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We Need a Little Jerry!

Jerry Herman talks about the new Off-Broadway revue of his songs and discusses future projects. logo
Jerry Herman surrounded by members
of the Showtune company
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
It's always a rewarding experience to have a conversation with Jerry Herman; one comes away feeling good, wishing that the man's enthusiasm could be bottled. And hearing Herman's songs -- 40 of 'em! -- on a New York stage again should help cheer audiences in these trying times. Showtune, a compilation of songs by the quintessential Broadway composer-lyricist, opens February 27 at the Theatre at Saint Peter's Church. Directed by Joey McKneely, the revue features Sandy Binion, Paul Harman, Russell Arden Koplin, Thomas Korbee, Karen Murphy, pianist Bobby Peaco, and Martin Vidnovic.


THEATERMANIA: Showtune isn't the same show as Tune the Grand Up, is it?

JERRY HERMAN: Yes, it is the same basic show, but it's much edited and newly staged by Joey McKneely. It did have a past as Tune the Grand Up, which was very successful for us. We ran in San Francisco for two years. The thing I love about it is that it uses my songs in different ways than I ever intended when I wrote them. It's a very clever idea that a man named Paul Gilger sent to me about 10 years ago. We wanted to do a show with one piano and six voices; [the latest edition] had a tryout in Nyack, and we're opening in a tiny theater in New York. I wanted it to be as though you were in my living room.

TM: How are some of the numbers programmed?

JH: Well, there's a section that we call "Battle of the Sexes" in which one guy sings "Dancing" to one of the girls and they become a couple. Then two other girls walk by and the guy sings "Hundreds of Girls." She's put off by that and she sings "Wherever He Ain't." The section also includes "It Takes a Woman," which riles up the three females.

TM: Did you change the title to match your autobiography?

JH: We changed it because everyone had trouble with the title, which isn't grammatically correct. It should be "tune up the grand." Of course, it comes from "It's Today" -- "Strike the band up, tune the grand up." [Ironically, the melody of "It's Today" is the same as that of "Showtune," which is from Herman's 1960 Off-Broadway revue Parade.] I changed the title to Showtune because it's always been my favorite word. That's why I used it as the title of my autobiography -- but the show has nothing to do with my life.

TM: Since the movie of Chicago is doing so well, is there any chance that we might get a movie of Mack & Mabel?

JH: Of everything I have, I think it's the best idea for a movie musical. That is my great dream. I think it could be the most perfect screen musical because it's about a filmmaker. Somebody like Rob Marshall could just fly with that. I always say, "If you live long enough, anything is possible." And I'm living longer than I ever expected.

Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters
in Mack and Mabel
TM: In your book, you mention that the age difference between Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in Mack & Mabel bothered some people.

JH: There were audience members who said they were uncomfortable when [the stars] kissed, because it was like a grandfather and granddaughter. Bob was getting on and Bernadette was so young. [Preston was 30 years her senior.] I had a long history with Bob; I ghost-wrote some songs for Ben Franklin in Paris and I wrote a special song for him when he did the film of Mame. He was a prince of a man, warm and loving, a total professional. Bernadette is an adorable creature -- very easy to work with, inventive, resourceful. Just a love. I'll tell you, they were both brilliant. But when we did the show in L.A. with people who were closer to each other in age -- Doug Sills and Jane Krakowski -- it was much more of a love story, and I liked that. Doug Sills really nailed the part. I would just love to see the show come back to Broadway, and I think it would be received with open arms.

TM: Of course, there's going to be a benefit concert...

JH: Yes, at Lincoln Center on March 31, through the auspices of the GMHC. Nathan Lane is out of it, unfortunately, because he's doing his Producers role in London. But we have Harvey Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Leslie Uggams, Debbie Gravitte, Doug Sills -- a wonderful group of people. And the Rockettes are doing "Hundreds of Girls." It's going to be an all-star hoo-ha. We did it that way in London and it led to a full production there.

TM: I understand that three of your musicals are coming back to Broadway.

JH: The Nederlanders are going to produce Mame, followed by La Cage aux Folles, followed by Hello, Dolly! [Herman's two Tonys were for the scores of Hello, Dolly! (1964) and La Cage aux Folles (1984), both of which also won the Tony as Best Musical.]

TM: Is it too soon to say who might play Mame?

JH: It really is. I need to sit with the director.

TM: Might the director be Tommy Tune?

JH: I would love that, but he's so involved now in Miss Spectacular that I can't take his head in another direction.

TM: When will Miss Spectacular open in Las Vegas?

JH: I would say a year and several months from now. They're redoing a space in the hotel [which Herman prefers not to name at the present time].

TM: Are TV-movies of Mame and Dolly still planned?

JH: Yes, I think both will be on TV.

TM: You once told me that, for you, Dolly will always be Carol Channing.

JH: You have to admit that Carol Channing is unique. Nobody says a line like "Eat out!" [Dolly's advice to Horace Vandergelder] the way Carol does. Nobody -- not Pearl [Bailey], not Ethel [Merman], and they were very right for the role. Pearl was delightful because she brought her own personality -- that "Oh, my feet are killing me, darling!" -- to the role and she was an absolute hoot. She was crazy as a fox but very loving to me; Pearl would lock me in her dressing room and tell me all these insane stories that would keep me in stitches for hours. And Merman, of course, was a memorable Dolly because of her innate strength and because of that voice. She was, for me, a very sweet, dear lady -- a marshmallow inside. That tough exterior is not the lady that I knew. I'm not putting down any of the Dollys; I thought they all were brilliant. But Carol made it an event.

TM: I hear that Mrs. Santa Claus, which you wrote for television, is becoming a Christmas Pantomime at the Palladium.

JH: Isn't that nice? A gentleman from London sent me a treatment and I thought it was terrific. We should see that in a year or two.

TM: The TV version reunited you with Angela Lansbury.

JH: She hadn't sung in 10 years. She said, "Jerry, I don't know if I can get the voice back to where you would like it, but I'm going to try." So she got herself a vocal coach. I went to see her about three weeks later to go over the stuff, and I marveled. It sounded like that lady from Mame! There's nothing she can't do. You get a thousand percent from Angela Lansbury.

TM: You say in your book that you love listening to show music and you mention the score from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. What other scores do you like?

JH: My all-time favorite is Gypsy. Some other favorites are Brigadoon, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, and Follies. I think Call Me Mister is a wonderful piece of material. And I love all the Kander and Ebb stuff -- I'm a real fan.

TM: You must be pleased to be so busy.

JH: Every day, I get a call about some new project. It's keeping me alive and feeling young. I'm just going to take my vitamins and I'll get through it! I'm also doing a series of ASCAP concerts for college kids called "The Jerry Herman Legacy Series." Karen Morrow, Paige O'Hara, Jason Graae, Don Pippin, and I go to colleges around the country and do a concert of my work; then we have symposiums and answer questions. In so many cases, 17 or 18 year olds have come over to us and said that this was the first time they'd heard real Broadway songs. It's maybe the most important thing that I'm doing because it keeps the flame burning.

The cast of Showtune performs "Mame."
(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
TM: It's a nice evolution from the time when you were a teenager and your mother insisted that you keep an appointment with Frank Loesser to play him your songs.
JH: Frank changed my life in the course of one afternoon. He was a terrific man. I listen to the title song from Guys and Dolls over and over again; what a piece of work that is, with those wonderful lyrics! And The Most Happy Fella knocks me out, especially "My Heart Is So Full of You." Frank would be thrilled at my success. People say, "What about the three shows [Mack and Mabel, Dear World, The Grand Tour] that didn't turn into hits?" Well, they were still rewarding experiences and they became cult favorites. This business has been so good to me.

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