Raised in Jersey City, New Jersey by musically inclined middle-class Jewish parents, Herman learned to play piano at an early age, and the three frequently attended Broadway musicals. His father, Harry, was a gym teacher and in the summer worked in the Catskill Mountains hotels. His mother, Ruth, also worked in the hotels as a singer, pianist, and children's teacher, and eventually became an English teacher. After marrying, they lived in Jersey City and continued to work in the summers in various camps until they became head counselors and finally ran Stissing Lake Camp in the small town of Pine Plains, New York, in the Berkshire Mountains. Herman spent all of his summers there, from age 6 to 23. It was at camp that he first became involved in theatrical productions, as director of Oklahoma!, Finian's Rainbow and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Herman graduated from Jersey City's Henry Snyder High School.
At the age of 17, Herman was introduced to Frank Loesser who, after hearing material he had written, urged him to continue composing. He left the Parsons School of Design to attend the University of Miami, which has one of the nation's most avant garde theater departments. While an undergraduate student at the University of Miami Herman produced, wrote and directed a college musical called Sketchbook. It was scheduled to run for three performances, but the show created an instant massive patron demand. Herman's Sketchbook attracted packed houses for an additional 17 performances before it ended. It was the longest running show in the history of University on Miami theater. He was also a member of the Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity.
After graduation from the University of Miami, Herman moved to New York City, where he produced the Off-Broadway revue I Feel Wonderful, which was made up of material he had written at the University. It opened at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village on October 18, 1954, and ran for 48 performances. It was his only show his mother was able to see; shortly after it opened, she died of cancer at the age of forty-four, and Herman spent the next year in deep mourning.
In 1957, Herman approached the owner of a West Fourth Street jazz club called the Showplace and asked to put on a revue. As well as supplying the music, Herman wrote the book and directed the one-hour revue, called Nightcap. He asked his friend, Phyllis Newman, to do movement and dance and it featured Charles Nelson Reilly (who later co-starred in Hello, Dolly!). The show opened in May 1958 and ran for two years.
Herman next collected enough original material to put together an off-Broadway revue called Parade in 1960. Herman directed with choreography by Richard Tone. The cast included Charles Nelson Reilly and Dody Goodman. It first opened at the Showplace and, expanded, moved to the Players Theatre in January 1960.
In 1960, Herman made his Broadway debut with the revue From A to Z, which featured contributions from newcomers Woody Allen and Fred Ebb as well. That same year producer Gerard Oestreicher approached him after seeing a performance of "Parade", and asked if he would be interested in composing the score for a show about the founding of the state of Israel. The result was his first full-fledged Broadway musical, Milk and Honey in 1961. The show, about American tourists in Israel, starred Robert Weede, Mimi Benzell and Molly Picon. It received respectable reviews and ran for 543 performances.
Herman met playwright Tad Mosel in 1960 and they collaborated on an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Mosel's 1953 television play, Madame Aphrodite. The musical of the same name, which starred Nancy Andrews in the title role, opened at the Orpheum Theatre in December 1961 but closed after 13 performances. A cast album was recorded, but the show has never been performed since. The failure of the musical hurt Herman, who felt that the direction and casting had not worked, but described his decision to make it as a "very brave thing for me to do...It was a dark piece, something more suited to early Sondheim than me".
In 1964, producer David Merrick united Herman with musical actress Carol Channing and librettist Michael Stewart for a project that was to become one of his more successful, Hello, Dolly!. The original production ran for 2,844 performances, the longest running musical for its time, and was later revived three times. Although facing stiff competition from Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly! swept the Tony Awards that season, winning 10, a record that remained unbroken for 37 years, until The Producers won 12 Tonys in 2001.
In 1966, Herman's next musical was the smash hit Mame starring Angela Lansbury, which introduced a string of Herman standards, most notably the ballad "If He Walked Into My Life", the holiday favorite "We Need a Little Christmas", and the title tune.
Although not commercial successes, Dear World (1969) starring Angela Lansbury, Mack & Mabel (1974) starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, and The Grand Tour (1979) starring Joel Grey are noted for their interesting concepts and their melodic, memorable scores. Herman considers Mack & Mabel, also written in collaboration with Michael Stewart, his personal favorite score, with later composition La Cage aux Folles in a close second. Both Dear World and Mack & Mabel have developed a cult following among Broadway aficionados.
In 1983, Herman had his third mega-hit with La Cage aux Folles starring George Hearn and Gene Barry, which broke box-office records at the Palace Theatre and earned Herman yet another Tony Award for Best Musical. From its score came the gay anthem "I Am What I Am" and the rousing sing-a-long "The Best of Times." La Cage aux Folles won the Tony Award for Best Musical (1983), is the only musical to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice (2005 & 2010), and therefore is the only show to win a Best Musical award for every staged Broadway production.
Many of Herman's show tunes have become pop standards. His most famous composition, "Hello, Dolly!", is one of the most popular tunes to have originated in a Broadway musical, and was a #1 hit in the United States for Louis Armstrong, knocking The Beatles from #1 in 1964 after a 14-week run at the top ("I Want to Hold Your Hand", "She Loves You", and "Can't Buy Me Love."). A French recording by Petula Clark charted in the Top Ten in both Canada and France. "If He Walked into My Life" from Mame was recorded by Eydie Gormé, winning her a Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance, Female in 1967. "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles was recorded by Gloria Gaynor and became a disco favorite. Other well known Herman showtunes include "Shalom" from Milk and Honey; "Before the Parade Passes By", "Put On Your Sunday Clothes", and "It Only Takes a Moment" from Hello, Dolly!; "It's Today!", "Open a New Window", "We Need a Little Christmas," and "Bosom Buddies" from Mame; and "Tap Your Troubles Away", "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel.
Herman was the first (of only two) composers/lyricists to have three musicals run more than 1500 consecutive performances on Broadway (the other being Stephen Schwartz): Hello, Dolly! (2,844), Mame (1,508), and La Cage aux Folles (1,761). He is honored by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 7090 Hollywood Boulevard. Other honors include the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, named after him by his alma mater. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1982.
Herman's work has been the subject of two popular musical revues, Jerry's Girls (1984) conceived by Larry Alford, and Showtune (2003) conceived by Paul Gilger.
In 2008, a 90-minute documentary about his life and career, "Words and Music by Jerry Herman," by filmmaker Amber Edwards, was broadcast on PBS. In the 2008 animated film WALL-E, Herman's music from Hello, Dolly! influences the character WALL-E.
In 1989, American-playwright Natalie Gaupp wrote a short play titled "The Jerry Herman Center." The play is a comedy which portrays the lives of several patients in "The Jerry Herman Center for Musical Theatre Addiction." In 2012, Jason Graae and Faith Prince collaborated on The Prince and the Showboy, a show which pays tribute to Herman; Graae worked extensively with Herman and described him as "a survivor of the highest degree [who] lives his life as an eternal optimist."
Having a flair for decorating in the 1970s, Herman took a break from composition after the failure of Mack and Mabel. Architectural Digest wrote about the firehouse he renovated. Then he redecorated other houses and sold them. He has decorated at least thirty-eight different residences in his life. Mr. Herman reportedly listed his 4,088-square-foot (379.8 m2) West Hollywood condominium apartment for sale early in 2013.
Herman was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985. As noted in the "Words and Music" PBS documentary, "He is one of the fortunate ones who survived to see experimental drug therapies take hold and is still, as one of his lyrics proclaims, 'alive and well and thriving' over quarter of a century later."
Herman's memoir, Showtune, was published in 1996.
Herman resides in Miami Beach, Florida.Off Broadway revues
I Feel Wonderful (1954)
Madame Aphrodite (1961)
From A to Z (1960)
Milk and Honey (1961)
Hello, Dolly! (1964)
Ben Franklin in Paris (additional music) (1964)
Dear World (1969)
Mack & Mabel (1974)
The Grand Tour (1979)
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (additional songs) (1980)
La Cage aux Folles (1983)
Jerry's Girls (1985)
An Evening with Jerry Herman (1998)
Miss Spectacular (2003) recorded but unproduced
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Barney's Great Adventure (title song) (1998)
WALL-E (excerpts of Hello, Dolly! featured)
Mrs. Santa Claus (1996)
2010 Kennedy Center Honoree
1999 Theatre World Special Award (An Evening with Jerry Herman) (winner)
1980 Doctor of Fine Arts, May 4, 1980, University of Miami
1997 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics ("Mrs. Santa Claus") (nominee)
1964 Grammy Award for Song of the Year (Hello, Dolly!) (winner)
1966 Grammy Award for Best Score From An Original Cast Show Album (Mame) (winner)
2017 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (Hello, Dolly!) (winner)
2009 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (winner)
1984 Tony Award for Best Original Score (La Cage aux Folles) (winner)
1979 Tony Award for Best Original Score (The Grand Tour) (nominee)
1966 Tony Award for Best Composer and Lyricist (Mame) (nominee)
1964 Tony Award for Best Composer and Lyricist (Hello, Dolly!) (winner)
1962 Tony Award for Best Composer (Milk and Honey) (nominee)