PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jerry Herman

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jerry Herman There's just no tune like a show tune, and Jerry Herman is back in New York City to prove it.

The composer-lyricist Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, La Cage aux Folles) has his hand in so many upcoming projects in Manhattan — and with New York collaborators — in 2003 that he's taken an apartment on Central Park South. Among new windows he's opening are the Off-Broadway revue, Showtune, which begins Feb. 18 at Theatre at St. Peter's and the benefit concert of Mack and Mabel, March 31. He's also looking ahead to the Broadway big time with a renewed relationship with some old bosom buddies, the Nederlanders, who'll produced Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles over the next several years. And he's in meetings with New Yorker Tommy Tune about Miss Spectacular, their musical planned for Las Vegas in 2004. Seems like Herman belongs here.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: You're a longtime Beverly Hills guy, but I hear you've taken an apartment in New York.
Jerry Herman: Yes! I've taken an apartment for an unlimited period of time. In fact, after we talk, I'm going to be running around to furniture places and I'm slowly putting it together. That's my hobby, so I'm not complaining. I enjoy doing that.

PBOL: That's what you first started doing, years ago — interior design.
JH: Yeah, that's what I thought I was gonna do for a living. So now I do it every chance I can, for myself.

PBOL: I always thought you maintained a New York place.
JH: No, I didn't. I have been staying at the Trump International and when all hell broke loose, which is what's happened to me and my future, and I realized I would have to be in New York for long periods of time, I really wanted something of my own, with some clothes in the closet and not have to go back and forth with a lot of baggage. I got a wonderful apartment at Central Park South, a couple of doors from the Plaza. It has wonderful views of the whole park, a real pre-war apartment that has some charm about it.

PBOL: You're getting a piano?
JH: Oh yeah. I'm getting the most unusual piano I've ever had, a German piano. It's a deco piano that looks like it's from a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movie. It has chrome legs. It has a beautiful, beautiful sound. It inspired me to do the apartment toward the deco period, very '30s. It just feels so good to have a home again in New York because it's been like 11 years since I gave up my townhouse. As you know, 7 or 8 things are happening to me at the same time. Rehearsals for Showtune begin on the first of February. PBOL: Tell me about Showtune.
JH: It's the most interesting way to do a retrospective of a body of work that I've ever come across. The man who did it is Paul Gilger. He came up with a way to thread my songs together and create their own little stories having nothing to do with the way they're done in the actual shows. It's very fresh and new.

PBOL: Do the numbers have "buttons," or do they bleed into each other?
JH: Both. Most of them go to applause, but there are several sections where songs just bleed into each other and there's one big applause at the end of that, so it's very varied. It's about relationships. Then, of course, we do songs sung by the six people, songs sung by two and three. It's beautifully staged by Joey McKneely.

PBOL: Did you know Paul Gilger before he created this?
JH: No, he called me and said he would love to send me an idea for a revue, and I said, "Sure." When I read the script — which is all lyrics, there's not a word of dialogue — I was just delighted. I made an immediate appointment to meet him. We got the most wonderful producer who has been behind this show for, oh, a decade. Jenny Sanchez has been masterminding how to do this and where to do this. We tried it in San Francisco, and it ran for two years. It was called Tune the Grand Up. It's had a lovely success and Jenny said it's time to do this in New York. We all decided we wanted to do it in the simplest and least pretentious way. We do it with six people and a gorgeous piano and the best show pianist I've ever heard, Bobby Peaco. He's an orchestra all by himself. It has the intimacy and charm of being in someone's living room. That's what we really wanted. I think it's a little jewel. I shouldn't be saying all this about my own show, but I can say this because I didn't put this together. It's not my concept, and I didn't stage it.

PBOL: A piano-and-voice concept allows us to rediscover lyrics.
JH: When I saw this in the little tryout in Nyack — in a larger theatre, but still — I sat in the audience every night and I realized that for the first time in my career every lyric of mine came racing across the stage at the audience and you heard every word. Suddenly, my lyrics became more important than my music. That really tickles me, because I am so often called "composer Jerry Herman" and they forget about a lyric like "Look Over There," they forget about the intricacy of the lyric to "Gooch's Song" — they forget they were written by the same person. It so delights me when my lyrics are in the forefront, and that's what this show really does.

PBOL: I'm always amazed by the lyrics of Irving Berlin, your hero, whose rhymes were so clean and perfect.
JH: Boy, he really knew what he was doing. I still am amazed at the economy that he used in all his songs. There isn't an extra word. He just hits you in the heart with the simplest work. He's a wonderful lyricist, but they think of Irving Belin's melodies because they're hummable.

PBOL: Is Joey McKneely (Smokey Joe's Cafe, The Life) new to Showtune as of the Nyack tryout in fall 2002?
JH: Yes. We had the great and unusual good fortune of having a 10-year out of town experience where we were able to hone it and make it as clean as possible. It played in London, with a different title, and got gorgeous reviews there and played in Sacramento. It played two different places in San Francisco. Tune the Grand Up was a version of this show. We improved it by adding another song and taking something away...

PBOL: Are there any songs from your new Las Vegas show, Miss Spectacular, in Showtune?
JH: No. I wanted that to really be new and fresh when it opens next year in Las Vegas. I continue working with Tommy Tune, who's directing Miss Spectacular. We'll be going back and forth to Vegas to oversee the building of a theatre space in a hotel there.

PBOL: Tell me about the Mack and Mabel concert. Is this the New York premiere of the revised script you and Jon Wilner and Arthur Allan Seidelman have been aiming toward Broadway?
JH: No, actually, there is no dialogue in this one. It's a concert. It's the one that we did in London about six years ago [not to be confused with the full staging in London] — it uses a different star for each song. There are many different Macks and many different Mabels. There was a full London production of Mack and Mabel and that script is our new script, which was done by Francine Pascal. That's ready to be done. But GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis] wanted to do a concert, and I said, "Sure." The most exciting thing for me is to have the Rockettes do "Hundreds of Girls." We're looking to do a production of Mack and Mabel in another city, like the old tryout days. We would like to do one good theatre city and have the ability to cross every "t" and dot every "i."

Jerry Herman.
Jerry Herman.