instant standards this show launched are "I am What I am" and "The Best of Times."

Looking back on his work from a Broadway perspective, it is immediately apparent that Jerry Herman indeed "bridge the gap" between the Great White Way of old and the Broadway of today. Hello Dolly and Mame both have more in common with the musicals of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin than anything since, while La Cage aux Folles clearly reflects the style of the modern era. With three of the most significant shows in Broadway history to his credit, Jerry Herman may not be a household name, but his shows certainly are. And his status as a great American songwriter is second to none.

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To re-visit last month's featured songwriter, Bert "Happy Music" Kaempfert, please click here.