Jerry Herman is more than just a famous and beloved composer of Broadway musicals. He's a brand name, a representative of more boisterous, sunnier times in American musical theatre. Just think of modern musicals and their subject matter -- e.g., Parade, Titanic, The Civil War, Chronicle of a Death Foretold -- and you start to wonder if masochism and angst have become the keywords for the Great Grey Way.
Okay, these and other recent tuners have indisputable virtues and often sophisticated techniques. But now think of a couple of Jerry Herman musicals -- Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Milk and Honey, La Cage aux Folles - and even Herman's detractors can't deny the opulence, breeziness and tunefulness those titles convey. Even Herman's Mack & Mabel, about a Hollywood romance doomed by ego and drug abuse, leavens its sad subject matter with California sunshine, Keystone Kops and the tale of a poor girl from the other side of the tracks becoming a movie star.
Though Mack & Mabel proved a rare Herman flop, a revised and highly-acclaimed London production -- not to mention the Bernadette Peters/Robert Preston Broadway cast recording -- revived serious interest in the piece. Now Massachusetts' Barrington Stage Company will present an even-further-revised version with Herman's blessing, starting June 22. Herman, who just collected a Theater World Award for his Broadway revue earlier this season, An Evening With Jerry Herman, will be involved in the MA M&M make-over.
Playbill On-Line: Certainly there's been continued interest from the theatre community in seeing Mack & Mabel finally reach its potential. Have you got the bug now, too?
Jerry Herman: Well, book writer Mike Stewart's sister, Francine Pascal, has again revised the book for it. It is superb. It is really tight and really strong... a further revision that uses some of the changes made in London. The London production worked, but this really works. Francine's a marvelous woman and determined to fully realize her brother's work. It's really some of his best writing, and people don't realize what good work there is in it. She's really smoothed it out, plus it's more romantic and faster.
I'm going to work with Julie Boyd the director at the end of June for a few weeks. I think that'll start a whole new rash of Mack & Mabels all over the country.
PBOL: We've spoken a few times over the past couple of years, and every time we ask if you're working on something new, you say you'd like to be, but nothing's really captured your imagination. People kept wishing you'd do Pocketful of Miracles, but you've tabled that one. So... are you working on anything new?
Jerry Herman: YES! I'm working on a new musical for Las Vegas. Steve Wynn has commissioned a musical from me, and he's building a theater for it. The show is called Miss Spectacular, and it's going to open at a new theatre in the Mirage Hotel in the year 2000.
I'm very excited. I've already written five songs -- and this is the first writing I've done in several years. I'm having the best time!... Robert Freedman [the TV "Cinderella"] is writing the book, and as always, I'm writing the music and the lyrics. It's s about a girl from Indiana who's a finalist at a Las Vegas contest for "Miss Spectacular." It's a lovely story. It combines the spectacle expected from Las Vegas with a very human and very touching love story, which has never been done before. Most of the Vegas shows are these mindless revues, like "Jubilee." This is Broadway style musical with very lovely characters and big, big productions. Frank Galati [Ragtime] is directing, and we're talking to the greatest set designer in the world. It's a very classy project. And it's one of those times when songs start to pour out of me, and I can't stop them. That's when I know I'm doing the right thing. It's happened twice in my career: with Mame and La Cage Aux Folles. I could not stop the music. PBOL: We're curious as to who started the music? In other words, who was the mentor who started it all for you?
JH: Without any hesitation: Irving Berlin, Irving Berlin, Irving Berlin. When my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun, I was at a very tender age, probably 11. It had such a profound effect on me. To come home that night and be able to retain four or five of those gorgeous songs. And then to go to the piano and play them! I remember turning to my mother and saying, "This is what I wanna do!" Nothing that's ever happened to me had as much influence on my life as that. It made me fall in love with this form of the simple melodic musical. I have been trying to be a champion of that ever since.
PBOL: Many theatre buffs would say you're the only one left. Why are the new librettists/composers getting it wrong?
JH: I've noticed that a lot of the young people are trying to imitate Steve Sondheim. There is only one Steve Sondheim. He is a genius, and you can't try and be second-rate Sondheim. That's the big mistake I find with a lot of the new work. It sounds like watered-down Sondheim. Why copy him when nobody does it like him? I understand their wanting to be Sondheim, but they have to find their own voices.
PBOL: By the same token, you have no trouble expressing your admiration and appreciation for a lot of your fellow theatre composers.
JH: I love them. I like an eclectic musical theatre where there's room for everything; not just one or two styles of writing. A Frank Wildhorn musical across the street from a Stephen Sondheim from a Kander & Ebb makes for a much more exciting Broadway than if they were all similar. These are very talent men. Andrew Lloyd Webber has made me hum for twenty-five years.
It really disturbs me when I hear people knock these contemporaries of mine because they're melodic. Thank God they're melodic! That's what we're missing. We miss going to a musical and being able to hum at a Wildhorn or a Herman musical.
I want all these people to do good work and for the form to continue. I'm seeing the form disappearing, and it makes me very unhappy. Now, there are a million reasons it's more difficult to get a musical on today than when I was starting. You need $10,000,000 now, whereas Milk and Honey cost $300,000. The finances are outrageous and very much in people's way. They're also very much afraid of failure. Critics are very tough and, with several exceptions, very unwilling to allow young people to make some mistakes.
PBOL: So help them avoid some mistakes. What's the best piece of advice you have on how to write a theater song?
JH: Be true, first and foremost, to the tone of the piece, to the character you're dealing with. A good piece of theater music is really a continuation of the dialogue of a musical, if it's well done. It has to fit the mood and style of the entire piece. That's why Adam Guettel is so good; he knows how to do that. He knows how to keep the character in focus and the style of the piece in focus. He is one of our great hopes for the American musical theatre. I think he's an extraordinary talent.
PBOL: From Hello, Dolly! to La Cage, you've written some people's favorite all-time musicals. What musical by another composer do you most wish you'd written?
JH: Gypsy. I just think it's a perfect musical. A perfect score. Perfect lyrics. It thrills me. It appeals to the sense of theatricality in me.
-- By David Lefkowitz