Ethel Merman and Jerry Herman have run like lodestars through Klea Blackhurst’s professional life. Theatrical style, vocal range and skill finds her constantly compared to the brassy actress/comedienne around whom the artist has built several shows. “She embodies the music, the legend, and the style that I was practically weaned on and that I long to express as a performer.” (Blackhurst)
Immersion in all things Herman began with playing Mame in a high school production that seems to have rivaled the scale of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. (We’re regaled with an hysterical description.) Years later, Blackhurst would play Dolly Levi in the Fiftieth Anniversary Production of Hello, Dolly! at Goodspeed Opera House. She received congratulations from its author and what was tantamount to welcome as one of his “girls.” (The revue Jerry’s Girls coined the term.) That Herman wrote the iconic Hello, Dolly! for Merman serendipitously creates a bridge.
Birdland is packed to the gills tonight with fans, friends, and appreciative peers. This high spirited, personal show overflows with almost as many amusing anecdotal stories as songs.
Having seen 28 year-old Herman’s first Broadway show, Milk and Honey, iconic producer (and scourge of Broadway) David Merrick asked to meet. The Matchmaker was quietly in development. “Are you,” Merrick asked, “sufficiently ‘American’ to handle the material?” Herman requested the weekend determined to prove himself.
He took home the book, shut himself in clutching two handfuls of candy bars and a gallon of milk, emerged with four songs, and got the job. “Jerry has said his tombstone will read: He wrote Hello, Dolly!” Blackhurst tells a good story. She’s got the beats and expressions down. Enthusiasm is infectious.
The jaunty “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” evidently came out word for word as we hear it in the musical. A cottony, bass-centric “It Only Takes a Moment” follows. The artist makes both her own, lightly integrating jazz and iconoclastic phrasing. Two from Mame are traditionally set, though “We Need a Little Christmas” includes a mash-up of additional carols. Blackhurst bounces up and down on her heels. Gestures are few and fitting.
Raised in New Jersey by two musical parents, Herman was loved, encouraged, and exposed to The Great White Way from early years. On his 13th birthday, the boy was taken to see Annie Get Your Gun. “I think this was the turning point. If you think about it, it’s all about a woman and a song.”
Blackhurst suggests that talents like Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman seemed to pluck universal songs from the ether as if they’d always been there. Both, she says, did more with less. Both wrote songs that live as well outside theatrical context as within. Exemplary of this we hear a tandem “What’ll I Do” (Berlin from the 1923 Music Box Revue), sheer cashmere, and “Time Heals Everything,” beautifully restrained. (Herman from Mack & Mabel.)
The buoyant cinema tribute “Just Go to The Movies” (A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine) was likely, we’re told, defiant reaction to Herman’s wretched time in Hollywood. Expecting deference after several big successes on Broadway, he found himself ignored during the filming of Hello, Dolly! and Mame. Blackhurst’s stories fill us in. “Jerry is impossibly optimistic. There’s always this radar ‘ping’ even in the worst situations.”
Just when Herman thought he was through, “he goes to see a little French art film. La Cage Aux Folles opened at exactly the right moment. An old fashioned show but with two men as lead characters. The very next thing that happens is the AIDS crisis. A lot of the cast died…”
A second deft pairing, from The Grand Tour and Dear World, ably speaks to the artist’s resolved positivity. Though less obviously anthems, they both echo La Cage’s “I Am What I Am,” as stirring today as when written. Blackhurst invests the lyric with grit and perseverance.
Though written for Merman, the star refused to play Dolly Levi for years while actress after actress after actress assumed the role. Every time there was a switch, she firmly reiterated her desire to remain out of dressing rooms. On the 13th try, she relented with “Well, now that you’ve got your previews out of the way…” and showed up at Herman’s door.
Among the songs he played for her were two that had been so specifically tailored, they’d been cut from the show when Merman turned it down. (Both were put back when she assumed the mantle.) Blackhurst sings “World, Take Me Back” – The world is full of wonderful things,/a bushel of wonderful things for me to believe in/So world, take me back/I want to be part of the human race again…She’s invested. “Before the Parade Passes By” closes the evening. A thoroughly entertaining show.
Opening Photos by Jeff Harnar
Other Photos by Stephen Hanks
Klea Blackhurst: One of The Girls- The Words & Music of Jerry Herman Michael Rice- MD/Arranger/Piano
Ray Kilday – Bass; Aaron Russell – Drums
August 26, 2019