Harvey Granat Presents The American Songbook: Jerry Herman

Harvey Granat is a Broadway producer, cabaret vocalist, and historian/ educator of American popular song. His “classes” are illuminating entertainments. Accompanist for Granat – Rob Kelly.

Today’s Guests: Laurence Maslon, professor at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts, Associate Chair of the graduate acting program, editor, Host/Producer of Broadway to Main Street; Jason Danieley, Broadway actor, singer, concert performer and recording artist; and concert/cabaret performer Mark Nadler.

Our host begins by pointing out that in the early 1960s, there was a change of guard on Broadway. Hammerstein, Porter, Loesser, Lerner and Lowe gave way to new giants. He asks Maslon whether one Golden Age gave way to another.

LM:“Herman wasn’t so much a major transitional figure as a major figure in a transitional age. He reaches back to Irving Berlin, who he adored, writing in a good old fashioned way at a different time.”

Laurence Maslon (Photo by Matthew Sussman)

Gerald Sheldon Herman (1931-2019) garnered five Tony Award nominations winning twice, for Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles. Add Mame and you have three of the most successful, influential Broadway musicals of the era. The artist communicated directly, melodically, and universally. He grew up in a house filled with music where family sang around the piano and attended Broadway shows. Granat points out that inspiration of many of our composers originated with family. “Inculcation at a young age makes all the difference.”

Maslon is asked whether Ethel Merman had a big influence on Herman. “The first show the artist saw (1946) was Annie Get Your Gun. Thank goodness he didn’t start two years later with Miss Liberty, or he might never have written musicals,” the educator quips.

“I can still remember coming home from the show and sitting down at the piano and being able to play parts of six songs I’d never heard before,” Herman told The New York Times. “I was truly inspired by Irving Berlin, by his simplicity, and by the fact that he was able to write in a vernacular that the entire country could grasp immediately.” (Robert D. McFadden New York Times, Herman’s obituary.)

Beginning at summer camp, theater, then songwriting became hobbies. Herman never thought in terms of pursuing a career. While attending Parsons School of Design, his mother wrangled him an introduction to Frank Loesser who, much to the boy’s surprise (though not Mrs. Herman’s) encouraged him to persevere with songwriting. The young man transferred to the University of Miami Theater Department.

HG: “People could get in on the ground floor in those days with early revues.” Parade was the artist’s third. From the show, Granat sings “Your Hand in My Hand.” It’s a gentle entreaty…As long as you keep/just your hand in mine…The vocalist is poignant, halting. Herman’s Broadway debut followed with From A to Z featuring contributions from newcomers Woody Allen and Fred Ebb.

HG: “The next year, producer/real estate developer Gerry Oestreicher asked whether Herman  was familiar with Judaism and the founding of Israel.” Apparently without foundation the young man said “yes” and found himself with book writer Don Appell on a plane to Israel. “He was determined not to make the piece a one-sided love letter and found a way to show both in the show’s title song. ‘There was only one word I knew,’ Herman said, ‘and we heard it all day. It meant so many things.’ The song was `Shalom.’” Granat sings a few resonant bars. Milk and Honey closed after 13 performances.

HG: “His biggest hit, Hello, Dolly! (an adaptation of Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker) opened in 1964. Despite success, it turned out to be a horrendous experience. Both producer David Merrick and director Gower Champion were abusive. ‘I’m worried all you know is the Israeli stuff,’ Merrick told Herman, who promptly went home and wrote five songs.” One was a big second act number to be sung by the leading lady while descending a staircase. Hal Prince, who turned down the show wrote to Merrick … if you do produce it, for God’s sake get rid of that terrible title song! The producer kept bringing in other composers. No one else would touch it.

Jason Danieley (Photo Courtesy of the Performer)

HG: “Did you have any contact with Merrick, Larry?” 
LM: “Not really. I saw him quite late in life at The Tonys. He was then the most powerful man in theater and people just ignored him.”
HG: “What do you mean by power – money, taste?”
LM: “Chutzpah… (shameless audacity, impudence). He was mean, mercurial, and sadistic, but not a dunce.”
HG: “He helped make Jerry Herman a worldwide name.”

We watch a video of Louis Armstrong’s iconic, infectiously joyful rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” Nobody thought its issue would be anything special. The recording was apparently released while Armstrong was on tour. One week it dethroned The Beatles as #1. Suddenly the song was repeatedly requested. Without charts, Armstrong had to secure sheet music.

HG: “Larry, how often does the star make the show or the show the star?” Maslon replies that Fiddler on the Roof was playing when Dolly opened and continued successfully after Zero Mostel left. He says Dolly requires star power. A succession of well known actresses assumed the role. Even Ethel Merman eventually played the matchmaker.

The musical Mame (based on Patrick Dennis’ book “Auntie Mame” and the Broadway play) arrived in 1966. Mame’s credo “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death” echoes still. Granat runs a clip of Bing Crosby singing the title song on television’s Hollywood Palace. Surrounded by elaborately costumed dancers, the crooner’s round tones and ease of delivery almost make of the number something low key.

Herman’s favorite song in the show was “If He Walked Into My Life.” Granat’s interpretation is regretful, warm, immensely moving. Memories play across the vocalist’s face, lyrics mirror. When Herman first played it for Don Costa, the arranger legendarily lifted it off the piano and walked directly to the neighboring home of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. Gormé loved, sang, and subsequently recorded it, garnering the Grammy Award for Best Female Vocal Performance.

HG: “From his earliest shows, the association of song and character was paramount. I’m curious, Jason, does a song define character? JD: “That’s the art form. When a character sings, the song needs to carry his arc.” HG: “And Mark, what steps do you take before performing a song?” MN: “It’s different for me because I’m a cabaret performer. Each song is its own entire play. In creating my own arrangements I make sure music forces an audience to stay with the lyric rather than get carried away by music.”

Dear World (Based on Jean Giraudoux’ play The Madwoman of Chaillot) opened in 1969. With it, Herman became the first composer-lyricist in history to have three productions running simultaneously on Broadway. HG: “As I said to my wife when I wrote the check, how could it fail?” (Granat was an investor.) Though Angela Lansbury won the Tony for Best Actress, the show was plagued by multiple personnel changes and poor reviews from its first outing. It closed after 132 performances

Next was Mack and Mabel about the love affair between filmmaker Mack Sennet and Mabel Norman, “the girl from the deli” he made his star. Perhaps ahead of its time, the show began buoyant, then spiraled downward, ending in Norman’s drug overdose. Common belief is that this was the reason it ran only six months. Merrick produced the show, but didn’t promote it. Herman sunk into deep depression. (He continued to try to get a revival until his death.)

Mark Nadler (Photo by Heather Sullivan)

Nadler performs two songs from the show. Pitch perfect attitude of “I Won’t Send Roses” is captured in his intonation of the word “kid.” I’m sorry this is who I am, it says and shrugs. The artist tells us he did a Herman show in LA., that he was so eager to impress its author, he came up with an extremely elaborate arrangement. “Afterwards he came up to me and complimented my work, but said, ‘I’m losing my melody.’ Because of that, I think he’s unrated as a lyricist.”

The second selection is “Tap Your Troubles Away,” a song that often springs to Nadler’s mind these days: When you’re the one that it always rains on/Simply try putting your Mary Janes on… Needless to say, the showman tap dances while sitting on the piano seat. Hands windmill, black n’ white shoes and pink socks fly. “I feel better,” he says. As do we.

HG: “What pulled Jerry out of despondency was Jerry’s Girls , a pastiche of his work in which he appeared with several casts of vocalists.He might’ve gotten involved with the filming of Hello, Dolly!, but director Gene Kelly did everything he could to keep him away from the set. He didn’t want to be ‘contaminated’ by anyone from Broadway.” Screenwriter Ernest Lehman later said “The intrigues, the bitterness, the backbiting, the deceits, the misery, the gloom. Most unpleasant. It’s quite amazing what people go through to make something entertaining for others.”

HG: “The groundbreaking La Cage Aux Folles, (based on the French play by Jean Poiret), opened in 1973. Its hero is a gay man who finds pride challenging his own son’s bigotry about homosexuality. People were at first shocked, then realized it was a be-who-you-are human story that affected everyone. This next song is its centerpiece, a crying out of the character’s independence.”

At the finale, the predominantly male cast whipped off its wigs. Herman declared audience reaction was “one of those moments you wait for all your life. They screamed, they cried…We were insanely happy, crazy people…”

Nadler performs “I Am What I Am” with dignity and defiance. Steam practically rises from the keyboard. An 11’clock number at 12:23. La Cage aux Folles won the Tony Award for Best Musical (1983) and later became the only musical to win the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical both in 2005 and 2010.

Herman’s memoir Showtune was published in 1996. A 90-minute documentary about his life and career, Words and Music by Jerry Herman by filmmaker Amber Edwards, was screened in 2007, then broadcast on PBS. The artist’s last years were spent in Miami Beach,  redecorating houses and flipping them.

Granat turns conversation to the absence and return of theater and music. “Where do we go from here? What do we have to look forward to? He asks Danieley about having the plug pulled on the Ahrens/Flaherty project Knoxville (Based on James Agee’s A Death in the Family) in which he stars. The musical was to have premiered in Sarasota. “It’s such a disappointment,” the artist responds. The opening has been put back to April 21.”

LM: “The first question is when can people come back. There are certainly shows in the pipeline. During the Depression, there were both silly and serious musicals. Perhaps people will want to be entertained.” Our host thinks that streaming is positive outreach, that it would be a mistake for unions to hinder producers in this. Maslon suggests there might be a streaming window, “but part of theater is live engagement.”

JD: “Live performance is the coming together of a community, having collective experience. It’s cathartic…Also, reopening, we need to better listen to our Black brothers in the industry, to return to true American melting-pot spirit.

HG: “There’s one more song I’d like to do. I think it was Jerry Herman’s mantra. I pray the day comes soon when we sing this. The host performs “The Best of Times Are Now” with hope one can only call full-blooded, and apt.

COMING UP on Harvey Granat’s American Songbook:

All 12-1:30 pm through 92nd Street Y
October 22: Vernon Duke with Guests KT Sullivan & Will Friedwald
November 19: Rodgers & Hart with Guests Jamie De Roy, Steve Ross, and Barry Kleinbort
December 3: Carole Bayer Sager with Guests Marissa Mulder & Cheryl Segall

Laurence Maslon’s Broadway to Main Street

Mark Nadler

Jason Danieley

About Alix Cohen (1332 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.