Melanie Herman: The Producer of Producers
As she bustles into the coffeehouse on a lovely spring afternoon, producer Melanie Herman is already excited and emotional. She has just come from a special performance of her latest production, The Musical of Musicals: The Musical, for the hearing impaired. "It was wonderful," she says eagerly, "to see the people reacting to it, to be able to share this with people, to give them the opportunity to be able to experience this with us... I was sitting there almost starting to cry, because I was so thrilled that they were able to do this."
Her emotion is understandable, considering the journey that has brought her to that moment. During the day, Ms. Herman is a high-end travel agent, the lady who gets the jet-set jetting. But on her own time, she has become one of the biggest supporters of The York Theatre Company, going so far as to help produce their breakaway hit musical that recently reopened at Dodger Stages. And despite her lifelong love of theatre and her involvement with it over the years, she can only remember one other moment like this one: "When I was a high school senior," she recalls, "I performed at Willowbrook in Staten Island," a camp for physically, emotionally, and mentally handicapped children. The touring production of Bye Bye Birdie in which she was appearing performed at the camp, and she was able to watch the children express their joy at the show. "The more these kids were applauding," she says, "the more I kept going, and I left there so thrilled with what one could do in theatre, with helping people. This is the first time that I had this experience once again. It makes everything that you do worth it."
As an active off-Broadway producer and theatre-owner in the 1970's, Ms. Herman had been involved in the theatre world, but had gradually moved away from it. "I took a detour away from the world of theatre to go out in the corporate world to get a little more knowledge, a little more wisdom, to get a little bit stronger... [but] I had never given up my desire to go back into theatre." Having made her name and fortune in the corporate world, she began seeking out theatre companies that could use her support. A devout Fantasticks fan, she came across the York Theatre Company when they produced a Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical. "The more I saw things at the York," she says, "the more I became involved with them, in helping to support them, in helping to accomplish some of their dreams. Jim Morgan, the artistic director, invited me to a reading of The Musical of Musicals because I had expressed a desire to get back there and to develop a producing partnership with his company, if it was the right show." The Musical of Musicals was the right show, she felt, but it was not yet ready for a full production. "Then I saw a further reading several months later," she recalls, "and I was hooked. I loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. They did a limited engagement at the York and got great notices, and when the run was over, the thought of [the show] not having a future life was unacceptable to me." Pam Hunt, the show's director, gently suggested to Ms. Herman that the show needed "someone at the helm," and when Ms. Herman saw the cast of the show at another event, she was committed. "I started working to put together money for the show. And during this period, so many people wanted to see the show back again now." She smiles at the memory. "I'm working as fast as I can, and everyone wanted to see the show. The word of mouth was spreading like crazy, it was getting great buzz. So Jim Morgan rearranged the schedule at the York to be able to bring Musicals back for several months."
After the successful extension ended in October of 2004, conditions were right for a transfer to an open-ended run. When Dodger Stages was completed, The Musical of Musicals moved in for a February 2005 opening with only a few minor changes. "We were transferring the same show," she says, and emphatically points out that she left most of the artistic choices to the artists. "Pam Hunt, the director, has been hands-on from first production. My artistic input related to my talking about things that I thought could be strengthened, or what thrilled me, or what didn't thrill me. But it was really minor, because the show was already there... I so trust the authors and the director that it's more my reacting to their creations than my helping them create."
While her artistic input may have been minimal, Ms. Herman's efforts to keep The Musical of Musicals alive have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Celebrities from across the theatre boards have come to see and praise the show. John Kander, Harold Prince, Elaine Stritch and Carol Channing have all praised both the writing and the performances, and appreciate the affectionate humor of the piece. "Anybody that we bring, whether they're people who have been in these shows, directed these shows, wrote these shows... are so pleased with it because they understand. It's like a valentine to them."
"I love the show," Melanie Herman says simply, and with a well-earned glint of pride in her eyes. "I believed in it, and I would do anything to make it happen. I focused on it and did it!" As a true fan of and believer in the show, she not only wanted to see it continue, she also wanted to protect it from those who would compromise its artistic values. "I did not want a group of commercial producers coming in and doing what they thought was their version of this show," she says, and believes that had such commercial producers intervened, the show would have been delayed and weakened. "I wanted to maintain and keep the integrity of the show," she says. To that end, a partnership with the original producers was necessary. "I started spearheading it for the York so that the York would be proud of the producing team, and co-produce the show with me. I would go out and manage it and put together the money, but I wanted the York to be critically part of it, in making sure that the show that originated there was the show that [audiences] saw." She points out that while "several shows from the York have transferred, this is the first one [of which] they are one of the producers." The combination has proven magical. The Musical of Musicals is a hit, and productions are already planned for the West Coast and elsewhere. "We expect this to have a great, long life," Ms. Herman says with a knowing smile, and adds, with the confidence and poise of one who knows her own capabilities, "I will see to it."