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Herman, Jerry (b. 1931)  
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"I have always been drawn to outrageous, larger-than-life female characters," writes Jerry Herman in a memoir of his career as a Broadway composer and lyricist. So it is not surprising that, although seemingly retired from the musical comedy stage, he remains the best proponent of the "diva musical," described by theater historian John Clum as a musical comedy "about a woman's escape from the humdrum" and pedestrian life to which social convention would consign her.

More importantly, as Clum also notes, the diva musical allows a gay theater audience "an escape from the oppressive life into magic" through worship of a female star who has no hesitation--in the words of Herman's Zaza--to "put a little more mascara on" and turn the world into something "ravishing, sensual, fabulous, . . . glamourous, elegant, [and] beautiful."

Thus, Dolly Levi "puts her hand in" and rearranges everyone's life for the better; Mame Dennis coaxes the blues right out of the horn and teaches everyone to celebrate simply because "it's today"; actress Mabel Normand lights up not only the movie screen but every room she walks into; Mrs. Santa Claus restores childhood innocence, advocates gender equality, and saves Christmas; and transvestite extraordinaire Zaza proudly boasts "I am what I am" while teaching sour moralists that "the best of times is now."

Born July 10, 1931, to middle-class Jewish parents in Jersey City, New Jersey, Herman was the only child of ardent theater-goers who introduced him to the joys of the Broadway musical at an early age. His family ran a summer camp where Herman worked until he was 21, in the process discovering a talent for producing musical entertainments.

An audition for Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) encouraged Jerry to work full time as a composer, and after writing the music for three off-Broadway plays, he scored a major success with Milk and Honey (1961). Shortly thereafter David Merrick hired him to write the music and lyrics for Hello, Dolly! (1964; film 1969), and for the next twenty years Herman was one of the most bankable talents on Broadway.

Mega-hits such as Mame (1966; film 1974) and La Cage aux Folles (1983) alternated with box office failures such as Dear World (1969) and Mack and Mabel (1974) that nonetheless quickly attained cult status.

In addition to a revue of songs from his shows (Jerry's Girls, 1985), Herman has written the scores for the musically less-interesting The Grand Tour (1979) and for Mrs. Santa Claus (1996), a television musical created for Angela Lansbury that has become a stalwart of the Christmas holiday season.

Despite a highly popular thirtieth anniversary revival of Hello, Dolly! and a much-applauded London concert version of Mack and Mabel (1988), Herman laments in his memoirs the end of the era of "upbeat, feel-good" musicals such as those he enjoys writing. He is no longer creating original work for the theater.

There are three constants in a Herman show.

The Statement Song

First, there is what Herman himself calls the "statement song" in which the heroine delivers her philosophy of life.

For example, Dolly Levi liberates her spiritual nemesis Horace Vandergelder's overworked, underpaid clerks by telling them to "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and venture from rural Yonkers into Manhattan to discover that "there's lots of world out there."

Mame Dennis throws extravagant parties for no special occasion, insisting simply that "It's Today"; in "Open a New Window," she teaches her nephew Patrick that the only "way to make the bubble stay" is by resisting convention and experiencing something new every day.

Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot, counsels the denizens of her quarter of Paris that hope is reborn "Each Tomorrow Morning," which is what allows her to go on whenever she feels dejected.

And drag star Zaza teaches her neighbors and audience to "hold this moment fast / And live and love as hard as you know how, / And make this moment last / Because the best of times is now."

Herman's heroines do not hesitate to interfere--always generously, always joyously--in other characters' lives, in particular teaching the younger generation how to live more freely and with greater satisfaction. Their philosophy is clearly Herman's own, and that of the chorus in Mack and Mabel, which asserts its refusal to be cowed by disappointment and instructs the audience to "Tap Your Troubles Away."

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