This week, popular music lost two of its titans: Jerry Herman, 88, and Allee Willis, 72. Today, we pay tribute to them.
“There is no tune like a showtune,” went the lyric of Jerry Herman‘s sprightly song for the 1960 off-Broadway revue Parade starring Dody Goodman, Richard Tone, and the young Charles Nelson Reilly. And there is certainly no tune like a Jerry Herman showtune: bright, bouncy, heartfelt, optimistic, moving, exciting. While Herman’s oeuvre was relatively small compared to many of his contemporaries – he wrote just seven full Broadway scores (Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour, and La Cage Aux Folles) in addition to his work off-Broadway, on television, and in film – his unabashedly melodic, brassy style of music defined “Broadway.”
A Tony and Grammy Award winner and 2010 Kennedy Center Honoree, Herman (1931-2019) made theatrical history as the first composer-lyricist to have three musicals run more than 1,500 consecutive performances on Broadway — Hello, Dolly! at 2,844, Mame at 1,508, and La Cage aux Folles at 1,761. To this day, he’s only one of two songwriters to have achieved that feat, alongside Stephen Schwartz for Pippin and Wicked. Though he became somewhat pigeonholed for the big star vehicles epitomized by Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi and Angela Lansbury as Mame Dennis, Herman’s art as a composer and lyricist was multi-faceted. His Mame follow-up Dear World, also starring Lansbury, found him experimenting with art songs (“Kiss Her Now,” “The Tea Party”) and French-influenced chansons (“I Don’t Want to Know,” worthy of Jacques Brel but far more open-hearted). Mack and Mabel, based on the tragic real-life romance of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, added a dark tinge to his patented musical comedy, and La Cage Aux Folles broke barriers onstage with its frank, touching, and altogether humanistic portrayal of gay lovers.
At the root of Herman’s success was his emotional honesty. His songs brought to vivid life the books crafted by librettists including Michael Stewart and Harvey Fierstein, and the productions of directors such as Gower Champion and Arthur Laurents. Hello, Dolly!‘s “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” captured the youthful excitement of endless possibility (“Put on your Sunday clothes, there’s lots of world out there!”) and “It Only Takes a Moment” expressed the power of taking a chance on love, however unexpected (“It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long”). [It’s no wonder both songs were favorites of Wall-E, the little robot who lived in a world where human contact was rare.] Mame‘s “It’s Today” was a paean to living and loving in the present (“Though it may not be anyone’s birthday/And though it’s far from the first of the year/I know that this very minute has history in it/We’re here!”) and the future yuletide standard “We Need a Little Christmas” conveyed the spirit of the season in down times (“For I’ve grown a little leaner/Grown a little colder/Grown a little sadder/Grown a little older/And I need a little angel/Sitting on my shoulder/Need a little Christmas now!”).
But La Cage Aux Folles may have been Herman’s most personal musical. The rousing “The Best of Times” was a spiritual successor to the title songs “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,” an indomitable yet cheerful ode sprinkled with Herman wisdom: “The best of times is now/As for tomorrow, well, who knows? Who knows? Who knows? So hold this moment fast/And live and love as hard as you know how/And make this moment last/Because of the best of times is now.” The delicate “Song of the Sand” was sung by Georges to his partner Albin, but the song proved as universal as any of the love songs Herman had penned over the decades. “I Am What I Am” was a defiant, powerful, and chill-inducing anthem sung by Albin (a.k.a. drag queen Zaza) but applicable to anyone who’d been closeted or harboring a secret: “It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in/My world and it’s not a place I have to hide in/Life’s not worth a damn till you can say/’Hey, world, I am what I am.'”). The songs of La Cage were covered by artists from Perry Como to Gloria Gaynor.
Jerry Herman all but retired after La Cage Aux Folles, though in subsequent years he wrote a television musical reunion with Lansbury (1996’s Mrs. Santa Claus) and a concept album for an unproduced Las Vegas show (1999’s Miss Spectacular). Both showed that his gifts of buoyant melodies and warm lyrics were undiminished. When Herman would perform in cabaret in his later years, one lesser-known song of his stood out: “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow” from The Grand Tour:
I’ll be here tomorrow
Alive and well and thriving
I’ll be here tomorrow
It’s simply called surviving
If before the dawn, this fragile world might crack
Someone’s got to try to put the pieces back.
So from beneath the rubble
You’ll hear a little voice say,
“Life is worth the trouble!”
Have you a better choice?
So let the skeptics say tonight we’re dead and gone
I’ll be here tomorrow
Simply going on…
Jerry Herman was a true survivor. His music will be here tomorrow…and tomorrow…and tomorrow…
Allee Willis (1947-2019), like Jerry Herman, brought her passionate, life-affirming spirit to her music. Also like Herman, she wrote a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, The Color Purple. When that show opened in the same season as the Earth Wind and Fire jukebox show Hot Feet, Willis became the first female songwriter to have her music featured in two Broadway musicals in one season. If her name isn’t familiar, her songs certainly are: the Friends theme “I’ll Be There for You,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” and Earth Wind and Fire’s jubilant “September.” On these songs and so many others, she blended pop with her cherished R&B, implanting earworms in listeners with danceable grooves and bold lyrics.
The Detroit native, greatly inspired by the hometown success story that was Motown Records, moved to New York City in 1969 and became a secretary and copywriter for Columbia Records before turning to writing and performing. Her 1974 album Childstar, released on Columbia’ sister imprint Epic, showcased her original voice on a set of primarily solo-written songs (including one with the prescient title of “What Kind of Shoes Does September Wear?”). But her collaborators on the album included the great Jerry Ragovoy; she would go on to write with other legends including Maurice White, David Foster, Brenda Russell, and even Bob Dylan and James Brown. Willis’ songs would be sung by a “Who’s Who” of music’s greatest voices including Bonnie Raitt (who was the first to champion her after hearing Childstar), Cher, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Rita Coolidge, Melissa Manchester, Debby Boone, Phyllis Hyman, Dionne Warwick, Bette Midler, and Cyndi Lauper. In short, her songs have sold over 60 million records.
A larger-than-life personality and famed party host, Willis began curating a Museum of Kitsch website in 2009 based upon her own striking collections, and also created her own visual art. Her philanthropy was well-known, and in recent years, she gave back to her hometown of Detroit with frequent events and fundraisers. While “I’ll Be There for You” may be Allee Willis’ most played song thanks to the ubiquitous reruns of Friends (the inveterate R&B lover also quipped it was “the whitest song I ever wrote”), her most beloved is almost certainly “September,” co-written with Maurice White and Al McKay:
Ba-de-ya, say you do remember?
Ba-de-ya, dancin’ in September?
Ba-de-ya, never was a cloudy day!
Thank you, Allee Willis, for brightening so many cloudy days. We’ll always remember dancin’ to your tunes in September…and the other eleven months of the year.