Jerry Herman, 2009 Special Tony Recipient, Takes a Moment to Reflect on a Lifetime

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06 Jun 2009

Jerry Herman
Jerry Herman
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
If Jerry Herman were to write a Jerry Herman lyric about what he's feeling at the moment — in light of his 2009 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement — he would probably steal a line from Jerry Herman: "The best of times is now."

The 77-year-old composer-lyricist who won Tony Awards for his scores to Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, and was nominated for Mame, The Grand Tour and Milk and Honey, is more thrilled than Dolly, Mame and Albin combined. If a staircase happened to be handy, he might be strutting down it — beaming.

"It's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me, it really is," Herman told Playbill.com. "It doesn't get any better than this. That's an award from the people that I've worked with all my life. It's beautiful."

Herman said his acceptance speech at the June 7 Tony Award ceremony will be short and sweet, and that there will be a little surprise surrounding the presentation. He gave no hints.

Will Herman be performing one of his favorite songs, "I'll Be Here Tomorrow," from The Grand Tour?



"No," he said with a laugh, "my performing days are over."

That's not completely true. He makes appearances at concerts and has sat down recently for public conversations (with songs) with Michael A. Kerker, head of musical theatre for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

"We do something called 'The Red Chairs,' where we sit in two red chairs and he interviews me," Herman explained. "When we get to a specific song, a marvelous Debbie Gravitte or Jason Graae or Ron Raines comes out and sings that particular song with Don Pippin at the piano. It's a lovely format. Eventually, I get up and go to the piano myself."

Herman also plays piano for joy at his two California homes, when he's not keeping tabs on his "kids," as calls them — productions of his many licensable properties, including the revue Show Tune and the musicals Mack and Mabel and Dear World, both of which, like The Grand Tour, have been revised since they first played Broadway. (La Cage aux Folles is an Olivier Award-winning hit in its current London revival.)

"I just find myself at the piano, playing everything that I can think of," Herman said. Does he play the work of his musical hero, Irving Berlin? "Oh, God, yes. And Kurt Weill and Porter and even some classical things. I just love to play. And at this age it's good for my fingers to keep busy."

At the Palm Springs, CA, home he shares with Terry Marler, his partner of 11 years, there is a 61-foot swimming pool. "That's my exercise," Herman said. "I'm there a great deal of the time; I swim and swim and swim as often as I can."

Palm Springs real-estate-broker Marler also keeps him young. "He gets me through all of this," the composer explained. "It gets harder every year. You don't like to think of age as being a problem, and it's not yet with me, but it does get more difficult. And boy he's keeping me fit. In fact, ten minutes ago he had me up doing balancing exercises… He keeps my life going. He's responsible for laughter and companionship. He's just a great, great partner."

Common interests help solidify their relationship. Marler is passionate about the music of Jerry Herman, and Herman is passionate about architecture, design and homes.

Herman observed, "He has his own world and career, but it's something that I'm very interested in. If he sees a great piece of property he'll say, 'Come with me, I want to show you this.' If he were a stock broker or an accountant, I would still have the same feelings for him, but to be able to share his work, as he shares mine, is really a wonderful and unexpected treat. When you meet someone and become close and want to share your life, you don't really have a choice of what that person does."

The Nederlander Organization said in recent years that it was planning to produce Broadway revivals of the three "major" Herman shows: La Cage aux Folles (which they did in 2004-05), Hello, Dolly! and Mame.

Herman said that there's no progress yet on the latter two productions.

"We really haven't had a chance to sit together, and that's when things happen — when we're in the same room," Herman said. "Maybe this trip, after the Tonys, we'll be able to put our heads together and come up with some exciting thoughts about the two of them."

He admitted, "They are very difficult to cast, especially Mame, because that woman has to do everything: She has to be a lady, she has to be funny, she has to be a terrific singer and a very experienced dancer — and the right age and the right tone. For the Nederlanders, or for any producer, she has to have a bankable name."

La Cage aux Folles has been "my big surprise," he admitted. The romantic comedy about a showbiz family headed by two gay dads was not a sure thing when it was first produced in 1983, though it was a Tony-winning Best Musical smash on Broadway through 1987. The extraordinary social change — the exposure and acceptance of gay lives — of the past 25 years has helped the show to flourish around the world.

"Yes, I know that Dolly! and Mame will go on forever, I know that, but La Cage has taken its place with them," he said of his last Broadway score, which includes that infectious anthem "The Best of Times," a number that would have made Irving Berlin proud.

Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com.