Jerry Herman discusses his new digital CD collection, working with Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Angela Lansbury, and Ethel Merman, creating La Cage Aux Folles, and possible new productions of Mame and Dear World.
THEATERMANIA: How did this collection come about?
JERRY HERMAN: Masterworks Broadway approached me about re-releasing and remastering all my albums, and I didn't know what to say at first. How do you express your thanks for this gift, because what it's really doing is keeping my work alive for new generations. And is there anything better for a songwriter to know that new ears will be hearing all this music for years to come.
TM: One of the highlights of this collection is that it contains the first-ever release, in any format, of the London production of Hello, Dolly! with Mary Martin. What took so long?
JM: In the old days, I think RCA felt having Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey on recordings was enough. They didn't want more competition. Today, we like having all these different versions of shows. And I have to tell you that Mary was delightful in the role. She had a very sly, charming sense of humor and got her laughs her own way. I think that's what's so wonderful about the role of Dolly -- that every actress could leave her imprint. Ethel Merman was my dream, and she was to faint over; she just added Ethel to the role. I think some people thought I was crazy to cast Pearl Bailey, and then they saw her and changed their minds. Pearl was a darling; she would stay in her little dressing room right up until curtain and she would tell me hilarious stories about her life and career -- and then there would be this impatient knock on the door from the stage manager. Of course, Miss Channing is still Dolly, and she always will be. She gave so much of her life to that show.
TM: Speaking of Dolly, it's gotten so much buzz from the music being used in the animated film Wall-E. How did that happen?
JH. I signed a little contract that just said Disney wanted to use pieces of Dolly for this film. I didn't question it at all; I figured it would be background music. So I willingly and gladly gave it to them, and then forgot about it. When they invited me to the opening, I thought isn't that nice of them to remember me. And then, when I heard the opening of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," I was blown away. What really delighted me was being in this big movie theater with lots of kids and not only were they fascinated by this superb film, but they were listening to work I wrote 45 years ago.
JH: Yes, there's a lot of talk about another production of those shows. But I always have to approve casting on all first-class productions; otherwise you end up with well-meaning people who can't sing the score or have enough comedic flair. I'm always very kind to anyone who expresses interest, but they're not always right for the part. And it may be old-fashioned of me, but the original was so well done that you want to keep those exquisite dances. I don't like seeing new choreography of my shows. Someday, I'll find the right person for Dolly or for Mame. That part is really hard to cast, because it needs that lady that was inherent in Angela Lansbury. Everybody argued with me about casting Angela. So I told people to bring her to my apartment and I taught her two songs, and then she went out and wowed six people at the Winter Garden. She was also a terrific dancer, and what really convinced those people she was Mame was watching her dance "That's How Young I Feel."
TM: This also marks the 25th anniversary of La Cage Aux Folles, and as part of the collection you talk about how "I Am What I Am" came about. Can you elaborate?
JH: I had written most of the score, and Harvey Fierstein [who wrote the book] and Arthur Laurents [who directed the show] and I met in my townhouse on East 61st Street to work on the show. Harvey read his last scene in Act I, and we were suddenly moved because in the middle of this passionate speech as Zaza, he said "I Am What I Am." So I asked Harvey if I could take those five words for a song, and then I told them to go home immediately because I was so excited to get to work. I worked the rest of the day and evening on that song, and then they came back the next morning and I played the exact arrangement you hear on the CD. And they just fell off their seats. I consider it the true highlight of my career, because the song encompasses everything that show is about in three minutes. To this day, I am always moved whenever I hear it; it's my heart and soul. And do you know that La Cage plays in more places than any of my shows; it's now in Slovakia, Norway, Argentina, some of the strangest places all over the world. Of course, when I wrote it, I felt it would have limited appeal because of its subject matter -- but that didn't bother me, because it was touching and theatrical.
TM: Which of your shows would you most like to see revived?
JH: I want to see a new production of Dear World. It's so in tune with what's happening today, about being "green" and environmentally correct. I have also reinstated two songs. There's "A Sensible Woman," which was written as the opening number but never used. I cut it incorrectly; I didn't know what I was doing. And there's a song called "Just A Little Bit More," which is by the bad guys. I have to admit I had a hard time getting that show to cohere originally. But I think I got it right.
TM: Will we ever hear a new Jerry Herman musical?
JH: No. I have retired as songwriter for Broadway. I hear what's being written, and I am not part of that world. I don't want to make the mistake of trying to buck trends. Most important, I don't want to try even if I could. I feel like knowing when to leave is very difficult, but very important also. But I love doing concerts, like the ASCAP one coming up on August 23 at the Old Globe. And next March, the Kennedy Center is doing a three-night version of the tribute concert they did for me in London this year, and I can't wait. They're my interest today.