For the antipodal or nostalgia crowd, there is on Broadway An Evening With Jerry Herman. In it, Herman narrates some of his autobiography and plays and sings some of his favorite compositions. Singing with him are Florence Lacey and Lee Roy Reams, who also dances and directed the show.
Reams and Miss Lacey are Herman veterans and perform the material like the pros they are. Yet they are neither beloved old-timers with star personae – like, say, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, or Carol Channing – nor fresh-faced youngsters who would augur well for the future of these delightful songs and endearing musicals. Instead, the pair are a bit like cruise-ship entertainers, tickling the well-dined-and-wined passengers pinker than pink. But never mind: The songs, and Jerry Herman’s engaging pianism and commentary, are quite enough to provide a mirthful, and sometimes eye-moistening, happy time.
Herman’s music and words are not just lovely; they’re also lovable. The man has never written a song in which either irrepressible optimism or bittersweet melancholy does not spread hope or comfort. But he has done more than that. In Milk and Honey, he wrote a musical that lent support to the new state of Israel at a time when it most needed it. In La Cage aux Folles, he struck a blow for gay rights and wrote “I Am What I Am,” an anthem for countless homosexuals.
For me, though, the jewels of the show are the selections from Mack & Mabel, Herman’s undervalued masterpiece. Back in 1974, I was the only critic who recognized it as such: a work infused with existential insight and enrapturing melody and lyrics. It also had the ideal interpreters in Bernadette Peters and the incomparable Robert Preston, whose premature death was one of Broadway’s greatest losses. I still smile remembering Preston’s comment in 1974 about how unnerving it was to be in a show disparaged by the revered Walter Kerr and extolled by the usually hostile and resented John Simon. Come back, Bob! All is forgiven – as, indeed, it always was.