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picture - Words and Music by Jerry HermanDVD Review

by John Topping

published January 15, 2008


Words and Music by Jerry Herman

90 minutes

produced, written and directed by Amber Edwards



There could hardly be a more specific niche market than a DVD about Jerry Herman:  if you’re a fan of Jerry Herman in general, if you’re a fan of any specific Jerry Herman show, or if you know little or nothing about Jerry Herman and want to learn what the fuss is all about, then it is highly unlikely that you will be disappointed with Amber Edwards' new documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman.  Fans of pre-1985 Broadway musicals who are not necessarily fans of Jerry Herman may wish to watch it as an elective.


If you had put me into the category of “Knows Enough About Jerry Herman and Enjoys His Music Well Enough, Especially In Context Of The Shows,” I would have thought, “You sure pegged me that time.”  After all, I’d seen the pre-limited Broadway run of Jerry’s Girls in San Francisco, a sort of theatrical Greatest Hits capitalizing on the continuing success of La Cage Aux Folles, and therefore I knew Jerry Herman inside and out.  Seeing the titles of the four musicals mentioned on the cover of the DVD box, I thought, “Right, right, and ... now what are some of the other famous ones again? Oh, well, it’ll be a nice surprise to be reminded of them as I watch the DVD.”  The real surprise for me was that, although he’d written the score for a small handful of other shows, there was not that half dozen or so well-known Broadway mega-hits that I could have sworn existed.  It turns out that his career has been much more checkered.


First we get the story of Jerry Herman from his childhood to his rise to success, which was almost fairy-tale easy for him at the beginning, progressing from his natural talent being recognized by his family and neighbors to honing his show-writing skills in college productions to his Off Broadway hit Parade to his first Broadway show Milk and Honey to the mega-hits Hello, Dolly! and Mame.  But those last two were such huge successes that the expectations they produced led directly to the rocky period of his career.  He first tried to stretch into new territory with Dear World, based on The Madwoman of Chaillot.  The critics and public rejected it.  This was immediately followed by the flop Mack and Mabel, based on the romance between Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand in the early days of silent film; to this day Herman thinks it can be as big and successful as Dolly and Mame put together.  It was not until 1983’s La Cage Aux Folles, the now iconic gay comedy based on the French film of the same name (which also spawned the American film The Birdcage), did he have another big success.  And in the 25 years since – aside from revivals – nothing.


The interviews with both Jerry Herman and his colleagues piece together not just the story of his life, but great insights for Herman fans into the man and his work.  The late Charles Nelson Reilly reveals that the music of the song “It’s Today,” a highlight from Mame, is directly recycled from the song “Showtune” in his Off Broadway hit Parade. Michael Feinstein gives eloquent explanations and demonstrations with voice and piano regarding his interpretations of what makes Herman’s music unique.  And almost every interviewee offers their take on what does and doesn’t work in Herman’s “sick child” pet project Mack & Mabel, including an assessment by Arthur Laurents on why it will never work.  There are some conspicuous absences, however.  Sondra Lee, for example, from the original cast of Hello, Dolly!, is still alive and kicking and scaring the hell out of her acting students here in New York – where was she?  But even more glaring is that the anything-but-camera-shy Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book for La Cage Aux Folles, is nowhere to be seen or heard.  One can only wonder what the problem was.


Stock footage of performances of Herman shows is a mixed bag.  On the high end, never having seen Carol Channing in the original production of Dolly, she had always seemed to me little more than a mere caricature of herself (and fodder for comic impressionist Rich Little).  But seeing less than a minute of black and white footage of her performance, it was a revelation that her natural charm and radiance could fill the house.  Unfortunately, more typical and disappointing is most of the rest of the Broadway footage.  Shot from the back of the house, it is, naturally, lit for the stage rather than the camera.  The regrettable result is that, while the cameras are generally set for the right exposure, the stars of the shows are almost always washed out because of the spotlight focused on them, often rendering them as singing, dancing white blobs.


Jerry Herman lived in what is often called a glass closet.  That is to say, for the most part, the entertainment community and the gay community knows someone like Herman is gay, but the rest of America remains in the dark.  For the even remotely astute, the gay-oriented La Cage Aux Folles made it pretty clear that Herman was a so-called Friend of Dorothy, but as far as I know (and I could certainly be wrong), Herman has never come out publicly as a gay man before this documentary.  The section that focuses on La Cage is unquestionably the most moving.  The show opened just before the AIDS epidemic took a huge toll on the gay community.  Then, sadly, as gay men began dying at an alarming rate, Herman and the staff of La Cage watched in horror as members of the cast died off more quickly than they could replace them.  This segues into Herman recounting the story of a man he fell in love with somewhat late in life whom, after a few happy years, he also lost to AIDS; and finally, Herman comes out himself as being HIV+.  Some might call this Too Little, Too Late, but I find it a powerful and encouraging signpost of the times that a man of Herman’s generation – and someone who is still quick to insist that La Cage is not a gay story but a family story – is now comfortable enough to be completely out.


Jerry Herman wrote feel-good songs, and took some heat for insisting that we feel a bit too good; but that’s what he liked, that’s what he wanted to write, and that’s who he was, so critics be damned.  Jonathan Larson, the late composer and lyricist of Rent, once said, according to a friend of his, that “Stephen Sondheim is God; Jerry Herman is the devil.”  I’ve never quite understood that attitude.  In evaluating and comparing the most successful living Broadway composers, certainly Andrew Lloyd Webber is the very bottom of the barrel (and there are even worse who are less successful). But perhaps it was a backhanded compliment, as if he were saying that it’s a sin for a serious musician to enjoy relentlessly upbeat, happy songs like the ones Jerry Herman writes, but – damn you, Satan! – I just can’t help myself!


johntopping @


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