Jerry Herman, Composer of ‘Hello Dolly!,’ ‘Mame’ and ‘La Cage aux Folles,’ Dies at 88

Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, whose indelible Broadway hits included “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles,” died Thursday in Miami. He was 88.

Herman died of pulmonary complications after being taken to a hospital for chest pains, the family said.

“There has been no other music which took our breath away, that made us hum and cheer and respect ourselves more than a majestic Jerry Herman musical,” said Jane Dorian, Herman’s goddaughter. “We are going to miss him, but the genius of Jerry Herman will live on through his music.”

The eternally boyish Herman may not have been regarded as highly as composer-lyricists like Frank Loesser or Stephen Sondheim, but his biggest hits rank as the most popular musicals of their eras. In the 1960s came “Hello, Dolly!,” one of the most recognized and often-performed musicals, which has been revived on Broadway and around the world countless times. His 1980s hit “La Cage aux Folles” has also become something of a perennial, with Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010. Herman has been recognized for his easy, old-fashioned melodies and uncomplicated lyrics. Tunes like the “Hello, Dolly!” title song, “If He Walked Into My Life” (from “Mame”) and “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage” have become pop standards recorded by dozens of performers.

After a number of legit disappointments in the 1970s, Herman returned triumphantly with “La Cage,” which won several Tonys, including best musical of 1984.

He first found success on Broadway in 1961 with “Milk and Honey,” a collaboration with playwright Don Appell. The upbeat tuner starred Molly Picon in the story of American widows hoping to find husbands while touring Israel set against the new nation’s struggle to gain recognition. Herman’s first book musical on Broadway ran for almost a year and a half and drew Tony nominations for best musical and composer.

Herman then auditioned for producer David Merrick, who was looking for someone to write the score to a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.” He prepared the song “Hello, Dolly!” and three others and won the assignment. The show opened in January 1964 and grossed more than $4 million its first year, winning a bevy of Tonys including best musical and a statuette for Herman’s score and lyrics. “Hello, Dolly!” was one of the major musical hits of the 1960s and ran for 2,500 performances. It has been revived several times often with its original star Carol Channing (most recently on Broadway in a Tony-winning run for Bette Midler in 2017 and 2018). The title song became a major popular hit by Louis Armstrong, who appeared in the film version starring Barbra Streisand, and is one of the most recognized Broadway show tunes ever.

In 1966, Herman followed with another sizable musical smash, “Mame,” based on Patrick Dennis’ popular “Auntie Mame,” which brought longtime Hollywood actress Angela Lansbury major attention and the first of several Tonys. The show introduced several songs that would become Herman standards, including the ballad “If He Walked Into My Life,” the holiday-themed “We Need a Little Christmas” and the title number, and Herman scored more Tony nominations.

But his subsequent musicals “Dear World” (also starring Lansbury), “Mack and Mabel” and “The Grand Tour” all failed to ignite, though their scores remain popular with musical comedy fans.

For a time Herman gave up the theater to work successfully in interior design. He scored a minor hit with “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine” in 1980 and had one of his biggest successes with “La Cage aux Folles,” starring George Hearn and Gene Barry, in 1984, again winning a Tony for his score and taking away the best musical prize — and seeing huge box office.

His popular 1985 compilation revue “Jerry’s Girls” drew a Tony nom for actress Chita Rivera.

In 1998 he stepped onto the stage to perform in another revue of his material, “An Evening With Jerry Herman,” which enjoyed a modest limited run. The 2003 revue “Showtune” also featured Herman’s music.

He has also produced several “Celebrate Broadway” albums and the scores of the 1996 TV musical “Mrs. Santa Claus,” starring Angela Lansbury, and the film “Barney’s Great Adventure.”

Gerald Herman was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. He enrolled in the Parsons School of Design after his high school graduation. But after meeting Loesser and writing a popular song that sold for the grand sum of $200, Herman transferred to the University of Miami, where he majored in drama and won the Snarks Playwriting Award.

After earning his B.A., he made a living writing special material for such performers as Garry Moore, Ray Bolger and Jane Froman, supplementing his income playing piano in New York clubs. His first production was “I Feel Wonderful,” a musical revue he had written in college that debuted Off Broadway in 1954. Reviews were mixed to favorable, but it closed after only 49 performances. His next attempt was the nightclub revue “Nightcap” in 1958; it ran for more than 400 performances but brought him little attention.

Critics did not enjoy his 1960 production “Parade,” a satirical musical that opened Off Broadway, but it played for almost 100 performances and then went on tour. Next up was his first Broadway success, “Milk and Honey,” in 1961.

Amber Edwards documentary “Words and Music by Jerry Herman,” about his life and career, aired on PBS in 2008. Also in 2008, the Pixar animated film “Wall-E” featured Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” songs prominently.

Herman won two Grammys: song of the year in 1964 for “Hello, Dolly!” and best score from an original cast show album in 1966 for “Mame.”

He was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1986.

Herman drew a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 2009 and won a 2010 Drama Desk Award Special Award “for enchanting and dazzling audiences with his exuberant music and heartfelt lyrics for more than half a century.”

He was also feted with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.

Herman was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985 and wrote about his long-term survival with the virus in his 1996 autobiography “Showtune: A Memoir by Jerry Herman,” co-written with Marilyn Stasio.

In addition to Dorian, Herman is survived by his long time partner Terry Marler and goddaughter Sarah Haspel.

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