Goodbye, Jerry

“There are only a couple of us who care about writing songs that people can leave the theater singing.”

Jerry Herman, composer of tune-filled big Broadway crowd-pleasers such as HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and MACK AND MABEL, has died aged 88.

Herman’s biggest successes were based on other people’s stories, which makes sound sense. If they like and know the story, why would they not want to see it again as a musical? Thus, Thornton Wilder’s delightful THE MATCHMAKER became HELLO, DOLLY!, Patrick Dennis’ novel AUNTIE MAME became MAME , and Jean Poiret’s stage farce turned France’s most profitable-ever movie LA CAGE AUX FOLLES came to the musical stage and worked a new kind of magic with its story.

Many tributes have already been penned, so I shall not duplicate for the sake of duplication. I shall just content myself with remembering my connections with the man and his work.

I was lucky enough to be a House Manager at the Palladium during the original London run of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in 1987. A truly lavish spectacle, this Allan Carr-produced extravaganza wowed audiences nightly with its glamour, humour, heart -and of course those priceless songs which sent audiences home happy and singing. The mischievous Cagelles were legend around the building- for all the wrong (right?) reasons. The magnificent George Hearn and Denis Quilley starred and it was a very happy show. There was some resistance to the show’s chosen theatre of residence, in that the Palladium was a family house and the fact that such a risque, adult show had come in was seen as something of a misplace. Certainly the venue’s vast capacity of 2200 was a factor in the show’s only running for one year. But what a year it was!

What was also very touching about LA CAGE was the audiences. All ages, types, everyone had a whale of a time, although I recall seeing no children as the show was aimed at adults. It was a time of social upheaval regarding attitudes towards homosexuality. As you may recall the world was in the grip of the HIV and AIDS crisis, with no effective treatment then in sight. Songs such as The Best Of Times took on a deeper resonance. Somehow, the show became a focus of energy around this upheaval.

I particularly remember older audience members wanting to talk with us on the outgoing- they had gay friends and they wanted us to know they valued and loved them. I can clearly recall conversations with people in their sixties and seventies who spoke lovingly about their gay friends and how difficult life had been for them. It was very moving and I felt honoured to be entrusted with their words. As I mentioned, the show closed after a year, and everyone was rather disappointed it had not gone on for much longer. Thankfully the show has had a large number of revivals since. But nothing will rival that no-expenses spared glamour-filled year at The London Palladium.

The one time that I met Jerry Herman was at a lavish benefit performance staged at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in February 1988, MACK AND MABEL IN CONCERT. Tickets were like gold dust. Rumours had been flying about the guest list and they mostly proved true. Barry Mishon produced one of his star-studded extravaganzas (he specialised in American star-laden tribute shows on Sundays in London in the 80s). Presenting a concert version with an (as I recall it) fifty-piece orchestra.

The performance was recorded for sound but not filmed, sadly. Some great performers graced this gala, the likes of George Hearn, Georgia Brown, Stubby Kaye, Debbie Shapiro, and in a spectacular roof-raiser, Tommy Tune and a company of dozens and dozens of glittering chorines all in white, singing and dancing to Tap Your Troubles Away, the ovation for which I have never heard louder in a theatre. You can actually hear the sound distort on the recording at the physical force of the applause and the house went truly crazy with a standing ovation and people crying and hugging themselves. I was on duty but even I couldn’t resist seeing this. A truly memorable show. We even got to hear Jerry sing, when he took a section of I Promise You A Happy Ending towards the end of the show.

After the bulk of the audience had departed, the post-show party was held upstairs in the Grand Circle Saloon, an expansive and elegant hall, and the company mingled with VIPs and others. Jerry Herman was there with his small entourage, and on his arm was the dazzling Lauren Bacall, a special friend, who appeared in the show as one of the featured narrators of the story, in between the songs.

Halfway up the stairs to the Saloon (I was following behind) I noticed that Ms Bacall stopped and seemed to panic. Jerry was concerned about his friend. I raced up to ask if I could help. Ms Bacall said that she had left a very special pair of gloves in her dressing room and was upset to be without them. I reassured her that we would locate it and asked the party to continue on. The items duly retrieved, I brought them to her in the Saloon. She was very relieved and kissed me on the cheek, and Jerry thanked me genuinely. She later told me that “a very special person”, now deceased, had given them to her and she considered them a kind of talisman.

Chatting later to his friends who had accompanied him, they were all delighted at the success of the event and the fact that it had raised a huge amount for the Royal Marsden Cancer hospital in Chelsea. The recording, released later in 1988 and still available today, also generated funds for the hospital’s cancer fund.

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