Posts Tagged Jerry Herman
So today is Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. And 2011 is also the 50th anniversary of what is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Zionist Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey.”
As a kid, we had a copy of the LP in the house, and I’m pretty sure I ruined the record by playing it so much. I do know that the skip in “That Was Yesterday,” the up-beat First Act-ender was why I learned to put a penny on the tonearm. Later, in college, when I found another copy of the LP, I listened to the song again for the first time in what must have been 5 years, and found the absence of the skip jarring. Not jarring enough to try to reproduce it, but enough that even now it still doesn’t sound right without it.
DRG re-released the cast album a few years ago, and if you don’t mind actually hearing the actors move left-to-right on the stage through the magic of stereo, it’s still a great score. So much so that Musicals Tonight is reviving it this fall, starting almost exactly on the 50th anniversary of the show’s debut.
The story is that Gerard Oestreicher sent piano-player Herman and Don Appell on a field trip to Israel to help with the creative juices. For the record, it was also Oestreicher’s first show. Herman came back with a head full of ideas and a desire to avoid turning the show into Hagana-Doodle-Dandy. The result is phenomenal.
It was Jerry Herman’s first musical, but it ran over a year, 543 performances, and at least part of the reason you’ve never heard of it is that it was technically part of thre 1962 Tony Season, which means it was up against a couple of solid performers: “Camelot” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” (When Herman got the Kennedy Center Honors last fall, the awards production barely quoted M&H, spending what sounded like 75% of the time on “La Cage Aux Folles,” a warning about the fickleness of politics and entertainment.)
He had help. Albert Marre, who had done “Kismet” and would do “Man of La Mancha,” staged it. Donald Saddler who had “Call Me Madam” and “Wonderful Town” under his belt, choreographed it. But still, the words and music were by a guy with a Dolly and a Mame in his future.
Now, it’s one thing to do a show called, “Oklahoma,” and expect that your audience knows something about state fairs, horses, and surreys. But in 1961, even for New York Jews, Israel was an exotic place, something Jews had but not really someplace that too many of them identified with very closely. The audience would see Israelis through the eyes of Americans, in this case, a tour group of Jewish widows looking for husbands in what they hoped would be a target-rich environment. (“Our purpose here in Israel is to form a marriage between the two cultures: male and female.”)
I’ve never actually seen the play staged, so I can’t say much about the book, but the lyrics and music are Herman at his best, even as they’re Herman at his first. The opening song, “Shalom,” ends with this gem:
It means a million lovely things
Like “peace be yours,” “welcome home.”
And even when you say goodbye
If your voice has “I don’t want to go,” in it
Say goodbye with a little hello in it,
And say goodbye with Shalom.
That’s not a simple rhyme structure, but the ear follows it easily, and of course, there’s a little dramatic foreshadowing there, as well.
The title song captures all of the raw, naked audacity of trying to build a country where pretty much every force of man and nature is arrayed against you, and your major resources are the internal ones. The fact that the place was a desert surrounded by enemies wasn’t lost on Herman during his trip, and he enlisted an Israeli comedian to interrupt the title piece with a reminder that paradise it wasn’t:
The honey’s kind of bitter
And the milk’s a little sour.
Do you know the pebble
Is the state’s official flower?
Given what Jews had pretty recently come from in Europe, it’s enough to get you thinking of leeks and onions. Herman immediately redeems it with this ending:
What if the earth is dry and barren?
What if the morning sun is mean to us?
For this is a state of mind we live in,
We want it green and so it’s green to us.
For when you have wanted for plans for tomorrow
Somehow even today looks fine.
What if it’s rock and dust and sand
This lovely land is mine.
“If you will it, it is no dream,” indeed. But even here Herman’s touch is evident. Eddit Fisher liked it so much he released it as a single, but without the Sabra counterpoint, it’s just another in a string of milquetoast vocals that non-rock pop by anyone not named Sinatra was producing back then.
So yeah, the musical is Zionist after a fashion, but this is Broadway, so the real plot driver is love and the search for it. Herman was practially a kid when he wrote this, under 30. But the lead love interest is between an older couple (for the time), he 58, she 37. When I was 28, there’s no way on God’s dry and barren earth I could have understood what it was like to be single at almost 60. Herman has the characters witness a young couple’s wedding and gives us this:
Let’s not waste a moment, let’s not lose a day
There’s a short forever, not too far away
We don’t need to hear the clock remind us
That there’s more than half of life behind us.
Nowadays, 37 qualifies as barely post-adolescent, but back in the day, even widows of that age were facing a lifetime of wanting rather than having. It was 1961, somewhere between the first and second seasons of “Mad Men,” remember. The 60s hadn’t happened yet and nobody knew they were just around the corner. These two meet 10 years from then, and it won’t be that short forever keeping him young.
The show also featured that star of Yiddish screen and stage, Molly Picon, leading the tour, and her two numbers are the comic relief, as you’d expect. “Chin Up,” comes when the women discover that all the kibbutznik men are married. (The barely-audible little whimper of disappointment is a great touch that audiences probably wouldn’t have heard.) And her “Hymn to Hymie” is a soliloquym, a paean to married domesticity, asking herself for permission to remarry.
Given the turnabout in the culture of the last 50 years, I’m not sure either song could actually get staged these days without howls of protest from the professional feminist class. If they did get staged, they’d probably do some gender-bending role-reversal that would be hailed as a breakthrough of some kind, which the composer of “La Cage Aux Folles” would probably think was a little overstated.
Herman’s sheer versatility keeps you from getting bored. “Shalom” is a waltz. “Let’s Not Waste A Moment” is a duet/ballad. “Chin Up” is a march. “Hymn to Hymie” is a tango, for cryin’ out loud. “The Wedding” is part cantorial, part dance.