“You have natural family and you have chosen family,” Jane Dorian said. “We were chosen family.”
Dorian, a Los Angeles based realtor, is the goddaughter of the recently deceased composer/lyricist Jerry Herman. “I’ll always love him,” Dorian said, her voice suffused with sorrow. “He’s been there all my life.”
Herman, who just passed away the day after Christmas at the age of 88, was one of the most spectacularly successful Broadway songwriters in history. Winner of two Tonys and two Grammys, his shows include La Cage aux Folles, Mame and the phenomenal, Hello, Dolly. He was the ultimate in bankability: Herman is the only composer to have three shows playing on Broadway at the same time. He was the first to have three musicals that ran more than 1,500 consecutive performances.
His box office grosses are astounding: for example, the original Hello, Dolly run brought in $27 million. Bette Midler’s recent revival produced an additional $128 million. That’s not counting all the other stage and screen Dollys along the way.
“You can never bet against Jerry Herman,” Dorian said.
The goddaughter connection dates to the late 1940’s when her mother, Carol, and Herman attended the University of Miami at the same time. “They were both 17 and were the two thinnest students on campus. It was the first day of school and they sort of circled each other on the quad, but nothing happened until that night when the new students got together. Jerry sat down at the piano and started playing. My mother sat next to him, the two started singing and making music. They went right on making music until my Mother died 28 years ago. They worked together and they were best friends.”
Herman trusted Carol’s talents so much that he had her sing whenever he held auditions for potential financial backers for his shows.
When Carol married Bob Dorian, their daughter, Jane, became Herman’s goddaughter — later Jane’s daughter, Sarah, was named his great-goddaughter. “We became a family,” Dorian said.
Herman’s biographer, Stephen Citron, wrote that since Jerry had no living blood relatives, he developed, over time, surrogate relationships. Citron saw Dorian as close to Herman as an actual daughter might have been.
Dorian has a host of fond memories. One involves producer David Merrick, a powerful, mercurial man who was not the picture of patience. “I was in third or fourth grade and I was having trouble with my homework,” Dorian recalled. “My assignment was to create a limerick and it wasn’t working. So I called Jerry on his private line at his West 10th Street home. I didn’t know he was meeting with Mr. Merrick. Jerry answered and I told him my problem. He took the phone, which had a real long cord, into another room. He patiently worked out the limerick with me before he resumed his meeting with Mr. Merrick. Imagine Mr. Merrick waiting for Jerry to finish a limerick. That’s the way Jerry was.”
Another memory Dorian treasures involves the Barney the Dinosaur theme song. Herman was asked to compose it, but he felt it was out of his element. He was going to turn it down until one day he and his great-goddaughter, Sarah, were playing with her stuffed toy Barney. Herman saw Barney through the eyes of a child and suddenly he said, “I get it. I understand.” He wrote the theme and later it was recorded by Bernadette Peters.
The spontaneous way the Barney song came about illustrates how Herman worked.
“Since he composed the music and the words simultaneously, Jerry relied on inspiration,” Dorian said. “Typically he would work from a book or libretto and find the musical moments.”
Dorian remembered that Herman seldom played four hands (two players at the same piano), but he did with Michael Feinstein. “It was four hands, but one heart,” Herman told Dorian. The two recorded a brilliant album together which is titled Michael Feinstein sings the Jerry Herman Songbook.
One of Dorian’s dearest memories is a song Herman wrote for his last project, Miss Spectacular. The show relates the colorful tale of Sarah Jane Hotchkiss — one of the numbers contains this last line: “I’ll love you forever, my Sarah Jane.” Of course, the Sarah Jane in the show is named for Dorian and her daughter.
Herman’s goal, according to Dorian, was to create songs that the audience would leave the theater humming. “Songs that would stay in their hearts,” Dorian said.
Herman addressed that subject as well: “To me, the powerful tune is the nub of the American musical theater.”
His huge success was based on that notion. In a statement Dorian issued to the press when she announced Herman’s passing, she said: “There has been no music that took our breath away, that made us hum and cheer and respect ourselves more than a majestic Jerry Herman musical. We are going to miss him, but the genius of Jerry Herman will live on through his music.”