The Legend Gave Us A Drag Queen Named Zaza And Our Own Gay Anthem

Composer Jerry Herman (Wright Langley Collection. © Florida Keys Public Library – CC BY 2.0)

Broadway legend Jerry Herman, who wrote blockbuster musicals including Mame, La Cage aux Folles, and Hello, Dolly!, has passed away at the age of 88. 

The Associated Press reports Herman was taken to the hospital Thursday night after experiencing chest pains. He died of pulmonary complications in Miami, Florida, where he had been living with his longtime partner, Terry Marler.

He made his Broadway debut contributing songs to a revue titled, From A to Z (which included material by Woody Allen and Fred Ebb) in 1960. His first full-fledged Broadway score (and first Tony Award nomination) was for Milk and Honey, about a couple on vacation in Israel.

But in 1964, he penned the songs to mega-hit Hello, Dolly! which snagged a record-breaking 10 Tony Awards including one for Herman for ‘Best Score,’ and one for its luminous leading lady, Carol Channing. The production ran for 2,844 performances becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history at the time.


The show would be revived several times on the Great White Way, most recently in 2017 with Bette Midler earning the Divine Miss M a Tony Award for her performance as the indomitable Dolly Levi. Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters followed Midler in the show-stopping role.

And, of course, it was Barbra Streisand who brought “Dolly Levi” to life in the film version.

He scored again with Angela Lansbury starring as the glamorous title character in Mame in 1966. Winning several Tony Awards (including trophies for Lansbury and Bea Arthur), the show went on to run for 1,508 performances.

As the 1970s came around, musicals began to become darker and more experimental, and Herman’s shows (Dear World, Mack & Mabel, The Grand Tour) didn’t fare as well.

But in 1983, Herman found the inspiration for his next hit in the French film, La Cage aux Folles, about a gay couple living on the French Riviera running a drag nightclub.

He would win his second Tony Award (among six awarded the production) for the score of the groundbreaking La Cage which gave the world one its first gay anthems written to be a gay anthem, “I Am What I Am.”

I am what I am
I don’t want praise…I don’t want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it’s noise…I think it’s pretty
And so what if I love each feather and each bangle
Why not try to see things from a different angle?
Your life is a sham ‘til you can shout out loud, ‘I am what I am’

The song not only packed a punch on stage but also in discos as Gloria Gaynor’s version (which reached #3 on the Billboard Dance chart) resonated with the LGBTQ community everywhere as the gay pride movement was hitting its stride.

Connecting theatergoers with a loving, openly gay couple, the show touched audiences in New York City and around the world.

The production’s storyline also put drag front and center. In the end, it’s the nightclub’s star Zaza that saves the day leading a conservative couple out of a tight situation decked in glamorous drag.

The show would run for 1,761 performances and return to Broadway twice reminding audiences of the power of drag and the depth of love held by the leading characters for each other.

Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book for La Cage, saluted his colleague on Twitter today:

“I’m certainly aware of how different popular music is today from when I started in this business, and I realize that my songwriting is not generally in fashion,” he shared with the New York Times in 1985. “But ‘La Cage’ made me feel secure about going on and just being what I am, and writing simple, hummable tunes.”

There were other projects following La Cage, including songs for the television movie Mrs. Santa Claus reuniting Herman with Ms. Lansbury. The effort would snag him an Emmy Award nomination.

In 2009, he was honored with a Special Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Tony Awards. And the next year, he was celebrated alongside Sir Paul McCartney and Oprah at the Kennedy Center Honors.

In full disclosure, this writer will share that, in another lifetime, I was an actor in New York City, and the 1995 revival of Hello, Dolly! was my Broadway debut.

Jerry was very involved in the production as the only living creator of the show at the time, and I was fortunate to witness Jerry’s genius first hand. I give Jerry and Dolly! a lot of credit for my life, both professional and personal, taking a great leap forward.

It was on October 17, 1994, at Paisley Park recording studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that I met my future husband during the pre-Broadway tour of Dolly! We were recording our Broadway cast album prior to heading into New York City and my Michael was the 24-year-old Vice President of Marketing and PR for the record label.

I won’t go into the details but suffice to say, by the end of the day “Dolly” had worked her matchmaking magic. We’ve been together for over 25 years now.

Jerry was always very fond of taking credit for our relationship and we happily saluted him for it.

After the show closed on Broadway, Jerry was involved in the decision to ask me to stage the dances for the ensuing national touring company of Dolly. Jerry’s belief in me propelled my career forward again, this time as a choreographer.

Since that time, I’ve staged nearly a dozen productions of the show with Jerry’s blessing.

And in 2011, Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and director Jack O’Brien were in talks to mount a new revival of Dolly! One Saturday morning, my phone rang and it was Jerry. He shared the news of the possible revival and asked me to choreograph the new production. 

At the time, he wanted the creative team to explore new ideas for the show, but there were a few concepts from the Gower Champion original he wanted integrated into the new production. He told me, “I know you’ll have my back.”

As if my life hadn’t been blessed enough by Jerry, his confidence in me was surely the crowning moment we would share.

In the end, LuPone and O’Brien exited the production and for several months the lead producer and I thought of a raft of leading ladies to approach, including Midler who would finally say ‘yes’ to the role a few years later.

The production never happened, but I’ve never forgotten the buoyant, upbeat confidence he instilled not only in me but in everyone he worked with.

The constant theme throughout his work – his songs, his shows, the characters he wrote for – was that life was meant to be lived. 

The titles of just a few of his songs – “Before the Parade Passes By,” “It’s Today,” “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” “The Best of Times,” “Tap Your Troubles Away,” “We Need a Little Christmas” – tell the tale of someone who found his truth in hope and celebration.

Even in the late 1980s, when he was diagnosed with HIV and lost his partner Martin Finkelstein to AIDS, he never stopped embracing the power of positivity.

In 2010, he seemed content as he reflected on his long, successful career telling the Washington Post, “It’s a very long, colorful parade. With lots of balloons. And banners. And confetti. And all of that. But it’s also kind of near the end of it. That’s very moving and very rewarding.”

Along the way, Herman gave us fabulous, bigger-than-life diva characters to cheer for including a drag queen who told the world (and us) how to love ourselves.

Rest in power Jerry Herman, Broadway’s gentle giant.

(Source: AP)

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