BWW Interviews: Jerry Herman Praises LA CAGE, Talks New MAME & More

By: May. 24, 2010
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Broadway legend Carol Channing is fond of telling the story about a group of Russian diplomats who came to see the original production of Hello, Dolly! in 1964. Although they spoke virtually no English, they sat through the show and visited with the star in her dressing room afterwards. Talking through an interpreter, they told her that they loved the musical because it was filled with so much optimism. Although they couldn't understand the lyrics, the ebullience of Jerry Herman's music allowed them to experience and enjoy what producer David Merrick touted as "the world's happiest musical".

Speaking with Jerry Herman in a recent phone conversation, found the composer/lyricist more buoyant than ever. He had just returned to California after attending the opening of his musical La Cage Aux Folles which is being revived at the Longacre Theatre. He was brimming over with enthusiasm for the production. "It's so different, it's its own thing," he said. "It's not what we've seen through the years but it's so right for 2010. It's funnier and more touching than it ever was before. What this production has done is to really accent the story and the three people: the two guys and the son. It's about them and its amazing how taking a few sequins away can make a show stronger."

Herman continues: "In 1983 we were expected to do a lavish, beautiful show. You know, with gorgeous Theoni Aldridge costumes and Arthur Laurents' direction. It was a stunningly beautiful production and was very right for its times. Remember, we were dealing with very sensitive material, so we gave the audience something to look at as well. Twenty seven years have passed since that opening. Now we have a show that's actually stronger in the heart department. It's much more touching and I was bowled over by the number of people crying near the end. It's a very interesting thing that these people from London did, because they didn't change a word of Harvey's or a note of mine. All the lines are the same. However, they've focused on what it's all really about. It's a very interesting phenomenon!"

When questioned about his feelings about Kelsey Grammer's switching from the role of Georges to that of Albin in a few months, Herman is quite enthusiastic. "I tell you, I think so highly of Kelsey Grammer that I think he can do anything. He's just wonderful in this show. I love him as Georges and he's enjoying playing that role. I'm not sure that he's going to want the change when the time comes because he's getting such great reactions, as well as the Tony Award nomination. Oh, he and Douglas Hodge are great! They're wonderful people and wonderful actors. Actually, it's quite a company of great American actors and actresses who are supporting the two leads. They're all just marvelous!"

As this production of La Cage Aux Folles is smaller than the original, the show features scaled down orchestrations as well. "They're perfect for this," comments Herman. "They wouldn't have been right in the original and the original orchestrations wouldn't have worked in this show. When you see it, you'll know what I mean. Actually, this production is like going to a nightclub and really sitting there. The orchestrations are really perfect for this new environment. In fact, everything they've done has hit me as being so right for this version."

The topic of John Doyle's pared down version of Sweeney Todd entered the conversation as a source of comparison, and Herman was not shy about sharing his opinions on that show. "Sweeney Todd didn't have any reason to be cut down," he suggests. "It's a beautiful opera and Jonathan Tunik's orchestrations for the original were magnificent. In my opinion, there was no reason to scale any of that down. The new La Cage is done for all he right reasons and that's the difference."

Many people are hoping that this new production of La Cage Aux Folles will yield another, more complete, recording of the score. "No one has come up with any offer," comments the composer. "I'm not sure what will happen. The original recording is really quite beautiful. I love the "Promenade Sequence" and it would be good to have that and the "Entre Acte" recorded, though."

In Herman's book, Show Tune, he describes how he felt that Angela Lansbury was so very right for the title role of Mame, but other members of the production team really weren't sold on her. Herman worked privately with her and secretly snuck into the orchestra pit to accompany her during her final auditions for the role. Of course, she landed the role and not only was theatrical history was made but a lasting friendship was forged between the two. Was Herman able to catch Lansbury's acclaimed performance in A Little Night Music while he was in New York? "She was in Los Angles while I was in New York. Can you believe that? We just missed each other, but we've been talking on the phone. I have to tell you about something wonderful that she did for me, though," he says. "She went out in front of her theater [the Walter Kerr] , which is across the street from the Longacre and took a picture of the marquee for La Cage Aux Folles when it was put up. Then she sent it to me in an e-mail so I'd know what it looked like! Isn't that something? She's the best!"

Speaking of Angela Lansbury and Mame, the composer has very exciting news to impart: "There's a great interest in doing a new Mame. I have wonderful producers who are interested in doing it and we're going to have a couple of meetings next month to see if we can come up with a star. It's so difficult to cast that show. Of everything I've ever written, I think that's the toughest one. It's because she has to do everything. She has to, first of all, be a LADY and then she has to be a comedienne, then she has to sing her ass of, then she has to dance her ass off. She also has to be a beautiful, sensitive actress. Now where do you find all that in one person if it's not Angela Lansbury? It's very tough."

Unfortunately Jerry Herman has no news to report on with his still unproduced musical Miss Spectacular, "I really believe that right now Las Vegas is only interested in Cirque du Soliel- type productions. You know, with swimming pools and acrobatics and Miss Spectacular isn't anything like that. There really hasn't been any interest expressed in it, but the show is still very much alive and one of these days we'll do it. I just hope I'm around to see it!"

There is very promising news on the horizon though, Jerry Herman may well be in the mood to write another show. "Well, I tell you, I still have it in me! If I had a great idea-you know, source material, it's not impossible. I'm at the piano several hours every day anyhow, so all that is very possible. I still have my marbles and I'm sure I could do a new score." Herman roars with appreciation when the idea of musicalizing Arsenic and Old Lace as a vehicle starring Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury as the dotty Brewster sisters and Eric McCormack as their nephew Mortimer. "Oh, my God!" Herman exclaims. "Let me read it and think about it. We may be on to something here!"
Very possibly Broadway may once again be blessed with another new show boasting music and lyrics by Jerry Herman.

Perhaps Herman's music reflects the very essence of his personality. By nature he is optimistic and enormously positive. The man who wrote "It's Today!" "I'll be Here Tomorrow," "The Best of Times Is Now," "We Need a Little Christmas" and "Hello, Dolly!" is someone who certainly sees the glass as half-filled rather than half empty. Although Dr. Norman Vincent Peale published his book The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, Jerry Herman has been embodying its principles since he was born in 1931. With luck and continued Grace from Above, he'll be with us for a long time to come and his music and lyrics will fill our hearts with the same optimism Carol Channing talked about those Russians experiencing in 1964. Let's hope so.