Talking with Jerry Herman
By Owen Keehnen
This Interview appeared in the 'Out Now' (San Diego), 'Chicago Outlines', and 'Watermark' (Orlando) in December 1996
The name Jerry Herman is practically synonymous with The Golden Age of Broadway. He is the lyricist and composer behind such blockbuster musicals as 'Mame', 'Hello Dolly', 'La Cage aux Folles', 'Mack and Mabel, and 'Milk and Honey'. Mr. Herman has just released a candid new memoir, Showtune. The book covers his years in show business and is written with great love. Showtune. Features numerous anecdotes about such personalities as Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, David Merrick, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Gower Champion, Angela Lansbury, and many more. Mr. Herman's wonderful scores have given joy to thousands and brought him numerous awards including two Tonys and two Grammys.
Recently I had the chance to talk with Jerry Herman about his book, his new TV musical, his life in the theater, and living with HIV.
You’ve just released your autobiography Showtune. What made now the right time to write it?
Mainly because of the HIV miracle that happened to me, and I really do consider it a miracle. I wanted people to know there can be a second chance, that it can be a manageable disease. I thought that was more important than telling my story. At the same time I looked around me and I didn't see that era of the great ladies or that kind of show business except in revivals now and then. I thought it was a good time to remind people of what that era was all about. I've always gone by instinct. I don't sit and weigh is this the right time to do an 1890's musical or a show about two guys. I just go by my gut and my gut said this was the right time to do this book.
It sounds like you're busier than ever. This holiday season you've got a TV musical, 'Mrs. Santa Claus' airing with your 'Mame' and 'Dear World' star Angela Lansbury. Tell me about the project.
I have always wanted to write an original television musical. A lot of my advisors discouraged me and said it's the same amount of work and you're not going to have a show that runs five or seven years, you're not going to reap as much benefit from it. They were talking financially. They did'’t understand that I was saying I wanted to write a television musical because I wanted to reach the widest possible audience with my work. Against anybody's better judgment I went to Angela and asked if she was interested and she was extremely enthusiastic. That's all I needed. From that day on it's been like a love-in, there hasn't been one bad moment that I can tell you about. It was fun and exciting and exhilarating from the very beginning. It airs December 6th.
You are also planning a new TV production of 'Mame'. Any further developments on that project?
No. I've put that on the back burner till 'Mrs. Santa Claus' is completely launched. I'm producing the album which has just come out as well as a song folio. Once I have a little vacation and calm down I'll get together with the powers that be and focus on 'Mame'. The part has to be cast just right.
Since you've never had any formal training in music where do you think your composer/lyricist genius comes from?
It's unquestionably genetic. There's no doubt in my mind. When I was six years old I started playing the piano fluently. I don't mean banging, I mean playing with two hands with correct chords without knowing anything about what I was doing. I was lucky and what I did do was develop that skill. Now I can talk a good musical game. On 'Mrs. Santa Claus' I would go to an orchestra reading and say, "No, that's an F minor sixth there." There wasn't a soul there who didn't know I went to Julliard because of the way I changed instruments and notes and whatnot.
It must have been a great thing to make your love your work and then to have that work so celebrated.
That's the best part of it. I have a lot of friends who get up most mornings and go to jobs they absolutely hate. I don't think that's what life is about and I'm so fortunate that I actually love what I do. It's very hard work, but I love every second of it. I consider that the great blessing of my life. And to receive letters from people that enjoy my work, what greater gift is there?
A great part of your skill is that your songs tend to enhance the characters rather than reiterate the plot. Is there a secret to writing a great Jerry Herman song?
It's part of the secret. The best example of that is to look at the book of 'Auntie Mame'. There is never a scene where she looks back, when the older Patrick has turned into the bigot and represents everything she hates, and thinks, "My God, what did I do? How did I bring up this person to become the very thing I've fought against all my life?" To me that was an emotional highlight of the play and there was nothing in the source material that said that, "Aha Jer, there's your chance to flesh out this character even more." 'If He Walked Into My Life' is one of my favorite compositions because it explains another part of her. Whenever I can find those moments I really feel I am doing my job well.
Is that what you mean when you say you consider yourself a musical playwright?
'Mame', 'Dear World', 'Hello Dolly', and 'Mack and Mabel' feature these larger than life female characters. Is that something that attracts you to a project or do your songs make the ladies larger?
Initially I'm attracted by that kind of character. I think it all started the night I saw 'Annie Get Your Gun' and there was this outrageous character on stage singing all those wonderful Irving Berlin songs. I was very impressionable, probably 15 or 16. It made me understand that was the kind of theater I liked because it also added the glamour to everything else I liked about musical theater. A man in a brown suit is not as exciting to watch as a woman in a gown. It's not just the costuming, I like female voices better. There's a vulnerability there. Larger than life female characters have always dominated out musicals from the Marilyn Miller era, through my shows, through 'Gypsy', which is my favorite musical.
In the early 80s you wrote the score for 'La Cage aux Folles'. Did the political implications of the project invigorate or intimidate you?
I did it as entertainment and because it was great source material not because I had anything militant to say. It was only during the course of writing it that I realized I was saying something important to me as a gay man and also important to the world. Right now it's playing more places than any show of mine. It's in five foreign countries and God knows how many dinner theaters in this country. It is loved by all kinds of audiences because it is about people and about love. It’s only after that that people realize it's about two men. It was done with great affection and I think that's why it makes its point so well.
Going along with that, what was your reaction when George Bush took the podium at The Republican National Convention to the playing of 'The Best of Times'?
Oh my God! Oh my God that was very funny!!! At first I was outraged because they didn't ask me and being a liberal Democrat, and I've never hidden the fact that I'm a liberal Democrat, I would have said no. Then I realized they weren't singing it and a published song of mine is allowed to be played by anybody. I don't have to say yes so I had no right to feel they'd done anything wrong, but I was still outraged. Then I realized how delicious it was to see people who did not stand for gay rights coming out and waving and smiling to a song from a musical about gay men. Then it started to tickle me.
Your career has been a real roller coaster ride. In the 60s you could do no wrong, in the 70s your career took a nosedive, then in the 80s soared to new heights with 'La Cage aux Folles', now you're very busy again. What has taking that ride taught you?
It's taught me not to be afraid when the roller coaster is at the lowest point, not to say it's over. I mean that both in a work sense and in a life sense. The same thing happened to me when I was diagnosed. I thought my life was over and now I'm back at the top of the roller coaster. I don't mean I'll never get depressed again, but I think I'll think twice before I say, "Life is over". I think it's taught me what I wrote years ago without really knowing what I was saying, that before the parade passes you by you have to take a second chance. And there are second chances.
Do you see a certain moment as the proudest in your career?
I would have to say George Hearn singing 'I Am What I Am' opening night at The Palace.
You come across as being such a genuinely nice guy; do you think being nice in such a rough arena as Broadway sometimes undermined you?
It made it more difficult for me in the old days because people were more apt to take advantage of my good nature. I'm smarter now. But you know Owen, I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't like people in this business who are though and overly self-assured and braggarts. Success has done awful things to them but I don't think it's done awful things to me. That's another thing I'm grateful for.
Broadway has always been a tolerant place for gays. Have you ever had any problems or has your talent been the sole measure by which you've been judged?
I have been so comfortable being gay in my atmosphere because honestly, fifty percent of the people I work with are gay. It's a very liberal business, it is not one that looks down on blacks or Jews or gays or Asians or anyone else. There's something else I'm thankful for. If I were doing something in North Dakota and I was the only Jewish gay man I would probably have a very difficult time, but not on 45th Street. I've been totally comfortable with my two minorities.
Do you have any predictions for the direction or future of the Broadway musical?
I don't because it's an enigma to me. I see it going in all kinds of different directions. I see it trying to reinvent itself, to find itself, then something like a 'Damn Yankees' comes along and sweeps the country again. There's a message there that there are still a lot of people who still love old-fashioned musicals and there are also a lot of people in love with the new operatic style…including me. I love 'The Phantom of Opera' and 'Les Miserables'. What I hope is that it becomes a musical theater that can support all these different kinds of work simultaneously.
'Hello Dolly' and 'Mame' were both film adaptations of your musicals. From your perspective what was the primary difference between the mediums?
A huge difference! The intent and style of both musicals were never captured on the screen. The songs were there, sort of, in 'Mame' and they were there in great style in 'Hello Dolly'. The intent though of 'Hello Dolly', the Gower Champion cartoon style, the wonderful poster colors, the feeling of a farce was not there. They tried to make it real and the differences were enormous and damaging. I had my differences with studio heads about casting because I don't think Hollywood casts for the right reasons. They cast for what they think will be box office and box office really does turn out to be whatever makes a good movie.
Congratulations on the recent London success of your failed 70s stateside musical 'Mack and Mabel'. Has there been any talk of a revival here?
It will happen. Now we've been touring the provinces of England for close to two years. Then we're going to do a big new Australian production. I'm being very cautious and going step-by-step making sure the new productions are done superbly. We'll take one of them to this country when we feel the time is right.
In Showtune you mention that 'Mack and Mabel' is you feel your best work. Can we go one step further and have you name the showtune you feel best embodies your skills?
I'm very proud of 'I Won't Send Roses' from 'Mack and Mabel'; 'If He Walked into My Life' from 'Mame'; and 'I Don't Want to Know' from 'Dear World'. I don't have a single favorite but there does seem to be one that pops out from every show.
What are your plans for the future?
Just last night I was at dinner with friends and we spent half the evening talking about properties that might be possible for me to do on Broadway, so I am very seriously looking for another Broadway musical. Also I'd like to do another TV musical.
Did any of the properties you discussed sound especially appealing?
No, I'll know it when I find it.
That gut instinct will kick in.
Thanks so much Jerry and all the best of luck to you with everything.