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Herman, Jerry (b. 1931)  
 
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Gay Backlash

While audiences have generally been enthusiastic--often wildly so--concerning Herman's work, a gay backlash emerged against him in the early 1980s, paradoxically just as he became most highly visible in popular gay culture.

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In part, the backlash reflects a change in musical tastes that began earlier but was only fully developed in the 1980s. Their very identity as diva musicals puts Herman's plays at odds with the "concept musical," which in Martin Gottfried's definition places greater importance on the weaving of music, lyrics, dance, stage movement and dialogue "in the creation of a tapestry-like theme (rather than in support of a plot)," and so is less likely to focus upon a single star.

An ensemble ethos marks the groundbreaking musicals of the 1970s, such as Company (1970), Chicago (1975), and A Chorus Line (1975). Indeed the "One" number performed by the dancers auditioning for the play-within-the-play of A Chorus Line seems to parody the staircase song that Herman specializes in, the point of A Chorus Line being that there is no single star, but that everyone contributes to the ensemble.

More problematically, however, the backlash signaled gay culture's rejection of Herman's basic philosophy. Survival, for Herman, is a question of posture and attitude; one simply has to "put on your Sunday clothes / When you feel down and out" or "put a little more mascara on." But while tapping one's troubles away may have appealed to a generation raised on post-Depression era Busby Berkeley movie musicals, increased public awareness of the spreading AIDS epidemic gave the lie to La Cage's claim that "The Best of Times Is Now."

Resistance through grand gestures is the pose of both the diva and the drag queen; AIDS required a different theater of resistance, black comedy rather than screwball comedy.

Commenting upon the sudden reversal of opinion concerning La Cage aux Folles in the mid-1980s, Mark Steyn--in an aggressively account of the Broadway musical-- notes that "One minute . . . [it] was the biggest homegrown hit of the day; the next it was gone," largely because as public perception of AIDS grew, "fags weren't funny anymore; fags meant disease and death."

Sondheim's questioning his audience's ability to live with ambivalence seemed a braver and more realistic form of engagement in the 1980s than Herman's asking it to choose self-consciously to ignore tragedy and assert joy. As Herman himself observes, "the upbeat, feel good songs that I write" no longer resonated with audiences.

Criticism of Herman's optimism as escapist is unfair. There is a strong satiric impulse in such songs as "Masculinity," "It Takes a Woman," and "The Spring Next Year" that is every bit as socially engaged as Burton Lane's much lauded challenge to American racism in Finian's Rainbow.

Ironically, however, the moment when Albin, refusing to fashion himself to suit anyone else's expectations, pulls off his wig at the end of "I Am What I Am" was not only the very moment when gays asserted themselves most openly on the Broadway stage; it was also the moment when American gay culture lost its need of a diva to voice its concerns and became free to raise them in its own voice.

Thus, Herman's plays seem dated to newer gay audiences raised on Sondheim's ambivalence and on the openly gay musicals of William Finn in which characters do not need musicals to feel good about themselves.

Even as La Cage aux Folles made homosexuality the undisguised subject of a popular musical, challenged the hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed moral majority empowered by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and provided gays with a national anthem ("I Am What I Am"), Herman found himself bypassed by the very parade that he had been leading.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  Divas

The diva has traditionally played a significant role in both gay and lesbian culture as an object of cult worship with whom those who suffer the heartaches of forbidden love and ostracism from an unaccepting society find solace and identification.

arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

literature >> Overview:  Musical Theater

There has always been homosexual involvement in American musical theatre and a homosexual sensibility even in straight musicals, and recently the Broadway musical has welcomed openly homosexual themes and situations.

arts >> Batt, Bryan

Actor and designer Bryan Batt achieved fame playing a closeted advertising executive on television, but in his own life he has been active in affirming the naturalness of homosexuality.

arts >> Fierstein, Harvey

Actor Harvey Fierstein has had phenomenal success as both a performer and a playwright, and has been steadfastly committed to the cause of glbtq rights.

arts >> Finn, William

Playwright and composer William Finn, best known for his Tony Award-winning musical The Falsettos, speaks with understanding about confronting life in all its complexity with sadness and joy, dilemmas and hope intermingled.

arts >> Kander, John (b. 1927) and Fred Ebb (1932?-2004)

Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb are the musical poets of the poymorphous perverse; their works glorify the creativity inherent in sexual ambivalence and celebrate unorthodox forms of political activism.

arts >> Kert, Larry

Gay actor and singer Larry Kert introduced some of the most memorable songs in American musical theater.

arts >> Laurents, Arthur

Playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and director, Arthur Laurents brought an independent sensibility to some of the most important works of stage and screen in the post-World War II era.

arts >> Sondheim, Stephen

One of the most innovative talents of the musical theater in the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Sondheim has only indirectly reflected his homosexuality in his work.

literature >> Wilder, Thornton

The works of Thornton Wilder are landmarks of American literature, but they reveal scant traces of the author's homosexuality.


    Bibliography
   

Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Herman, Jerry, with Marilyn Stasio. Showtune: A Memoir. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1996.

Jordan, Richard Tyler. "But Darling, I'm Your Auntie Mame!": The Amazing History of the World's Favorite Madcap Aunt. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1998.

Steyn, Mark. Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now. New York: Routledge, 1999.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Herman, Jerry  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 5, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/herman_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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