Jerrys Girls strut their stuff at Gallery Players

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Messenger photo by John Matuszak
Gallery Players’ performers, from left, Eileen Howard, Julie Russell, Susan Bunsold and Danielle Mann, are "Jerry’s Girls," in the celebration of the songs of Jerry Herman, being staged Oct. 13-28 at the Roth-Resler Theater. Other cast members who will be performing songs from such shows as "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame" include Wendy Cohen, Dawn Farrell, Octavia Bogan and Ashley Parizek, under the direction of Steven Black.

He sang hello to Dolly.

He brought fame to Mame.

He introduced Mack to Mabel.

They are "Jerry’s Girls," and are the focal point of this musical tribute to composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, being staged by Gallery Players Oct. 13-28 at the Roth-Resler Theater, 1125 College Ave.

"There’s no question that I love to write for women," Herman, who penned the scores for such Broadway classics as "Hello, Dolly!," "Mame" and "Mack and Mabel," confided in his memoir, Showtune. "To me, writing for a beautiful woman dressed in a glamorous gown and covered in jewels is a lot more exciting that writing for a man in a brown suit."

Even when he wrote a great role for a guy, it was one who dressed as a woman in "La Cauge aux Folles," who declared "I Am What I Am."

Herman found the humor and strength and vulnerability of these women underneath the glamorous trappings, cast members and director Steven Black offered.

"He gave them pizazz," commented Eileen Howard.

"Even through the cracks of life, they see the joy of life and embrace it," added Danielle Mann.

And, almost alone among composers, Herman exalted mature women, Black noted.

Birds of a feather

Herman, the only composer-lyricist to have three shows run for over 1,500 Broadway performances, was inspired by one grand lady before he began to write songs – and possibly even before he was born in 1931.

He grew up in Jersey City as an only child of a musical, middle class family. His mother, Ruth, while in labor, paused before going to the hospital to play the piano because she wanted her child to love music.

It must have worked because Jerry displayed an instinctive ear from an early age.

She also imparted to her son her optimism and joy in living, the attitude that marked most of his career and found its way into a signature song, "It’s Today."

The family traveled frequently to New York City to see the great musicals of the day, from "Oklahoma!" to "Annie Get Your Gun," with Ethel Merman singing the songs of Irving Berlin.

Herman recalled that this show has the greatest influence on his musical direction, and he felt as if it spoke to him personally.

His parents, both teachers, ran a summer camp in the Berkshires. The athletically awkward Jerry (he didn’t even like to dance) avoided sports, to the disappointment of his father, a physical-education instructor. He found his niche, instead, staging musicals at the camp.

Show business still didn’t seem like a feasible career path, and Herman enrolled in a design school where he studied his other love, architecture, while continuing to write songs.

But what he called "The Mother Mafia" made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, when his own mother informed him that "I have a friend in my bridge club, who has a friend, and the brother of this friend of my friend knows Frank Loesser," composer of the score for "Guys and Dolls."

"I want you to play your stuff for him," Ruth insisted, and when he balked, added "Would you please waste half an hour of your life?"

It turned out to be anything but a waste of time, as the veteran gave the newcomer an invaluable tutorial on writing a Broadway score.

Greatly encouraged by Loesser, Herman transferred to the University of Miami, which had one of the most avant garde theatre departments in the country.

But there was tragedy waiting in the wings. Ruth was found to have cancer of the jaw and died in 1954, when she was 44 and Jerry was 21.

"She never saw a single show of mine on Broadway," Herman lamented in his memoir. But her spirit lived on in many of the characters the composer animated with his songs.

Hello, Jerry!

After a series of cabaret revues, and a musical about the founding of Israel, "Milk and Honey," Herman found his own promised land in 1964 with "Hello, Dolly!"

The production, starring Carol Channing, ran for 2,844 performances, the longest running musical up to its time, and won 10 Tony awards, a record that stood for 37 years.

Other great ladies of the theatre, from Pearl Bailey to Ethel Merman, Herman’s great musical inspiration, went on to play Dolly (along with Barbra Streisand in the movie version) and became close friends with the composer.

Herman hit gold again with "Mame" in 1966, starring Angela Lansbury and featuring such standards as "We Need a Little Christmas," "If He Walked Into My Life," and the title tune.

"In a way, the era of my life is also the era of the great ladies of the American musical," Herman wrote.

His track record hit a serious bump with "Mack and Mabel," about the doomed romance of silent movie mogul Mack Sennett and his leading lady, Mabel Normand.

The show catapulted the career of Bernadette Peters, but numerous problems with the production curtailed the run to 65 performances.

Herman maintained that it was his favorite score, and a charity performance in London led to a revival and a renewal of the show’s reputation.

"La Cage aux Folles" gave Herman his next monster hit and another sweep of the Tonys, including best musical.

"Jerry’s Girls," which toured with Channing, Leslie Uggams and Andrea McArdle, and later Chita Rivera, followed.

Herman continues to be celebrated as the torchbearer for the classic Broadway score, and his songs are performed in revues, revivals and tribute albums by such singers as Columbus native Michael Feinstein. A PBS documentary on his life will air next year.

Herman expresses admiration for the more progressive productions by Sondheim and Company, and at the same time celebrates his own traditional musical style.

Or as one of his many musical matrons might sing, "I am what I am."

Gallery Players’ production of "Jerry’s Girls" will open Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. and continue Oct. 14, 21 and 28 at 2:30 p.m., and Oct. 20 and 27 at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $12 for JCC members, $18 for non-members, $10 for senior members and $16 for senior non-members, and $8 for students. Tickets are $10 for groups of 10 or more.

For reservations, call 559-6248 or visit the web site www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

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