When Jerry Herman was 15, his parents took him to see Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. "I came home a changed human being," Herman says. "I remember thinking, 'What a gift this man has given me — how thrilling it would be to do something like that with my life.'"
That gift led Herman to a career as the composer of three Broadway classics: Mame, La Cage aux Folles and Hello, Dolly! At one point, he was the only composer–lyricist with three Broadway musicals that have run more than 1,500 performances each (Stephen Schwartz shares the record), and the only one with three Tony-winning versions of the same musical — the original 1983 La Cage (Best Musical) and the 2004 and 2010 revivals (Best Revival of a Musical).
He himself has won three Tonys, plus a special 2009 Tony for lifetime achievement. In December, he was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor.
Herman, 79, was raised in Jersey City. His parents ran a summer camp. Before he encountered Berlin and Merman, he had begun writing "not very worthwhile" songs. He credits his parents, and composer Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), with guiding his career: "Even though my father wanted me to take over the camp, my mother was determined to get someone in show business to listen to my work. Through her bridge club she was able to get me an appointment with Loesser. I was 17." Herman didn't want to go. "I told my mom I had not written great songs. She said, 'Would you please waste a half hour of your life?' I was with him two hours. He made me play everything. He called my parents, and turned my father around. Frank said, 'Let the kid try this. It's a tough business, and I can't guarantee he's going to make it, but I believe in him.'"
At his parents' camp, Herman directed musicals. "There's nothing better than Finian's Rainbow and Oklahoma! to see how musicals work." He studied theatre at the University of Miami. Then he came to New York, working Off-Broadway. His first big success was a 1958 revue, Nightcap.
"Producer Gerard Oestreicher saw one of my Off-Broadway shows. He was planning a Broadway musical set in Israel called Milk and Honey. I said I knew everything about Israeli music. I knew nothing." Milk and Honey (1961) was Herman's first Broadway hit.
"From then it was like lightning. Milk and Honey was responsible for David Merrick asking me to look at something called Matchmaker, Draft No. 1; a few years later I had Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing. That catapulted me into Mame, with Angela Lansbury."
In 1983 came La Cage, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, based on a play about a relationship between two gay men. "Even though I'm a gay man, I didn't write La Cage as a political piece. I was stunned by how much mail I got telling me the show had changed people's perceptions of gay men and women and how it made people proud to be gay. It has a permanent and special place in my heart, and has replaced Hello, Dolly! in the importance of my shows."
The current La Cage "has topped everything," Herman says. It stars Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer, is directed by Terry Johnson, and has "made me aware I don't have to have the spangles and the 30-piece orchestra" to be "more touching and more pertinent.s
"I always thought my tombstone would read, 'This is the man who wrote Hello, Dolly!' But that's not true anymore. I'm now better known for La Cage."