Tribute: Jerry Herman

Hello, Dolly! La Cage aux Folles. Mame. The list goes on. Multiple Tony-winning composer/lyricist Jerry Herman [A&U, February 1998] has left an indelible mark on American musical theater. His passing on December 26, 2019, at age eighty-eight, sparked loving tributes around the world.

Harvey Fierstein [A&U, June 1996] on Twitter noted: “Jerry Herman lost his hard fought battle last night and we lost one of the greats. A collaborator and friend for almost 40 years, I cannot thank him enough for his love, trust, encouragement, support and laughter. Well done, Mr Herman. Bravo!”

On the same social media platform, Bette Midler offered: “Another American Icon has died, the great #JerryHerman. I met him long ago, and was lucky enough to play Dolly Levi on Broadway in 2017. Every night was a thrill, full of joy, both onstage and in the house. His music was completely American, and we were lucky to have him. #RIP.”

Another actress who played Dolly, Barbra Stresisand, tweeted: “Lighting a candle for Broadway musical legend JERRY HERMAN. His tuneful optimism brought joy to the world.”

Herman, openly gay and openly living with HIV, was a tireless advocate and fundraiser for people living with HIV/AIDS. He lost his partner, Marty Finkelstein, who died of AIDS-related causes, in 1989. “After Marty’s death, I lost ground steadily. Because I had nursed my lover through the last year of his life, it was obvious to me I was next——my T-cells were descending on a regular basis,” he told A&U interviewer Dale Reynolds. Later, he was enrolled in a new protocol and started on a cocktail that included protease inhibitors; his T-cell count rose and he became undetectable. In closing, he mused: “Have I led a good life? That’s tough for me to say——it’s actually a very complicated question; but someone else looking at my life can probably say, ‘He led a good life.’ However, I have always appreciated the wonderful things that have happened to me and I’ll never have to look back and say ‘it was a marvelous time and I never realized it.’ I realized it. I wasn’t brought up to believe in miracles, but now I do.”

Thank you, Jerry, for your enduring voice and encouraging us to shout out. We are who we are because of you.

—Chael Needle

Chael Needle, A&U‘s Managing Editor, coedited, along with Diane Goettel, the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the Last Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press). Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.