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Just Go To the Lyrics

Who puts his hand in and coaxes the blues right out of the horn? Hello, Jerry Herman! logo
The best of times is now, because we now have Jerry Herman: The Lyrics from Routledge. I might be biased because my buddies Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik worked on this book (the former as editor, the latter as photo researcher) and my girlfriend Linda Konner was the agent who sold it. But I haven't yet talked to anyone who isn't charmed by this coffee table book. (Okay, given that it measures 7½ by 9½ inches, let's call it a half-a-cup-of-coffee table book.)

Here's a chance to concentrate on the aspect of Herman that musical theater enthusiasts least consider: His words. When you think of Herman, don't his hummable tunes -- the razz-ma-tazz title songs and the soaring ballads -- first come to mind? But this book proves that Herman is a deft wordsmith, too. Consider the line in Milk and Honey that he gave to the repressed Ruth Stein, who's now come alive: "When my hair was up, my morale was down." How about Mack Sennett's "I Won't Send Roses," in which Mack tells Mabel Normand not to expect any presents, even though "roses suit you so." In the same song, there's "In me you'll find things...but not the kind things," rhyming a verb with an adjective. A greater than anticipated number of internal rhymes show up, too: From the unused lyrics to "Dancing" ("Life is a trifle blah") to a Mrs. Santa Claus song ("I've been manning the bus'ness and planning each holiday plan"), you'll be surprised at how many of these Herman has crafted.

This book isn't The Complete Lyrics of Jerry Herman, so don't expect too much from the composer-lyricist's Off-Broadway forays. There's no "Naughty Forty-Second Street" (from Nightcap of 1958), "Get off My Lawn" (from Parade of 1960), or "And a Drop of Lavender Oil" (from Madame Aphrodite of 1961). But at least there are selections from each of these shows, including a topical charmer about the then-trendy if infamous sack dress that women were wearing. (There's nothing here from Herman's 1954 effort I Feel Wonderful, though.) We also get the chance to see the logos from both Nightcap and Madame Aphrodite, and each is a charmer.

Also missing is Herman's very first song for Broadway, "Best Gold," which he contributed to the 1960 revue From A to Z. But after that, we get a generous sampling -- "A Celebration," the book is subtitled -- from Herman's seven original Broadway scores. These are all color-coded, pretty much in accordance with the shows' logos. While Milk and Honey is purple, Mame yellow, and Dear World lavender, Hello, Dolly! and Mack & Mabel posed a problem, for both logos used David Merrick red. So Mack has been arbitrarily relegated to forest green.

Jane Connell, Beatrice Arthur, and
Angela Lansbury in Mame (1966)
(Photo © Friedman-Abeles)
Fitting, isn't it, that Herman's first full Broadway score should begin with "Shalom" -- "the nicest greeting you know" -- for it did signal a nice greeting for Herman's Main Stem career. You think you know Herman's lyrics from the many recordings, be they original cast albums or pop renditions? Yes, but read here the unrecorded reprise of "Chin Up, Ladies," the verse to "Penny in My Pocket," and the entire "Fox Hunt" from Mame. You may know "Jolly Theatrical Season" from Parade from its recent Decca Broadway re-release, but the lyrics of this Forbidden Broadway-like parody were changed from time to time, and the book offers spoofs of West Side Story, Look Homeward Angel, The Crucible, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Rope Dancers, and Compulsion that aren't heard on the disc.

There's no telling what will cross your mind as you read through the lyrics. For Parade, Herman's "Two a Day" begins, "It's 1961, a time of theater innovation." You may wonder, did Sondheim use this as a model for his Merrily We Roll Along nightclub song, "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," which, after all, begins, "It's 1960, and gosh, what a swell year it's been!" Also for Parade, Herman created a vaudevillian who sang, "My home is still upon the Palace stage." Little did the songwriter know then that he'd have one of his biggest successes at that house (La Cage aux Folles) as well as, admittedly, one of his least successful shows (The Grand Tour). Nevertheless, he's twice played the Palace, which is more than many other Broadway composer-lyricists can say.

And those pictures! There's a young Phyllis Newman in I Feel Wonderful, years before she won the crowns of Miss Watermelon, Miss Cotton Blossom, and Miss Southern Comfort. There's a svelte Herman with his butch-looking collaborator Don Appel in front of the old marquee for the Martin Beck, which tells us that Milk and Honey "opens Oct. 10." For those who started following Angela Lansbury's career only when she began solving mysteries, get a look of how lovely and sophisticated she appeared in Mame and how eerie yet dignified she was as the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World. Who knew that the now-noted comic Rita Rudner was one of the "hundreds of girls" in Mack & Mabel, but there she is! There are 20 pictures of Cagelles from a planned La Cage aux Folles calendar that was never published; now, thanks to this book, we can see them year after year.

But perhaps more interesting of all are the pictures of various replacement and road company performers. Most musical theater books only include photos of the original cast, but here's a game Betty Grable, an uncertain Ethel Merman, and a jubilant Pearl Bailey in their Dolly outfits. There's Celeste Holm in the identically designed dress in which Angela Lansbury made her trumpet-playing entrance in Mame -- but in pink instead of gold, because Holm told costume designer Robert Mackintosh that pink was her color. (He never got over it.)

Lisa Kirk, Tom Baten, Bernadette Peters,
Robert Preston, Jerry Dodge, Robert Fitch, and
Nancy Evers in Mack & Mabel (1974)
(Photo © Billy Rose Theatre Collection)
Along the way, there are some fascinating statistics. The cast album of Hello, Dolly! sold 80,000 copies its first week. (Many of today's cast album executives would sell a couple of their children for those numbers.) Finally, there are lyrics from Herman's upcoming Vegas musical Miss Spectacular and his TV special Mrs. Santa Claus, as well as two lyrics from each of the two shows he doctored (Ben Franklin in Paris, A Day in Hollywood) and from the revue Jerry's Girls. I'm also glad that we have Herman's tribute to Mary Martin, which Carol Channing hilariously sang one October night in 1985 at the Shubert. The lyrics were set to the tune of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and Channing sang: "She played a nurse. She played a nun. She played a boy who was a fairy." That night at the Shubert, I was laughing so hard (imagine the force Channing gave the word "fairy") that I missed the next three lines, so I'm glad to know them now: "She stopped the show when she had to crow, so our hearts belong to Mary."

Herman sprinkles the book with some comments. "My proudest moment," he writes of coming up with "Before the Parade Passes By" when he was under David Merrick's gun in Detroit. As for those Harmonia Gardens waiters named Harry, Louis, and Manny, they're respectively (and respectfully) named for Herman's father and two uncles. But Herman's observations aren't all lollipops and roses. Of "Come Be My Butterfly," which was in Hello, Dolly! when the show opened but then was dropped by Gower Champion, Herman says, "It was replaced by a bland polka contest and I have always missed it."

After you finish reading Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, you'll notice that attached to the inside back cover is a CD of Michael Feinstein singing 11 of the master's songs, accompanied by Herman himself. Put it on and you just may cry out, "Hey, this guy isn't just a good lyricist; he's a helluva composer, too."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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