How a Jerry Herman Song Called a Future Critic to New York

Every time I pass the Yonkers train station, during my Metro North commute between Manhattan and my upstate home, a song by Jerry Herman, who died on Thursday at 88, starts playing in my head. It is a sacred song, more resonant for me than any hymn I learned in my churchgoing childhood. And there are lyrics in it that, if I linger on them, automatically bring tears to my eyes.

Out there, full of shine and full of sparkle.

Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby.

Listen, Barnaby.

That’s the character of Cornelius — a starved-for-life dry goods clerk from Yonkers — singing “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” in the 1964 musical “Hello, Dolly!” Cornelius is explaining to his naïve fellow employee, Barnaby, that beyond “this hick town” where they labor so joylessly is “a slick town.”

Their tyrannical boss, Horace Vandergelder, will be away that day, and Cornelius is trying to convince Barnaby to visit this close but oh-so-distant slick town. It is a place, he promises, where a young man can “find adventure in the evening air,” the nights reek of perfume and “the lights are bright as the stars.” The name of this enchanted kingdom is, of course, New York City.

Barnaby, a sheltered and timid lad, was able to resist Cornelius’s plea for a few verses. But as sung by Charles Nelson Reilly, in the original cast recording of “Hello, Dolly!,” Cornelius had the 9-year-old me at “Out there.”

I was in Winston-Salem, N.C., then, and had never been further north than Washington, D.C. But for as long as I could remember, New York was where I felt I belonged. Listening to “Sunday Clothes” for the first time — on an album I had half paid for myself (my sister and I pooled our allowances) — I found my fantasy gateway to a place I was determined would become my home.

You see, for me, New York was synonymous with Broadway, which was synonymous with musical comedy. How could “Sunday Clothes” be other than a siren call? It was brass, hope, determination and urbanity — all traits I associated with musicals — incarnate.

Jerry Herman was a master of such shameless, blissful, full-frontal seduction. “Sunday Clothes” segued from one increasingly confident voice’s aspirational solo into a big ensemble number. And it had accelerating choo-choo rhythms that acquired almost dictatorial speed once the immortal Carol Channing, as Dolly, joined the song, encouraging everyone in boring old Yonkers to dress up and get on the train.

I wouldn’t get to New York for the first time until seven years later. The first musical I saw there was “Follies,” Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s elegiac farewell to old-fashioned, mindlessly optimistic Broadway musicals like “Hello, Dolly!” It was Sondheim who then became my musical spirit guide.

Still, when I first set foot on a Manhattan sidewalk in 1971, wallowing in glorious sensory overload, it was “Sunday Clothes” that was playing at full volume in my mind. And Jerry Herman’s promises of a world of shine and sparkle were instantly fulfilled.

Source: Read Full Article