"When they passed out talent," Broadway star Carol Channing says of composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, "Jerry stood in line twice."Herman wrote the words and music for some of the greatest Broadway musicals ever, including Hello, Dolly! and Mame and La Cage aux Folles. This new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Amber Edwards takes you backstage through insightful on-camera interviews, behind-the-scenes rehearsal sessions, rare photographs, and never-before-seen archival footage of original Broadway performances to create a warm, humorous and moving portrait of a living theater legend.
Five years in the making, this NJN Public Television special chronicles Herman's rapid rise from witty, topical off-Broadway revues during the 1950s, to his first Broadway hits in the 1960s (Milk and Honey, followed quickly by the record-breaking Dolly and then Mame) through the less successful shows from the 1970s (Dear World, Mack & Mabel and The Grand Tour) to his triumphant return in 1983, La Cage Aux Folles, which made social and political history.
The "supporting cast" is truly a Who's Who of Broadway: Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Charles Nelson Reilly, Marge Champion, Arthur Laurents, Charles Strouse, Fred Ebb, George Hearn, Phyllis Newman, Michael Feinstein, musical director Donald Pippin, singers Leslie Uggams and Jason Graae, author Francine Pascal, and historians Miles Kreuger and Ken Bloom. And theater aficionados will marvel at the collection of archival motion picture footage. There is Carol Channing and the original Broadway Hello, Dolly! company performing the title song; Angela Lansbury in the only known footage of Mame and Dear World; film of the 1955 college musical Jerry wrote at the University of Miami; Robert Preston and a bevy of showgirls from Mack & Mabel; and other material that captures these original, ephemeral theater performances that, until now, existed only in the memories of those lucky enough to see them on stage. Naturally, the film is filled with music, with original cast recordings and live performances, while the piano underscoring is played by Jerry Herman himself.True to the spirit of its subject, who describes himself as "a builder," the documentary creates a dramatic arc that honestly examines a career of hits and flops and highs and lows, culminating in Jerry's final act as a Broadway composer/lyricist: La Cage aux Folles (1983)—which was not only a critical and commercial smash, but a political and social turning point. Never before had two men held hands in a musical, or sung a love ballad to one another. George Hearn's star turn as Za Za, belting out what is probably the most dramatic Act One closer ever written, "I Am What I Am," still brings audiences to their feet with its forceful call for tolerance and dignity—a surpassingly powerful statement from a composer/lyricist who declared all along that he wanted only to entertain people. It was, Hearn recalls in the film, truly "The Best of Times," until shortly after the show opened, and cast members began dying of a mysterious plague. AIDS had entered the world, and it swept through the theater community. Half of the original La Cage chorus didn't live to finish the run. And Jerry Herman himself was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985; he is one of the fortunate ones who survived to see experimental drug therapies take hold and is still, as one of his lyrics proclaims, "alive and well and thriving."
With his ebullient, optimistic and hummable songs that personify the "show tune," Jerry Herman extended the Golden Age of Broadway almost single-handedly, as new generations keep discovering his tuneful, optimistic, and deceivingly simple songs.