The last great showtune composer working in a pre-rock Tin Pan Alley idiom, Jerry Herman is such a living legend, whose greatest Broadway successes have been so inescapable (“Hello, Dolly!,” for one), it’s hard to believe he’s never received feature documentary portraiture before. Amber Edwards’ “Words and Music” is conventionally assembled in PBS style, and that pubcaster will no doubt spark many a pledge drive from its broadcasts starting next year. Delicious array of vintage clips, stellar interviewees and treasure songs make this a treat musical-theater fans will enjoy in various formats for years to come.
Born to theater-loving, musically inclined parents in Jersey City, N.J., Herman was a youthful piano prodigy who started writing songs as a hobby in his teens. Professionally shot newsreel footage of “Sketchbook,” the 1955 U. of Miami student show he wrote music and lyrics for, is perhaps the biggest find among rare stage-perf scenes glimpsed here.
From college he moved to New York, where his hit Off Broadway revue “Parade” ran for two years, leading to his eventual crowning as “the youngest composer-lyricist on Broadway” as 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!” turned into a colossal hit. Docu reveals the record-setting musical’s gestation was far from harmonious, though its initial star, Carol Channing (who was followed by a long line of headlining divas), is greatly appreciative of Herman’s talent in contempo interviews. In that respect, she’s surpassed only by the articulate Angela Lansbury, who starred in his immediate post-“Dolly!” triumph, “Mame.”
There followed a number of less successful shows (“Milk and Honey,” “Dear World,” “Mack and Mabel” etc.) that are nonetheless treasured by musical fans for their numerous exceptional songs. At last he had another hit with 1983’s “La Cage aux folles,” painted here as a landmark in mainstream stage-aud acceptance of gay issues at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Now in his mid-70s, Herman is a still-puckish, lively subject. Various former collaborators and observers chip in, from way-back collaborator Charles Nelson Reilly (whose heroic baritone from the original-cast “Dolly!” surprises) to latter-day cabaret star Michael Feinstein (who admiringly deconstructs several Herman songs at the piano) to Leslie Uggams, rehearsing a “Mack and Mabel” number with her ravishing voice.
Herman’s sheer tunefulness and the unfashionably optimistic nature of his shows have in some ways worked in his disfavor — he’s never gotten the critical or cult-audience appreciation accorded many less popular tunesmiths. (“It’s so much safer to be cynical,” Arthur Laurents comments.)
As “Words and Music” makes clear, however, his songwriting is invariably melodic and emotionally direct, no matter how poorly the overall stage or screen product served him. (Note is made of the disappointing Hollywood versions of “Dolly!” and “Mame.”)
Glimpses of the subject’s earlier Broadway efforts, via primitive footage evidently shot from orchestra seats, convey little of their original staging impact. Other rare flashback segs (Louis Armstrong and Edie Gorme singing Herman on TV, Pearl Bailey in an all-black “Dolly!,” etc.) are mercifully superior in image/sound quality.
Assembly is clean, if a bit pedestrian.