To some degree the anti-Sondheim, composer and lyricist Jerry Herman represents tried-and-true Broadway values: direct tunes, conventional forms, light-hearted optimism. His detractors have branded his work formulaic, and Herman has by no means met with unblemished success, yet he is responsible for two enduring shows, Hello Dolly! and La Cage aux folles, with the intermittently popular Mame probably belonging to that list as well.
HermanRead more came up through the business playing piano only by ear and only later studying theory and harmony as well as drama at the University of Miami. He toiled in nightclubs and composed music for 1950s television. Herman began writing his own off-Broadway revues in the mid-'50. His first full-fledged musical, Milk and Honey, came in 1961, and netted Herman a Tony Award, as well as a hit song in "Shalom." His next effort, Madame Aphrodite, flopped, but Herman finally secured himself a spot at the top in 1964 with the tremendously popular Hello Dolly! The show garnered more awards than could be carried home in a hatbox. Mame, in 1966, brought him further success, with its cheery pastiche of old-fashioned styles, but soon Herman was looking like a two-hit wonder. Dear World, in 1969, proved too dark and adventuresome for audiences, and Herman retreated to more tourist-friendly material. That strategy failed, though; of his shows in the 1970s, only Mack and Mabel (1974) developed a following, and that was solely through its original-cast album.
Herman made a remarkable comeback in 1983 with La Cage aux folles, based on a farcical French film that hinged on gay stereotypes while presenting its effeminate characters as sympathetic figures. This was something of a retro show, alternating sentimental songs with big production numbers and featuring one sure hit, "I Am What I Am," which quickly became not only a disco standard but the unofficial gay national anthem. Herman wasn't able to duplicate his success in later shows, though. Since 1985 the only Herman efforts that have held the public imagination are revivals of Hello Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage, plus a touring revue called Jerry's Girls, an anthology of numbers featuring his strongest female characters.
Herman's weakness is that although his lyrics are spare enough to put across their point strongly on first hearing, and his music holds immediate surface appeal, he has rarely been a memorable melodist. His work remains a prime example of mid-twentieth century Broadway style, even while critics question its substance. Read less