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Sylvia Gets a Tony

Sylvia Herscher expects a 'great night' on June 4, when she receives her Special Tony Award. Lynda Sturner hears about her legendary theatrical matchmaking and dreams that pan out.

Sylvia Herscher, here with Marilyn Stasio
Sylvia Herscher, general manager, producer, publisher, agent, board member, and matchmaker to writers and composers, will receive a Special Tony Award on June 4. Starting as a production assistant for Jule Styne, she soon became his general manager. A William Morris agent in 1960, in 1966, she became head of the theater department of the Edward H. Morris Company, music publishers, and subsequently, head of the theater department of G. Schirmer. Among the many talents she worked with in her career were: Alexander Cohen, Jule Styne, Sidney Michaels, Muriel Resnick, Athol Fugard, William Gibson, Lee Adams, Charles Strouse, and Michael Bennett. Jerry Herman refers to her as the embodiment of all his leading ladies, "a woman who arranges things."

Her apartment was overflowing with congratulatory roses. She is indeed a much-loved member of the theatrical community. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

TheaterMania: When did you find out about the Tony?

Sylvia Herscher: I got a phone call and said, "Excuse me, I'll have to call you back." The man said, "Wait, I want to tell you about an award." I said, "That's very nice, but I'm in the middle of a meeting and will have to call you back in the morning." I hung up on him.

TM: You hung up on him?

Herscher: I got his number. I said that I would call back in the morning. I'm a lady. I called in the morning, and he told me--and that was fun. TM: Was it always theater?

Herscher: It was theater in high school, theater in college, out of college; it's been theater all the way, even today. TM: What is it in the theater that makes it so important to you?

Herscher: A wonderful place to lose myself, to make believe. My mother and father loved the theater. I got a lot of it from them. My mother had been an actress in the Yiddish Theater. There was a passion about theater around us. You absorb it.

TM: Tell me about some of your favorite people.

Herscher: I was Jule Styne's general manager. Did Mr. Wonderful, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Visit to a Small Planet, Say Darling.

TM: Was he tough to work for?

Herscher: He was the best thing that ever happened to me. Alexander Cohen introduced me. I became a production associate on Make a Wish and Pal Joey. I graduated to general manager. Charlie Baker, from the William Morris Agency, offered me a job, and within no time I was rolling. Eric Segal's Love Story was dedicated to me. I put together Dylan, Tchin Tchin, worked on Any Wednesday, The Blood Knot, Oh What a Lovely War, and Golden Boy. I was lured away by music publisher Edwin H. Morris to head the theater department. I started to work with Jerry Herman.
TM: Is that where you became "the matchmaker"?

Herscher: I put Ed Kleban together with Michael Bennett.

TM: Did you have any idea that Chorus Line was going to become what it did?

Herscher: Well everybody dreams, but the dream doesn't always pan out. This time it did. Michael Bennett was very, very gifted. We did Ballroom, Promises, Promises. After that, I was head of the theater department of G. Schirmer, a division of Macmillan Performing Arts, and continued to put together people and properties, including The Robber Bridegroom by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman (1976). When I was 70, I decided it was enough, and I came home and worked on my own, pro bono. One of the musicals I was working on is now finished and it's wonderful: Haunted, by Marilyn Stasio, with music by Steven Schoenberg and lyrics by Diane Seymour. The buzz is incredible.

TM: Was it difficult working in a man's world?

Herscher: When I was growing up my Mama and Papa said to me, "You can be and do whatever you want. All you need is a good education and have a passion for something." I never had a problem in any of the jobs. Alex Cohen and Jule Styne could care less. It was, "Just get the work done."

TM: What was the best experience you ever had in the theater?

Herscher: The most daunting was Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with Jayne Mansfield, who was no dumb blonde. She had an awesome sense for self-promotion. She appeared on stage in a white terry cloth wrap on a massage table. She was supposed to wear underwear but ... One of the stagehands said, "If she doesn't stop running around naked backstage, we'll go crazy." I got the press agent to get a column written saying how remarkable it is that Jayne Mansfield, who has never been in the theater, is so disciplined. She never comes late to a performance and her behavior backstage is impeccable. Jane read it and behaved like a dream for the rest of the run.

TM: What show gave you the most problems?

Herscher: Mack and Mabel. It was the best score. Dear World is another show that had enormous potential. It's getting a second chance at Goodspeed Opera House in November. In those days we went out of town, reworking a script in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington before you came to New York. Now it happens in regional theaters. The producers today do not buy from the page; they buy from the stage. I was in the glory times.

TM: Are you excited about the Tony Award?

Herscher: It will be a great night. There will be other great nights. I'm 87 years old. It's not over!

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