I have a confession to make," Jerry Herman told a couple of Carnegie Hall audiences recently. "All these years that I've been writing Broadway musicals, whenever I've had to write a real hit-'em-in-the-gut show tune, I always pictured it in the voice of Judy Garland. Invariably, my work came out more theatrical and exciting because of that little trick. So I've come here tonight with this special lyric, not only to honor the greatest entertainer of this century but to say thank you to Judy for all the years she has been my secret muse." With that, he walked to the piano and socked across his "That's Entertainment" rewrite: "For years, there's a debt I have owed/To the girl from the yellow-brick road . . ."
That admission explains a lot about the primal pull of Herman's melodies, the way he angles his songs over the rainbow. And, now that he mentions it, it's not hard to imagine Garland gloriously tearing into "Time Heals Everything." Or "Song on the Sand." Or "I'll Be Here Tomorrow." Or "I Don't Want to Know." Or "I Won't Send Roses." Or . . .
These numbers, and 26 others, now parade in an intimate musical at the Booth Theatre called An Evening with Jerry Herman, starring the maestro himself, with Lee Roy Reams (who also directed the Evening) and Florence Lacey. The verb "parade" is used advisedly, since the songs all follow a show called Parade, which Herman did Off-Broadway in 1960 and which, for 95 performances, starred Dody Goodman and Charles Nelson Reilly.
As luck would have it, producer Gerard Oestreicher caught one of those 95, and it convinced him that 27-year-old Herman was just the man to write the songs for Milk and Honey. Did Herman know he was up to that task? "I didn't," he shoots back. "I was just brave because this producer trusted me. He told me he was doing a Broadway musical set in Israel. I said, 'I can absolutely do it. I know all about Israel.' And I knew nothing about Israel." Oestreicher remedied this by sending him and the book writer, Don Appell, there to get ideas for the show. The first idea came the day they set foot on Israeli soil. "Everywhere I went, I heard people saying Shalom. Whether they said hello or goodbye or thank you, they used the same word, and when I asked what that meant, they all gave different answers. I thought, 'What a wonderful idea for a song!' 'It means bonjour, salud and skoal and twice as much as hello' became my lyric."
Milk and Honey ran for 543 performances and established Herman's beachhead on Broadway. By his math, it was the first of eight shows there (Jerry's Girls, a previous revue in which a starry trio of divas leafed through The Jerry Herman Songbook, is counted as nine, and the current opus makes ten). Songs from seven shows are included in the present mix. He skipped the three numbers he added to A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine "not because I don't love those songs but because we are limited on time, with the stories I tell and the more famous songs we do."
You can be sure the stories he tells on the legendary eccentric producer of his Hello, Dolly! come up on the side of the angels. "I don't say anything negative about David Merrick. I talk about him breathing down my neck when I wrote 'Before the Parade Passes By,' but, because he was breathing down my neck, I wrote a very good song."
Merrick was impressed with Herman's work on Milk and Honey and wholly conned by the songwriter's crash course on Israel. "He called me to his office and said, 'I'm very interested in you, but I don't think you're American enough to do Dolly.' For a guy whose parents were both teachers in the New York school system, those were fighting words. So, over a week, I wrote four songs -- three of which were 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes,' 'I Put My Hand In' and 'Dancing.' Then I went to see him on Monday morning with a girl singer, and we performed the songs, and he said, 'Kid, the show is yours.'"
The fastest song he ever wrote, he says, was the title number in Mame. "I wrote it in 25 minutes -- the entire thing, all the choruses -- because I was so excited about the idea of spoofing the Old South. 'You make the bougainvillaea turn purple at the mention of your name' was one of the first lines I wrote. Then, it just poured out of me. I was in a very prolific state at that time because I'd just written the whole score, and this was the last song. Sometimes, I struggle over songs just like everybody else. I remember 'Open a New Window,' from the same score, took a very long time. I would keep going away from it and then coming back to it until it was finally finished." Being a professional hyphenate, Herman can't say if he is led by the music or by the words. "I do both simultaneously, so I don't know. I don't think in terms of music or in terms of lyrics. I build my songs like a jigsaw puzzle and write both together." The only constant is that Garland throbbing and soaring in his ear. "I wasn't kidding when I said I came to Carnegie Hall to thank her. When I had to write 'It's Today,' the opening number in Mame, I would hear her voice. I'd go, 'Light the candles,' and I'd hear that voice. It always managed to make my work better."
It takes a specific project to get that Garland voice going in Herman's head, and his slate has been clean since La Cage aux Folles (save for a 1996 TV special for Angela Lansbury called "Mrs. Santa Claus"). "I'm looking for another show, but it has to be material that really turns me on. I need a great story and great characters. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been mentioned to me, and it is a very valid idea, but I don't really know it well enough to know if it's full enough a story for a musical."
Last month, 18 days after his 65th birthday, the far-from-retiring tunesmith debuted as a Broadway performer -- a remarkable feat considering he's HIV-positive and only eight months past major heart surgery. "My health's excellent now," he beams. "I've conquered two major illnesses in my lifetime, and I'm grateful. The real reason I'm doing this show is to celebrate my good health. I want to say I'm well -- and I'm still here."
And what can audiences expect to take away from An Evening With Jerry Herman? "I want them to hum all the way home," declares the title player. The way he figures it: "They're going to hum on the way in, so they're certainly going to hum on the way out."
-- By Harry Haun