As a little 10 year old musical comedy queen, I would practice kick stepping my way down the staircase at our house as my imaginary chorus sang my character’s name (I think sometimes they were actually just singing-Steve!). My parents had just been presented me with the Original Broadway Cast album Hello, Dolly! & I was having a difficult time recovering from the excitement of such infectious tunes. These hummable songs personified the “show tune”. They were tuneful, optimistic, & deceptively simple songs. I had been raised on Lerner & Lowe & Rodgers & Hammerstein, but this new guy was really getting to me. I didn’t know it in 1964, but Jerry Herman would be providing me with a musical number for descending a staircase for the next 4 decades.
Jerry Herman, who writes the music & lyrics, produced super successful & contagious tunes for the musicals: Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack & Mable, & La Cage Aux Folles.
In these musicals our misunderstood leading lady would introduce a song early in the first act that stated her life philosophy: I Put My Hand In There, It’s Today, Each Tomorrow Morning, Look What Happened To Mabel, & A Little More Mascara.
The first act would end in her big soliloquy, where our heroine lifts her own spirits: Before The Parade Passes By, If He Walked Into My Life Today, I Don’t Want To Know, or I Am What I Am.
That brings us to the big “staircase” number, when the chorus celebrates how their lives have been changed by the mere presence of this woman with the title songs from Dolly & Mame, When Mabel Comes In The Room, One Person, & The Best Of Times. The song- One from A Chorus Line is a parody & homage to these songs.
Despite the formula, these shows & their wonderful & skillful songs make for superior theatre experiences. Some were super hits & others became cult favorites. Herman is the only songwriter to have 3 musical on Broadway at the same time. Many of his compositions have become pop standards. Louis Armstrong’s version of Hello, Dolly! outsold The Beatles in 1964. The movie versions of Hello, Dolly! & Mame are considered, by most fan of musical theatre, to be duds, but as a very young man I was thrilled by the film of Hello, Dolly! & saw it about 20 times. I still love Barbra (decades too young for the role) as Mae West as Dolly Levi. I was very touched that Wall-E discovered emotions from a dilapidated 20th century tape containing a loop of Put On Your Sunday Clothes.
Herman has stated that he will no longer be writing for the theatre:
“I think my style of musical has come and was very, very good to me, but is gone now. I think it's better to know when to leave than to end up with two or three shows that didn't make it. I left at my height."
Herman has long been openly gay, & was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985. He is one of the fortunate ones who survived to see experimental drug therapies take hold & is still, as he turns 81 years old today, as one of his lyrics proclaims, “alive & well & thriving.”
Herman’s 1983 musical- La Cage Aux Folles was a critical & commercial smash, & also a political & social turning point. Never before had a pair men held hands in a musical, or sung a love ballad to one another.
George Hearn’s star turn as Za Za, belting out what is probably the most dramatic Act One closer of all time- I Am What I Am, is a forceful call for dignity & acceptance, a surpassingly stalwart statement in the first days of HIV from a composer/lyricist who declared all along that he wanted only to entertain people.
I had the good fortunate to play Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! at Seattle Civic Light Opera in the late 1980s & during performances, of course I would close my eyes as the male chorus was singing the title number, & what I was hearing was “Hello, Horace!” or better yet- “Hello, Stephen!” & I was step kick-stepping down that large staircase.