Tony-winning composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, who wrote Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles and other shows, died on Dec. 26 at the age of 88. The following was told to American Theatre managing editor Russell M. Dembin.
I fell in love with Jerry long before I met Jerry. I did it the way most people fall in love with Jerry Herman: through his music and what it does to you, the joy that it invariably triggers. It’s ecstatic, and for me it was almost religious.
In the winter of 1965, I had just fallen in love with the theatre. I was not a kid who grew up with the theatre or musical comedies—I knew nothing about them—but in the early winter of ’65, I went to see a musical in college. And I was knocked out completely and decided that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to act. As part of this moment, I came to New York with a friend of mine and we bought standing room tickets for Hello, Dolly!, and Carol Channing was still in it. We stood in the back of the St. James, and what happened when I watched the show is a combination of ecstasy and joy and religion. I knew that it made me profoundly happy, and I cared so much about these characters that had been created, but mainly it was the songs that transported me, and I couldn’t get them out of my head.
And so in the fall of ’69, I enrolled in graduate school at Smith College, where I was going to get my master’s in acting. As part of the program, we danced. After dance class I would take the cast album of Hello, Dolly! and put it on the turntable, pull down the shades, and lock the doors. I would play it over and over and over again—to the point where I could’ve conducted the show, I have no doubt. I went back to to see Dolly again and again, once with Pearl Bailey and then with Ginger Rogers, and I had the exact same experience. Nothing about it diminished, which speaks to the sort of eternal nature of Jerry’s music. He touches a nerve, and every time you hear it, that same nerve is touched. It’s a happy-making nerve.
So I was smitten. Seeing Hello, Dolly! made me dream of doing to an audience what Jerry’s show had done for me. At the time I had no interest in directing, but I just knew that I wanted to do shows that did for the audience what Dolly did for me.
Fast forward to 2004, and I got an invitation to direct La Cage Aux Folles. And that’s when I first met Jerry. My memory of the specific meeting is totally lost to me, because I was too starstruck to do anything but hope I didn’t make a fool of myself. Not because of him—he was kind and enthusiastic, and he just loved being in the theatre, and he just loved working on his shows. He gave me the most important thing: his trust. If you ask any director what they need more than anything else from their actors or their creators, it’s trust. To know that I had his trust was one of the nicest things about knowing him.
And tummeling with him. He called me “Jerrileh,” and I called him “Jerrileh.” I would call him every couple of months, and it was always, “Jerrileh, how are you?” “I’m fine, Jerrileh. And how are you?” “Oh, how should I be? I’m fine, I’m still walking.” “Good!” It was a lot of love. Oh boy, I get all verklempt thinking about it and thinking about him—that kind of a special person.
He felt haimish to me. He was a mensch. There are any number of Yiddish words to describe him. Not that we talked in Yiddish too much or anything like that—maybe an expression here or there—but he’s the kind of guy I always regretted my parents not having the opportunity to meet. They would’ve loved him. I remember him in rehearsals being unflappable, and so supportive, and respectful. If he had something that bothered him, the way somebody looked or the tone of a certain moment, he would make sure to express it to me privately. He would never behave any way but elegantly and gentlemanly in rehearsal. He set the tone.
One of the things he did that endeared me to him forever was during La Cage. My oldest daughter, Emma, was in the ensemble, and he adored her. He always remembered to ask me how Emma was doing in all our phone conversations since then, back in 2004. One of the things that Emma remembers most was that Jerry came up to her—can you imagine a young kid in the chorus being approached by Jerry Herman, for goodness’ sake?—and he said, “I adore you. I want to do Mame, and you’re going to be in it.” Learning he did that reminded me of the love I have for him and how much I’ll miss him.
In the summer of 2016, we were doing Hello Dolly!, and the dream that I had when I stood to see it three times was suddenly coming true. Before we went into rehearsals, about a year before, the choreographer Warren Carlyle and I flew down to visit with Jerry at his home in Miami, and we had the most wonderful time. He was the most gracious host, and he regaled us with stories about all his shows and all the different people he worked with. It was just one of those wonderfully perfect days.
I know the theatre community will miss him, all the students of theatre will miss him. I, and the people like me who were lucky enough to get close to him, will miss the heart and the person as much as the genius. Jerry wrote the words and music. I mean, already that’s an astonishing thing. I think anyone who’s interested, any young person who falls in love with the theatre, should sit down and listen to his music.
There’s a children’s book I used to read to my kids called Miss Rumphius, about a grandmother teaching the grandchild that the most important thing to do in one’s life is to leave the world a more beautiful place than you found it. If there’s one thing that Jerry Herman succeeded in doing, it certainly was that: making the world a more beautiful place than it was when he happened upon it.
Tony and Drama Desk winner Jerry Zaks is a prolific director of plays and musicals.