How a Jerry Herman Song Landed a Triple Punch

It was always a canard that Jerry Herman, the big-thump tunesmith, and Stephen Sondheim, the big-think musical dramatist, represented opposing and hostile camps.

In fact, they were doing the same thing: finding ways to make characters sing as they must. Herman’s Mame couldn’t have pattered a list of cannibal puns any more than Sondheim’s Mrs. Lovett could have belted a brassy ballad about the boy that got away — though both perfectly suited Angela Lansbury, who introduced “If He Walked Into My Life,” in “Mame,” and “A Little Priest,” in “Sweeney Todd,” 13 years apart. The difference was in the stories Sondheim and Herman, who died on Thursday at 88, wanted to tell, leading their songs where they had to go.

Which is why, when I think of Herman at his best, I find myself dwelling on “Look What Happened to Mabel,” from his 1974 flop “Mack & Mabel.” (A revival of the show opens the Encores! season in February.) One of the best “charm songs” in the repertoire, it introduces us to the glamorous silent movie star Mabel Normand (Bernadette Peters in the Broadway production) by showing how she started, back in Flatbush, as “that plain little Nellie/the girl from the deli.”

In reality, Normand was a model from Staten Island, but you are encouraged to move past that quibble by the typically infectious Herman tune, all but insisting on choreography. As it winds in and out of major and minor modalities, it recalls the world and style of Irving Berlin.

At first, the lyric is Berlinesque, too, suggesting in a series of simple contrasting phrases Normand’s ironic view of her past: “Miss B.L.T. down/is the toast of the town,” “Miss Avenue R/is a regular star.” But as it moves along, it approaches Sondheimian complexity, and not just because “goddess” and “bodice” make a fantastic rhyme. It’s the verbal daring that does it: the challenge Herman poses to himself as each couplet becomes a bigger risk, asking for a bigger payoff.

What a joy it is when Herman marries the two styles, endowing plain-spokenness with panache, exactly at the climax of the song. The chain of Catholic interjections that has decorated each stanza — “Mary and Joseph!” “Rattle me beads!” “Holy Mother Machree!” — sets the stage for a high-difficulty triple rhyme that pulls all the threads of Normand’s character together: “ambitious,” “knishes” and — wait for it — “St. Aloysius.”

I like to think it made Sondheim gasp, as Herman surely did when the words first aligned. Both were in the business of taking your breath away.

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