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one of the greatest songwriters you think you’ve never heard of

Jerry Herman writing in college

A master composer of our time will celebrate his 78th birthday this week. He is a man who has been nominated for five Tony awards, won two, and was just presented with a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater last month. One Broadway song he wrote was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1964 and it sent the 63-year-old singer soaring to the top of the Top 40 chart before the show even opened, knocking the Beatles from the number one spot in the process. Impressively, this man is the only composer/lyricist – ever – to have three Broadway musicals each run more than 1500 consecutive performances.

And yet, an astonishing number of people will hear his name and think they aren’t familiar with his music. But ya are, Blanche, ya are.

His name is Jerry Herman and yes, one might say he’s one of the greatest songwriters you think you’ve never heard of.

Among Jerry Herman’s hits are shows such as Hello Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage Aux Folles. Some of America’s most treasured songs came from these shows including the title songs from all three, plus We Need a Little Christmas, Before the Parade Passes By, If He Walked Into My Life, Open a New Window and I Am What I Am.

Jerry Herman writes old-fashioned songs, in the best sense of the term. Even in the 1960s they were old-fashioned, a musical theater style of cheerful music crafted from clever lyrics wrapped in melodies which lend themselves to being sung, whistled and hummed as you leave the theatre. His work can stand proudly next to the music of the giants of the Great American Songbook: Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter.

Herman’s music is marked by a distinct sense of optimism and enthusiasm, as is the man himself. There’s no problem that can’t be faced by pulling one’s self up by the boot straps and forging ahead. “Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out / Strut down the street and have your picture took / Dressed like a dream / your spirits seem to turn about…” he writes in Hello Dolly!

Herman has always said he creates music to entertain people, to lift them up. In a song called Just Go to the Movies, Herman offers up a salve that might have a great deal of resonance today:

Swamped with your bills
Late with your rent
Watch Bette Davis walk out on George Brent
See Fred Astaire stepping in style
When everything’s dark and upset
Try calling on Clark and Claudette
And go to a marvelous movie and smile

Jerry Herman has been accused of writing songs that are made from simple sugars – is life really as sweet as he says it is? But there’s a complexity that lies beneath his enthusiasm. Behind the wit and carefully turned phrases, he’s able to reveal a good deal about perseverance, humanity, love, us:

How often is someone concerned
With the tiniest thread of your life?
Concerned with whatever you feel
And whatever you touch?
Look over there…

When your world spins too fast,
And your bubble has burst,
Someone puts himself last,
So that you can come first.

So count all the loves who will love you
From now ’til the end of your life,
And when you have added the loves
Who have loved you before,
Look over there.

Look Over There (La Cage Aux Folles, 1983)

Jerry Herman’s songs will endure, they are too good not to. They deserve to be heard again and again, to be discovered by new audiences who appreciate their genius or who just want to lose themselves in the escapism that music can provide.

Jerry Herman and Don Pippin, 1966

Luckily, fans of Jerry Herman have a chance to hear a collection of his music sung live this month down at the Henley Fringe Festival just outside London. July 20-25, singer Leanne Masterton is performing her one-woman cabaret show, Hello Jerry, a tightly-knit celebration of Mr. Herman’s songbook.

Masterton had a sold-out run of the show in London’s West End this past Spring. The veritable optimism and sweetness that she exudes makes her perfectly suited to the music, while her acting skills bring charm to her delivery of Herman’s hits as well as songs from lesser known shows like Dear World. Masterton has a clear, lovely and commanding voice that’s right on the money. Match that with the warm and easy grace that is her presence on a stage and you can see why she draws audiences in.

“The beauty of Mr Herman’s music is that it’s timeless. Many pieces can be taken out of context and they are as relevant today as they were when they were written 30-40 years ago,” she told Woolf and Wilde. “Evidence of that is the success that La Cage Aux Folles has had in London recently and the news from Mr. Herman that Dear World (a story about ecology, terrorism and capitalism) is to be revived.”

A back injury led Masterton to think about returning to cabaret after having been absent from it for some time. Agreeing that selling a show about Jerry Herman — one of the greatest songwriters you think you’ve never heard of — presents some challenges, Masterton says. “loving something is not necessarily the best option to make your money back in this business. When you talk to the general public about Jerry Herman, people initially don’t really know who he is, but when you say Hello Dolly, Mame or songs like I Am What I Am, people know exactly who he is. I think of Hello Jerry as an “elbow” show…people come along thinking they know his songs but then realise they have forgotten many and they are digging their companion in the ribs saying ‘I love this song!'”

Catch up on your Jerry Herman, and see Leanne Masterton. Just like Mame herself could do, these two will make your black-eyed peas and your grits seem like the bill of fare at the Ritz.

Leanne Masterton, Hello Jerry

Leanne Masterton in Hello Jerry
20-25 July 2009
The Green Room
Kenton Theatre
New Street
Henley-on-Thames
Oxfordshire, RG9 2BP
United Kingdom
T: +44 (0)149 122 002 12

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