Bette Midler in the Broadway revival of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)
By Matthew Wexler
The theater world has lost one of its greats. Jerry Herman, composer of such hits as Mame, Hello, Dolly!, and La Cage aux Folles, died on December 26 at the age of 88.
Herman grew up just across the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey, and eventually made his way to Manhattan after studies at the University of Miami. It would take several years of working Off-Broadway before Herman’s first Broadway show, Milk and Honey, would premiere in 1961, but it was producer David Merrick who connected the composer with Carol Channing and magic was made.
The original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! ran for 2,844 performances and held the record for the most Tony Awards (10) for 37 years. His next big hit, Mame, starred Angela Lansbury and was also a success.
Herman’s career continued to ebb and flow over the years, working with greats such as Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey and Robert Preston, but it wasn’t until 1983’s La Cage aux Folles that the composer once again achieved a stratospheric hit.
Of his decade-spanning songbook, “I Am What I Am” has become an anthem that has transcended musical theater as a message of empowerment, particularly within the LGBTQ community, and has been recorded by Gloria Gaynor, Shirley Bassey, Pia Zadora and RuPaul’s Drag Race star Ginger Minj.
Most recently, a revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler (and later Bernadette Peters) ran on Broadway for 550 performances and is currently on tour starring Carolee Carmello in the starring role, with stops in Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and more.
Herman’s work will continue to be celebrated in future productions. The forward-thinking composer encouraged artists to reimagine the shows that brought him so much notoriety over the years.
“I’m so open to experiment with my work. I love it when people have new ideas. It always leads to learning,” said Herman in an interview with The Telegraph. “I don’t learn anything by going to see an exact copy of what I’ve done before. But I do learn when somebody does something a little daring, a little offbeat with it. And I welcome change.”
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.