Herman, of course, famously wrote songs for the musical Mame, which celebrated a bigger than life lady the same way his Hello, Dolly! did. Herman, 71, is currently shuttling between East Haddam, CT, and New York City, where he is putting his hand in two revivals of his work: A revised version Mack & Mabel (for Goodspeed Musicals' Goodspeed Opera House) and La Cage aux Folles (for Broadway's Marquis Theatre).
"It's so rare that you get to work on two shows you're really fond of, simultaneously," Herman told Playbill On-Line. "I'm a little worn out from it, but it's been a very, very exciting time."
Mack & Mabel was his 1974 flop with a score that fans cherish ("I Won't Send Roses," "Tap Your Troubles Away" and "Time Heals Everything"). Currently in previews at Goodspeed, the tale of silent-movie makers Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand has a new book by Francine Pascal, sister of the original show's late librettist, Michael Stewart.
Following several concert versions of the show and a 1995 London revival with a book that was somewhat altered, this run represents the world premiere of the more aggressively altered Pascal version.
"We learned that the new book works — really works," Herman said. "That's what we've been working on for 30 years, to have the book seamless and really tell the story. We had some places in the book that were really slow. It's just the opposite now: It's fast, the love story is way out front in focus, and that's what this is really about. It happens to be against the background of all that fun stuff, but it's really about a very unusual love story." What makes the love story "unusual"?
"He can't express himself," Herman said of movie director Sennett, who had a relationship with the troubled actress Normand. "He has to finally express his love for Mabel by actually breaking himself, financially, by making a film with her that he knows will not even be shown. He does it to keep her spirits up. It's the ultimate way to say, 'I love you,' even though he doesn't know how to do that. He does that in a very grand statement..."
The new script represents a lot of development and labor.
"It's been worth all the work," Herman said. "You feel that all the different times we've done it — including a London production, which was halfway to where we are now — has been worthwhile. I'm very grateful to Francine Pascal."
Mack & Mabel opens at Goodspeed Opera House Oct. 27. Visit www.goodspeed.org.
Meanwhile, La Cage aux Folles, now in rehearsals toward a first preview of Nov. 10, was a smash hit and didn't need fixing.
Or did it?
"We tweaked," Herman admitted, "but they were small. [Librettist] Harvey [Fierstein] has added some funny new lines — not that he had to! We had a chance to make it even better. I added some funny lines for Georges in the son's song, 'With Anne on My Arm,' and it's made a difference. Only people who really know the show well will see the difference, but a lot of those places are stronger and funnier, but basically it's the same."
No new songs were added and no cuts were made. "The score is intact!" Herman said.
Despite the fact that Herman's new show, Miss Spectacular, is being developed for Las Vegas (and, he said, is "another season or two away"), he seems aware that his career today is now about promoting and watching over revivals of his past shows (Mame and Hello, Dolly! will be revived by the Nederlanders in the next five years, they said).
When you tell Herman you'd like the see a brand new Jerry Herman show, he enthuses, "Me, too! If you give me a great idea...
Herman explained, "I'm so spoiled because I've had the best source material in the business: When you think about The Matchmaker [the source for Dolly!] and Auntie Mame and the film and play of La Cage, it doesn't get better than that! They're all pieces I would have crawled to musicalize! It's not easy to find material that you want to live with for the rest of your life."
Surely librettists must send him ideas for shows all the time.
"Are you kidding? My desk is filled with scripts to return to people!" he said. "Something has to just sing to me when I get to the fifth page — I have to know, Oh boy, this is exciting."
In addition to Mack & Mabel, Dear World is a show Herman has returned to with new collaborators, in the hope of making it land properly on stage. The show was a flop that won Angela Lansbury a Tony Award for playing the titular "Madwoman of Chaillot" of the source material by Jean Giraudoux. A revision by Goodspeed Musicals several years ago didn't lead to a major revival elsewhere.
Another Herman show, 1978-79's The Grand Tour, is little known today, though it yielded the ballad "Marianne" as well as the anthems "I Belong Here" and "I'll Be Here Tomorrow."
"I would like would like to revisit The Grand Tour, frankly," Herman revealed. "Again, it's based on a very good play by S.N. Behrman, and I think could be re worked a bit."
Is there talk about revising the show?
"If you start it," Herman said, "we'll take it from there. When I hear 'Marianne' and 'I Belong Here' and 'You, I Like' I think, Oh my God people don't know those songs. Of course, 'I'll Be Here Tomorrow' I adopted it as my own song — my credo."