I saw the NSO Pops concert last night, Jerry Herman on Broadway. It was a solidly enjoyable, if by-the-book, concert with four great theater singers, Ron Raines, Debbie (Shapiro) Gravitte, Hugh Panaro, and Melissa Errico. And it was terrific to hear these singers doing this material from shows like Hello, Dolly, Mack and Mabel, and Mame, backed by a full orchestra led. And it was extra-special that the orchestra was led by Donald Pippin who conducted nearly all of Herman’s shows on Broadway.
During the show I found myself thinking that Jerry Herman really is second only to Irving Berlin in the entirely singable way his lyrics sit on a melody line. And during the one piece I didn’t know, the Wedding Scene from Milk and Honey, I was once again struck by how immediate his writing is — he has a unique ability to make his work utterly accessible to an audience the first time they hear it.
The price for this accessibility is that there isn’t a lot of content to go back for. Herman material is solid dependable product, but I don’t think it leaves a lot of room for nuance or discovery on the part of either the audience or the performer. (For example, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone succesfully interpret a Jerry Herman song in a style opposite of its original Broadway presentation: no upbeat Time Heals Everythings, no bluesy It’s Todays.)
Luckily, the creative team for this concert seemed to understand that, and the best performances of the evening, like Ron Raines’s Song on the Sand and Debbie Gravitte’s If He Walked Into My Life (with terrific piano accompaniment by Pippin) effectively harnessed the power of the material they were working with, without trying for any unual effect.