Stars, friends and fans of Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman gathered at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Monday to pay tribute to the Main Stem legend who died Dec. 26 at the age of 88.
Highlights of the memorial service included performances by Broadway notables like Kristin Chenoweth, Bernadette Peters, Michael Feinstein and Leslie Uggams, among others.
A 29-piece orchestra played a more than a dozen songs, including classics from Herman’s smash hits “Hello, Dolly” and “La Cage aux Folles.” Laughs erupted during Klea Blackhurst and Tyne Daly’s spirited rendition of “Bosom Buddies” from “Mame.” Peters delivered an emotional take on “Time Heals Everything.” Uggams received a standing ovation for her performance of “I Am What I Am.”
“Poetically, Jerry lived to 88, the same number of keys on a piano.” said Dorian. “Jerry was a rare combination of my heart, father, teacher, magician, champion, confidant, and best friend.”
“Jerry’s work has often been compared to Irving Berlin in that they both had the gift of writing songs that you would want to sing as you left the theater,” said Dorian. “Jerry expressed character and plot essential to the integration of the musical. By fundamentally respecting the underlying source material, he was able to distill the essence of the human condition. Then he took it one step further, finding language that went deeper than words. That is why, at every moment of every day, someone around the world is on a stage singing a Jerry Herman song.”
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McCartney and Lansbury sent video tributes. Lansbury, who was cast in the role of Mame Dennis in “Mame,” credited Herman to jump-starting her career at a key juncture.
“It was he who was responsible for giving me the role of ‘Mame.’ I had no experience on the Broadway stage. But it was through him that I began my career as a Broadway actress. And my friendship with him went on for many years,” said Lansbury. “I will never forget him and I will miss him for the rest of my days.”
McCartney shared his condolences, saying that Herman’s work will “live forever.”
“You and your work puts you amongst all of the greats of musical theater and will live forever,” said McCartney. “Thank you for letting me be a small part of your life. We’ll miss you, Jerry.”
Jerry’s oldest friend, Alice Borden, recalled her 70-year friendship with Herman, starting when she met him at the age of 8 and he was 19. They met at a camp that was run by Herman’s parents, where Borden’s mother was a music counselor. Herman would put on one show each season. He tapped Borden for the lead role in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
“During rehearsals, he would leap on and off the stage with an energy I’ve never seen before. He was inspiring, intoxicating and I was a 10-year old girl in love,” said Borden. “Jerry I will miss you terribly, you’ve been a part of my whole life. I love you. I have to think that our mothers are up there in heaven listening to you play ‘Hello, Dolly’ on the piano. But everyone up there will think it’s a full orchestra.”
Harvey Fierstein then took the mic, confessing that he was crying his eyes out backstage. He was 28 when he got the offer to collaborate with Herman on “La Cage aux Folles.”
“I got a call saying, ‘Would you want to work with Jerry Herman?’ I nearly fainted,” Fierstein said.
On his first visit to Herman’s apartment, Fierstein recalled the composer playing a song that Herman told him was inspired by Fierstein’s play “Torch Song Trilogy.”
“The song was called ‘[A Little More] Mascara,’ which then became the third song in ‘La Cage aux Folles.’ And that began our marriage,” Fierstein said. “It was the most wonderful collaboration of pure magic that set the tone for the rest of my life and I’ll be forever grateful to that.”
Other performers included Marilyn Maye, Lorna Luft, Jeremy Jordan, Debbie Gravitte, Sutton Foster, Ron Raines, Jason Graae, John Bolton, Kelli O’Hara, Betty Buckley, Lee Roy Reams and Don Pippin, the original conductor for “Mame.”
At the finale, speakers and performers joined together for a heartfelt rendition of “The Best of Times” from “La Cage aux Folles.” Speakers pointed to the song’s message of living in the moment.
So 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.