I don’t know about you, but I was rather disappointed with the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Jerry Herman that aired last evening. Herman, whose songs continue to bring great joy to audiences around the world every day, was one of the five recipients of the Honor. His musical theatre career involves some of the most life-affirming and tuneful musical scores of the last half century with smash hits Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles and fascinating failures like Dear World, Mack and Mabel and The Grand Tour. His other credits include the revue Parade, his first Broadway hit Milk and Honey and the 1996 TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus.
Make no mistake it was a joy seeing Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Chita Rivera, all of whom have sung Jerry’s songs on Broadway (Chita was Tony-nominated in 1986 for being fabulous in the all-female revue Jerry’s Girls). But where was George Hearn and Bernadette Peters? Or for that matter, some of Herman’s other favorites like Karen Morrow and Leslie Uggams? As a whole, the tribute, cheesily staged by Rob Ashford, felt rushed. Kelsey Grammer got things off to a start with a clever variation on his opening monologue from La Cage. 89 year old Channing sang an all-too-brief “Hello, Jerry!” Christine Baranski and Christine Ebersole, both former regional Mames (DC and NJ, respectively) sang “Bosom Buddies” but like much of the tribute was truncated and hurried. The two Tony winners weren’t given enough room to really score as they should have. The chorus boys were used far too much; it was distracting on the solos and duet.
Matthew Morrison proficiently delivered the most joyless rendition of “It’s Today” I’ve ever experienced (and that includes Lucy’s – at least she looked like she was having fun). Morrison is a major talent and a star thanks to Glee, but he should have been staged as a star not as a glorified chorus boy. Matt Bomer, who seemed to channeling the voice of Charles Nelson Reilly, and Kelli O’Hara sang “It Only Takes a Moment.” Sutton Foster belted a wooden chorus of “Before the Parade Passes By.” A chorus (of what looked like mostly teenagers) sang “I Am What I Am” at its most vanilla. The obligatory finale was “The Best of Times,” (led by the glorious Lansbury) but overall it didn’t seem as rousing as it should have been (maybe I’m still expecting the Jerry Mitchell hand-claps from the 2004 revival). It was great having Angie, Carol and Chita on hand, whose mere presence made the segment better than it was, but our Jerry deserved better. (Meanwhile the telecast spent an interminable amount of time on Paul McCartney).
When I was looking on youtube at various tributes from past years, I stumbled upon this one that I hadn’t seen until now. In 1998, John Kander and Fred Ebb were honored with a rousing and clever tribute. At the time, their musicals Cabaret and Chicago were both playing on Broadway in smash revivals. In a clever twist, both “Wilkommen” and “All That Jazz” were presented with the original and revival stars. The performance culminated with Liza Minnelli singing the signature “New York, New York” (You’ll see this when you watch the video, but how many NYC cab drivers can say they’ve shared the Kennedy Center stage with George Grizzard and Edward Albee?). Other exciting tributes have included those for Julie Andrews and Chita Rivera, herself. (I’ve yet to see the Angela Lansbury tribute from 2000).