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JERRY HERMAN : Piece by Piece : The composer sees musicals like jigsaw puzzles. The Conejo Players are producing two of them.

September 06, 1990|TODD EVERETT

"Two shows?" Jerry Herman said on learning that the Conejo Players of Thousand Oaks are producing two of his musicals. "I'm always pleased when I hear that my shows are being done. You lose track."

If Herman's name is not as familiar to casual theater fans as, say, Stephen Sondheim's, his work certainly is. He's the only composer-lyricist in history to have had three musicals running more than 1,500 consecutive performances each on Broadway: "Mame," "Hello, Dolly!" and the 1983 show that will be the Conejo Players' November-December production, "La Cage aux Folles."

All three are constantly performed around the world. No wonder Herman loses track.

He's one of the few Broadway figures to write both words and music for his shows (Sondheim is another). So, when asked which comes first, Herman doesn't have to admit to either.

"I do both simultaneously," he said in an interview in Los Angeles. "I don't think of lyrics as poetry. I think of them as being permanently attached to those notes of music. Writing for me is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I might come up with a first line and part of a melody, then write the end and then go back and put in the middle.

"I can't say that there is any one right way to do it, though. When Richard Rodgers was collaborating with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers would compose the music first. When he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein, the lyrics would come first. It's just a matter of how you can get the work done."

Now in his mid-50s, he had become Broadway's youngest composer-lyricist when "Milk and Honey" was produced in 1961. The musical was subsequently nominated for a Tony and a Grammy. Herman's works also include 1969's "Dear World" and 1974's "Mack and Mabel."

"Jerry's Girls," which the Conejo Players are currently performing for four Sunday matinees, is a selection of songs from all of Herman's Broadway shows.

"In 1980 a director named Larry Alford came to me and suggested that it was time for a retrospective of my work," he said. "I replied that I was interested only if I could come up with something special instead of just another and-then-I-wrote kind of show.

"I put the notion aside but then woke up one morning with the idea: an all-female revue that salutes the female characters I have worked with, because the main characters in my shows are usually larger-than-life ladies. Although I hadn't written it when I first put 'Jerry's Girls' together, even Albin of 'La Cage aux Folles' is a gay man who performs in a female impersonator show."

"Jerry's Girls" was conceived as a three-woman show with a female pianist ("I wanted everybody the audience saw to be female") and was first performed at a cabaret in New York's theater district.

"It worked out beautifully, both as a different kind of evening and as a showcase for my stuff," Herman said. "For the first month I came out at the end of each show and did 10 minutes myself, which probably helped bring in people who wouldn't have come to see a cast of unknown performers."

While the show was still running in the cabaret, which it did for nearly a year, community theaters across the country began to perform it. Before long, producer Zev Bufman suggested that a larger, touring production be mounted, with star performers and a chorus. Leslie Uggams was the first to be cast, followed by Andrea McArdle, Broadway's first "Annie," by then an adult.

The third star was a surprise even to Herman: Carol Channing, who had created the role of Dolly on Broadway.

"You'd never dare to ask a great star like Carol to do something like that tour, but she said yes," he said. "The tour was a huge success, selling out everywhere. That was 1983, and we'd added some songs from 'La Cage,' which gave audiences on the tour an opportunity to hear material that hadn't been heard on Broadway yet."

When Herman saw the French film comedy "La Cage aux Folles," he said, he fell in love with it.

"It had every element I look for--glamour, humor--and elements that an audience can identify with. I also look for stories that sing to me, where I don't have to fight to find places to put songs in. 'La Cage' also had that extra crazy element that had never been on Broadway."

Producer Allan Carr had already obtained the film's stage rights and had signed composer-lyricist Maury Yestin and librettist Jay Presson Allen to write the book.

"I kept reading other things, looking for something that would inspire me," Herman said. "But everything paled for me after seeing the 'La Cage' material.

"Almost a year later I got a call from the producers, who told me that they were discarding what they had done and asking if I would be interested. They had no idea that I had been wanting to do the show since I saw the movie. The fact that it all came together signaled to me that I was destined to do the show."

"La Cage aux Folles" broke the Palace Theater's box-office record, won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics' Circle awards and launched productions everywhere.

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