In the musical show Mack & Mabel we witness the unusual romance between early 1900s film director Mack Sennett and waitress Mabel Normand. Michael Stewart wrote the book, and Jerry Herman created the music and lyrics.
This is the same Jerry Herman, known for composing the musical scores for Hello Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles. Herman was nominated for Tony awards five times, winning twice. He also received the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre and was recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010.
Son of musically talented parents, New York-born Herman spent his summers from age 6 to 23 at camps in the Catskills, where his parents were counselors and he became involved in musical theater productions. As an undergraduate at the University of Miami, he produced, wrote and directed a musical called Sketchbook, which ran for 17 performances.
Gerald Sheldon (Jerry) Herman died yesterday at the age of 88.
In a magical moment I will never forget, he and I crossed paths 45 years ago.
The musical Mack & Mabel was going through one of its pre-Broadway trial runs at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse in 1974. As The Miami Herald’s theater reviewer in Broward County, I covered the opening night performance and had written my review when my phone rang, and the Parker’s PR agent was telling me that the show’s cast was right then in a special rehearsal to rework portions of the show’s second act. This is not typically a pretty process, but I was granted permission to witness it provided I had already turned in my review of last night’s performance. I had. I grabbed my notebook and hurried to the theater, which was just two blocks from The Herald’s office, and quietly slipped into a seat in the third row as the action unfolded on stage.
A few feet in front of me, I noticed a man in the orchestra pit. He wearing a khaki jumpsuit and was rearranging some of the music stands and chairs. I took him to be a theater employee. He looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back. He climbed out of the pit and plopped into a seat next to me.
“Did you see the show last night?” I nodded.
“What do you think of the music?”
I commented on the show’s preponderance of pleasantly upbeat songs and suggested that maybe the score could use another slow ballad for balance, to slow the pace a bit.
“I agree with you,” he said. ”That’s why I wrote ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ for the second act.”
He smiled again and extended his right hand. “I’m Jerry Herman,” he said. Pleased to meet you.”
“Mack & Mabel” moved on to San Diego and Los Angeles for two further trial runs before opening on Broadway with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the principal roles. The show received eight Tony award nominations, including Best Musical, but won none. Jerry Herman’s score didn’t receive any nominations, but did garner lots of praise. The show’s reviews were mixed, and it closed after eight weeks. It did go on to greater success in Britain.
Jerry Herman contributed richly to our American culture. We all should be grateful for that. I won’t ever forget that personal encounter in 1974 and will always love that poignant second-act ballad that he wrote for Mack & Mabel:
“I won’t send roses
Or hold the door;
I won’t remember
which dress you wore.
My heart is too much in control,
the lack of romance in my soul
will turn you gray, kid,
so stay away, kid.
Forget my shoulder
when you’re in need;
forgetting birthdays is guaranteed,
and should I love you, you would be
the last to know.
I won’t send roses,
and roses suit you so.”