By Myra Chanin
I always cry Hallelujah whenever I see the name of Jerry Herman on a theater program. I think he is the most under-appreciated of all Broadway composers and I have no idea why. He writes wonderful songs for great, uplifting shows. He’s composed more-than-you-can-count walk-out-of-the-theater-singing-them tunes. He’s crafted lyrics as clever and intricately rhymed as Lorenz Hart and, dare-I-say-it, Stephen Sondheim and to much more accessible melodies than SS. And every up-tempo song he writes is an anthem to the joy of living. To quote from Jerry Herman’s memoir Showtime, “I am so fortunate that I absolutely love what I do!” He certainly does it formidably. Every one of his songs reflects that jubilance, but none more than “It’s Today,” which was inspired by his equally joyful mother’s answer to young Jerry’s question about why she had baked a cake.
Jerry’s Girls began as a 1981 cabaret show when Herman realized that many of his best songs had been written about or for women. In 1984 an expanded version starring Carol Channing, Andrea McArdle and Leslie Uggams opened in Palm Beach, played a six-week engagement at the Kennedy Center, and toured the US and Canada. A 1985 version ran for 141 performances on Broadway and starred Uggams, Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera plus an ensemble of 8 women and is, once again, on the Off-Broadway boards as a York Theatre Company’s Musical in Mufti, which York’s Producing Artistic Director Jim Morgan describes as musical gems from the past that deserve to be seen and heard again.
Musicals in Mufti focuses on the art rather than the frills of a production. York may stint on sets and costumes but never on the quality of the performers or whatever fills in for an entire orchestra, in this case, the inimitable Eric Svejcar, a music director and composer whose playing is as flamboyant as Liberace’s but with thirty-five times more artistry and brilliance. Wow! Eric Svejcar’s arrangements of Jerry Herman’s tunes astounded the theater goers, lifted their spirits and put everyone in the happiest of summer moods.
We are all familiar with Herman’s hit musicals. Milk and Honey (1960, 550 performances) written when he was 30 and had three Off-Broadway revues under his belt, was about a Jewish widow finding (Mazel Tov!) and leaving (Oy vey!) an emotionally but not legally available soulmate in Israel. Hello Dolly (the former and once again biggest hit on Broadway) starred another widow, Dolly Levi, Jewish in name and behavior, who pursued an emotionally absent but financially present soulmate until he cried, “Wonderful woman!” In 1966 Mame, another dame who made a difference in people’s lives gave Herman another big hit. Dear World (1969) didn’t do as well but added a great song “I Don’t Want to Know,” to the canon and The Grand Tour (1979) had the misfortune of opening during the same season as Sweeney Todd. Mack and Mabel (1974) which many, including Christine Pedi and I think contains Herman’s greatest score and finest lyrics, had the misfortune of having a heroine who died at the final curtain but has the good fortune of constantly being re-incarnated with a happier ending. Herman’s most recent musical was the brilliant La Cage aux Folles (1983) with its treasure trove of songs including the outsider’s anthem, “I Am What I Am,” which extolls the glories of becoming your own person and finally liking who you are!
Director Pamela Hunt, has successfully encouraged and allowed Christine Pedi and a pair of Stephanie’s – D’Abruzzo and Umoh, to do justice to and from Herman’s style, wit and lyrics, each in her own inimitable way. The song list of 32 include several dating from the years in which Jerry Herman supplied tunes for Revues, like Christine Pedi’s renditions of “The Man in the Moon (is a lady)” and “Two a Day” and the Stephanies “Bosom Buddies.” Another highpoint was “Take It All Off,’ an accolade to strippers Stephanie D’Abruzzo and Stephanie Umoh until Christine Pedi starts to take it all off and the lyric changes to “Put it Back On.” Pamela Hunt even got Stephanie D’Abruzzo to unearth the Maryjane tap shoes she hadn’t worn since 1983 and “Tap Your Troubles Away.”
For me there was only one drawback. I felt “Movies Were Movies,” Herman’s tribute to the testosterone engorged ego which supplied the foundation for motion picture industry, needed to be sung by the baritone voice for whom it was composed:
No-one pretended that what we were doing was art
We had some guts and some luck
But we were just makin’ a buck
Movies were movies were movies when I ran the show!
No female would ever think anything quite so crass.
Photos (Curtain Call and Step & Repeat): Genevieve Rafter Keddy
Jerry’s Girls – The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue) thru August 13 www.yorktheatre.org