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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Book Review
by Elyse Sommer
"On my tombstone they are going to say: 'He Wrote Hello, Dolly!' That's it--that's all people are going to say about me." So begins chapter five of Jerry Herman's memoir Showtune Were it not for his phenomenal success as the composer-lyricist for Dolly as well as a handful of other Broadway hits, his tombstone might well read "He was a nice guy." And that would be that. No memoir anyone would buy. Probably lots of friends, but none as well known as the ones who march through the pages of this book.
Actually, Herman is not really complaining about his identity vis-à-vis Dolly. He loves being a song writer, and takes pride in all his shows--from Milk and Honey, to La Cage Aux Folles, to Mame, to his own special favorite, Mack and Mabel. The tombstone comment is merely an introduction to the behind-the-scenes difficulties resulting from producer David Merrick's reign of terror during the show's out-of-town tryouts. In fact, except for the notoriously difficult Merrick and Martha Raye, the only one of the seven actresses who played Mame who failed to become a good friend, there's nary a sour note in the 267 pages that make up this book. Herman bubbles with enthusiasm and love for Broadway musicals and its practitioners. That's not to say he ignores disappointments and tragedies--the early loss of his beloved mother, the death of his lover, his own HIV positive status, a painful plagiarism suit and his style of music's declining popularity. But, good times or bad, his story is always filtered through an upbeat lens. To borrow from the title of his first show, this is that rare show business memoir penned in milk and honey rather than vitriol. This determinedly sunny, at times syrupy, tempo notwithstanding, Herman comes through as a serious and committed professional, confident of his talent but not a taken-with-himself show business personality.
Herman's resume as the child of comfortable music-loving parents and successful interior designer, (his first career choice), is interesting primarily as an addendum to the story of Jerry Herman, creator of bold and bouncy show tunes. And it is in the stories he tells of his growth as a songwriter and his ongoing involvement with the shows he works on to keep them fresh that this memoir is at its most illuminating. Take his meeting with Loesser, serendipidously arranged by a friend of a friend of his mother's:
After hearing him play a few of his songs, the great man took out a big drawing pad and colored marking pencils. He held the pad horizontally, sketched a freight train and locomotive, adding variously colored boxcars. He then added a red caboose and told young Herman "A song is like a freight train. It has to have a locomotive, which is the bold idea that first arrests your ear and propels you into the rest of the song. The whole body of the song has to follow that first fascinating idea. What follows can be about many things, but they all have to go where that locomotive is going. Then comes the most important thing, the red caboose that ends the song with a twist, a little surprise-- always remember to hook on the caboose, because that's what makes a good song."
Herman never forgot. While he was working with the cast of Mack and Mabel he adapted the concept of the colored box cars to help them put the songs across: "Every song in this show has a different color," he told them. "I am not going to teach you the songs, because you know the songs. I am going to teach you the different colors." He then pointed out how one song was wrong because they were singing it like a pink song when it was a red song.
Herman is as taken with color as Diana Vreeland was, His description of David Merrick's famous fire-engine red office serves as an interesting contrast to Vreeland's red living room--the first an unnerving setting for a man fixated on power; the second warm and designed to amuse. (See our review of Full Gallop ).
Herman's business acumen as a designer is not all that surprising when you learn how he sold his first show. After walking around the nightclubs of Greenwich Village he persuaded the owner of one of the seediest that he could put on a show that would boost business for just $12,000. The owner bought it and the show was a hit, and made the nightclub a hit. Nightcap, which was its name, ran for two years and Herman kept it fresh by changing the comedy material, using topics right from headline, much as Jackie Mason does today. His habit of visiting his shows nightly was formed with that show and persisted even when he had two hits running simultaneously.
Since Showtune was written with a co-author, Marilyn Stasio, it's fair to assume that Herman wanted someone as attuned to writing an autobiographical book as he is to writing a tune. No doubt she contributed towards shaping this memoir into the straightforward and endearing portrait it paints. What she failed to do was to lift the prose above the hum-drum. Herman's unassuming nice-guy image would have been even more sincere with a less breathless style and fewer repeat adjectives. Absolutely, for one, is used absolutely too much!
Hello, Dolly had a successful revival on Broadway last season but unlike our review of Graham Payn's memoir of his life with Noel Coward, ( My Life With Noël Coward reviw) there's no Herman revival currently on the boards.
Update June 28, 1998: The one Herman flop, Mack and Mabel was revised in 1995 and became the centerpiece of the Barrington Stage summer season on this date (see our review). And the book is available at Amazon