In early 1960, following a performance of his revue Parade at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village, 28-year-old Jerry Herman — the future composer-lyricist of Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles — was playing exit music on the piano (yes, he was his own band) when he was approached by a well-dressed man bearing a business card. The stranger, Gerard Oestreicher, was looking for a songwriter for a musical he wanted to produce on Broadway. Forty-eight years later, in April 2008, in anticipation of DRG Records' re-release of the original cast album of Milk and Honey — the musical that came of that meeting — Herman reflected on the creation of his first Broadway show, which marked his graduation from topical revuer to musical dramatist. And Broadway legend.
This conversation between Herman and Playbill.com managing editor Kenneth Jones first appeared in the liner notes of DRG's 2008 reissue of the original cast album.
You were playing piano at the Players Theatre when the stranger — producer Gerard Oestreicher — approached you?
Jerry Herman: It was so out of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie, somebody coming up to a piano-player and saying, "I'm going to be doing a musical on Broadway next year and I'd like to talk to you…" I didn't really take it seriously, I thought this is some strange guy. But he handed me his card, and called the next day and made an appointment and I went. And he was for real. He was a major real-estate person. [Oestreicher later owned Broadway's Uris Theatre, now called the Gershwin.] He wanted to produce a show about the young nation of Israel, which was just 12 years old at the time.
JH: He said, "Do you know anything about Israeli music?" And I said, "Oh, yes, I know everything about it," and of course I knew nothing about it. [Laughs.] But I told him I came from a Jewish home. I frankly really went into this blindfolded — I had no idea what music sounded like in Israel, or anything about Israel. He sent me with a book writer [Don Appell], who I had never met, into Israel and we were really wined and dined by the Israeli government because they wanted good publicity about the new country.
You and Don Appell had your first conversation about the plot of the show on the airplane overseas, right?
JH: On the airplane! There were a couple of ladies on the airplane, traveling together, and laughing and very joyous. Don said to me, "What about a group of widows going to Israel to look for men?" I loved the idea and we started talking and a vague plot was launched on the plane. It came out of the moment.
When we got there everybody said "Shalom!" to us — when we arrived, "Shalom!"; when we left, "Shalom!"; and "Shalom!" when we got up in the morning. So I said, "Well, here's a great idea for a song."
Did you know immediately that it might be the opening number?
JH: No…I just knew that there was a wonderful song about using that word. It became a very, very integral part of the show and the way [the main characters] met. [The show] wasn't even going to be called Milk and Honey at the beginning, it was going to be called Shalom.
The trip to Israel was vital to the writing process?
JH: It was a great, joyous occasion: going there and being treated so royally and seeing green popping up all over this barren land. It was very inspiring.
Did Oestreicher want the show to be all optimism, a love-letter to Israel?
JH: He wanted a musical, basically a musical comedy, but I said to Don, "Everything about this place is not perfect." I had already written the song called "Milk and Honey" as a kind of an anthem, and I said, "I can't just present this song because it's going to look like we were hired by the government to do a commercial for them. I have to have another point of view." And I wrote the counterpoint after I wrote the first song — "the honey's kind of bitter and the milk's a little sour..." That made it real for me. It was sung by an Israeli [character, played by Juki Arkin]: He wasn't completely satisfied with everything that was going on over there. That took the curse off trying to make it a love letter.
In Robert Weede's song, "Like a Young Man," he sings that "with the power of a boy" he would "guard the border if I have to" and "in the blaze of the sun I can handle a gun like a toy." It puts the story is a real place, with stakes.
JH: Yes, yes. I now look back at the work I did in Milk and Honey. I was 28 or 29. I am amazed that I was able to write "Let's Not Waste a Moment" and "Like a Young Man" and get into the head of people who were much older than my parents. That's amazing to me now. It wasn't then because it was my job. When I look at it now [in 2008, at age 76] that stuff moves me. That's the thing about Milk and Honey that I am most proud of: That I was able to do that, really not knowing what it felt like [to be past age middle-age]. "Let's Not Waste a Moment" is what I would have written right now at the age I am: You say, "Oh, look, another moment's gone…"
I now understand the lyrics that I wrote years ago. At this moment in my life, they have come to mean something very special to me because I am that character.
There is a grown-up sound to the score. You wouldn't guess it's by the same composer who wrote satiric revue songs for I Feel Wonderful, Nightcap and Parade, your Off-Broadway revues.
JH: I had the freedom of doing anything I wanted to do — experimenting. The songs started coming out semi-classical in many ways, and that's what led us to using two opera stars [Robert Weede and Mimi Benzell]. I had started to write and I had written very rangy songs that really required a powerful voice. That's where [the idea of casting] Robert Weede came from.
How did you and Don Appell come up with the leading lady characters of the plot — Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon as feisty widow Mrs. Weiss and Mimi Benzell as the yearning widow Ruth?
JH: We discussed "types." When we started to talk about the group of widows, I said, "One should be a really hefty woman…and a little skinny one, who was sort of the meek one…and then Molly, the ring-leader." I remember saying to Don, "We should have a really beautiful dark-haired woman who would remind me of my mother." She was called Ruth after my mother, who was a beautiful dark-haired, very American woman. Then the "types" formed a story of romance between a married man [Weede] and a widow [Benzell] who was traveling with these women to forget the sadness of having lost her husband.
Molly Picon was the comic "B" plot, and by all accounts she stopped the show nightly.
JH: They loved Molly Picon finding a man — Mr. Horowitz. That was an adorable addition that was really the audience's high point. The tango-kissed "Hymn to Hymie" is a five-minute one-act play on the cast album.
JH: From the read-through in New York, before we got it orchestrated and onto a stage, everybody would come in and listen to that and see this Yiddish comedienne do that number. It was a true show-stopper.
Tell me about Molly Picon.
JH: Just an adorable, sweet lady who reminded me of my own grandmother. We went to see Molly when we were putting it together — Gerry Oestreicher, Don Appell [and Gerry's wife] Irma Oestreicher, who is a wonderful, wonderful lady who was very much a part of this whole process. We all went to a theatre in New Jersey where Molly Picon was playing — a play. She was ironing in the first scene. It was the first time I had seen her on a stage, but I had met her before that. I sang her "Shalom" at the Oestreicher apartment. There she was, in the theatre in the wilds of New Jersey, and she was ironing, and she sang, "Shalom…ya da ya dad da da…" — she sang a couple of phrases and we all just screamed! That's the kind of woman she was. She was a darling — very lovable, a woman that the whole cast would take into their hearts. She was like the stage mother of all of us.
She was not nervous about doing Broadway musical?
JH: Oh, God, no. She was a really tough professional and wanted to rehearse all the time. [For Milk and Honey, Picon was nominated for a 1962 Tony Award in the category of Best Actress in a Musical.]
In your autobiography "Showtune," there's a reference to Picon doing a somersault after a number.
JH: That was her trademark. She would do that at the end of a big number in her vaudeville days. We rehearsed the show — of course there was no [somersault] in it — and when we started previews at the Shubert in New Haven, the applause was so deafening at the end of "Hymn to Hymie" that [director Albert Marre] came over to me and said, "Why don't we put her trademark somersault at the end of this number?" I said, "It's fine with me, but what does it have to do with —" And he said, "We're a musical comedy, we can do what we want." We added the somersault, which only made the audience crazier! So it remained.
Up to this time, your revue songs had been performed with only piano or a small combo. Milk and Honey marked the first time you had heard an orchestra on your songs. Was the sitzprobe in New Haven or New York?
JH: New Haven. Can you imagine? Here I was…actually playing the piano every night and every matinee because I couldn't write all the stuff out. I was so thrilled when I added a bass and percussion to my piano for the revue. I thought, wow, what a sound this is! To go from that to being in New Haven, which was only months later, and hearing Hershy Kay, who was one of the great orchestrators. Hershy Kay orchestrated Candide with Bernstein! [It was] very, very glorious…for me to sit in a rehearsal room with 26 or 28 musicians — I think it was 28, we had a big orchestra — and hear those orchestrations! It was astonishing. I went through a box of Kleenex. It really hit me. It was the first time that I was listening to not only an orchestra, but the "real thing": the Broadway sound. How were you treated by the veterans of the creative team?
JH: [I was] treated like a veteran by Alby Marre, our director. He didn't treat me like I had come from a revue in Greenwich Village. He treated me like an equal. He would always ask Don and me if we had any suggestions. It made me feel like part of the team, like a professional.
What was your interaction with Hershy Kay?
JH: It was intimate. I told Hershy Kay that I didn't know the first thing about how to write down what I had [created] and he said to me, "All you need to do is play it for me your way and tell me what emotion you feel and what things you want, and what figures you want." I was playing little orchestral figures with the left hand. He wanted to capture all that. So I immediately felt like I had a true collaborator in Hershy — and he was not just going to take a couple of notes that I had written and do his own thing. He was so respectful of the work that it became even more of a thrill, that first hearing, because I heard my little figures and my little odd chord structure. He kept everything that I played for him.
Since you don't write music out, what was the technical process of music being documented?
JH: There was a musical director, Max Goberman, who wrote lead sheets out. I knew the names of chords, so I would say, "No that's an F minor sixth," and I made sure all that was correct. But Hershy didn't need anything but me playing for him. He used a tape recorder. So he worked with my piano in his ears, and fortunately, I play well and completely.
He taped on a reel-to-reel?
JH: Reel-to-reel. We rehearsed in New York [and he taped me in a rehearsal studio] during the last week of rehearsal, when everything was set. The show was semi-frozen and he went off and did his business and came to New Haven where it was put together. Actually, 95 percent of what he had already written stayed forever. We added another number for Molly ["Chin Up, Ladies"] because the audience adored her so much. I wrote it in New Haven and played it for [Hershy Kay] in New Haven. That's really the only major work we did.
Mimi Benzell lost an Act Two number on the road — a ruminative soliloquy about Ruth's romance with a married man. It was reduced down to a reprise of the Act One number, "There's No Reason in the World."
JH: We did it for, I'd say, a week. She was a very good lady and very smart and she said, "I can show the same emotion with [a reprise of ] 'There's No Reason in the World'," which is a song she loved particularly, that she didn't get to sing in Act One. [The reprise is not heard on the cast recording.] So, she loved the idea of paring that down, it was fine with her.
In general, was Milk and Honey a "quick write" for you?
JH: Yes, it was. It was a quick write because the excitement in my head and my heart was palpable. I think I wrote "I Will Follow You" in about 15 minutes. I know that I wrote the basic "Milk and Honey" song in an hour at the very most. Finding the places for songs was the biggest job. I wanted to make sure I was hitting the emotion of the particular scene on the head, and not writing about something extraneous. I wanted the music to top the scene. Don was a very simpatico collaborator who helped me find the right places and the right tone. I wrote this all on an upright piano that was my mother's piano in an apartment on East Tenth Street. Are there a lot of trunk songs from Milk and Honey? Was there any "fat"?
JH: No. I have trunks songs from every other show, but I don't have one from Milk and Honey.
Tell me about the hora. To my ear, it's one of the most exciting instrumentals captured on a cast album of the 1960s.
JH: Donald Saddler is a great choreographer, period. He was one of the great heroes of Milk and Honey and was not nominated his choreography. That has always bothered me, because when he heard the hora, he said, "Jerry, just wait 'til you see it." When I went to see rehearsals and he started to do the dance — which was really, really as masculine and as powerful as any choreography I've ever had in a show of mine or seen — I just knew that was going to be a great experience [in the theatre]. When we were in Israel we saw a lot of hora. Donald Saddler really captured that.
In the creation of the hora music, did you play musical ideas for the music department?
JH: Oh, yeah, I would play at rehearsal. I played all kinds of things and then our dance music arranger, Genevieve Pitot, embellished everything.
Tommy Rall's "I Will Follow You" included a dance, the music of which is not heard on the cast album.
JH: [Donald] did extraordinary choreography for Tommy Rall, who was suddenly so admired by the audience that [the producer] put his name on the marquee under the three stars. It was very, very earned by him. He was a terrific singer and dancer. "I Will Follow You" was another show-stopper.
If Milk and Honey didn't come along for you, do you think you would have written your other shows?
JH: I don't think it would have happened as quickly as it happened. Milk and Honey certainly gave me that push, that start. Being nominated for a Tony Award [in 1962, in the category of Best Composer, a category now known as Best Score], I'll never forget the night my name was called out with [Frank Loesser] and Richard Rodgers…to hear my name called out with those guys just put me away. I was still this boy from Jersey City. I hadn't changed. It was an extraordinary adventure, filled with love. Follow Playbill.com managing editor Kenneth Jones on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.