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Sing a song of Herman

Jerry Herman is a composer and a lyricist, but he's pleased to emphasize the words in 'Showtune,' a revue of his musical theater songbook.

June 29, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

Rehearsal is over, and six weary actors are sprawled around a table waiting for feedback. Songwriter Jerry Herman pulls up a chair and smiles broadly. "I always love my casts," he says. "Just think of me as Jerry."

Oh, sure. This Jerry wrote music and lyrics for "Hello, Dolly!," a show that ran seven years on Broadway and won 10 Tony Awards. For "La Cage aux Folles," which ran four years and won six Tonys. For "Mame," which ran nearly four years. His three super-hits still pack theaters all over the world, and even the less successful "Mack & Mabel" bounced back as a 1995 revival in London to win awards there.

Actor Robert Yacko says he wasn't exactly intimidated, but having Herman drop by rehearsal did give him pause. "Jerry Herman holds a very prominent place in musical theater history," Yacko says, "so of course there's a little nervousness of wanting to be perfect for him."

Yacko and colleagues get their shot at perfecting Herman in "Showtune: Celebrating the Words & Music of Jerry Herman," now at the Pasadena Playhouse. Forty songs plucked from four decades of Herman shows make up a revue of tunes both inherently dramatic and even familiar outside the shows they started in. "Jerry always picks very strong books and strong characters to hang his songs on, and yet these songs stand alone," says Freddie Gershon, whose music licensing company, Music Theatre International, is marketing "Showtune" to theater organizations. "Audiences walk away singing the songs when they leave the theater."

" 'Showtune' shows off my lyrics," Herman says. "You have to listen to every word. People call me 'composer Jerry Herman' and I can't be upset because that's true, but they forget I write the lyrics."

The revue has been traveling the U.S. and England for nearly 20 years in various forms, but you'd never know it from his enthusiasm about this version, this cast. To Merle Dandridge, who sings "Time Heals Everything," he speaks of how a pause can signal a change in emotion, and his advice to Yacko on "La Cage's" "A Little More Mascara" is simple: "Just have fun with it."

Whether talking with his cast, crew or the media, Herman clearly likes to have fun. Sitting at the dining room table in his sprawling Beverly Hills home, the pool and cityscape just beyond a glass wall, the slight, 71-year-old glides comfortably between past and present, telling his stories as if for the first time. Again and again, he leans back and laughs: "It's been such a trip, my life."

Broadway bound

Herman writes in his 1996 memoir -- also called "Showtune" -- of growing up in Jersey City in "this very warm, happy home that was full of music." His schoolteacher parents were both musical -- his mother even had a radio show called "Ruth Sachs Sings" -- and after dinner, the family would head for their living room to play songs from Broadway shows. Herman would play piano, his mother accordion, his father saxophone. At 14, he saw Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" on Broadway and decided he wanted to write songs.

Today, Herman calls himself "a star-struck kid," but apparently a practical one who thought writing songs was a great hobby, not a profession. Studying architecture and design at Parsons School of Design, he didn't change course until his mother managed a meeting for him with "Guys and Dolls" composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, who listened to his songs and gave him encouragement. Then 17 and living at home, Herman went off to study theater at the University of Miami.

Soon he was back in New York, playing piano in a Greenwich Village cocktail bar. He assembled his songs into a revue, got backing to move it off-Broadway and soon landed his first Broadway show, a musical about Israel called "Milk and Honey." "Hello, Dolly!" opened in 1964, followed by "Mame" in '66. There were some flops -- including "Dear World," which reinvented "Mame" star Angela Lansbury as Jean Giraudoux's "The Madwoman of Chaillot" -- before he was back on top again with "La Cage" in 1983.

Herman is small, frail-looking but decidedly upbeat, a man more likely to dwell on his good days than bad. His face lights up, for instance, as he recalls a period in 1969 when "Dolly," "Mame" and "Dear World" were all playing on Broadway. Once a week, he'd make the round of his shows, catching his favorite numbers, spending intermission at one theater, dining out afterward with the cast at another. Then, when he'd get home, he'd stare in the mirror and say out loud: "This is the little Jewish boy from Jersey City whose greatest dream was to one day have a Broadway show."

By now, there have been thousands of productions of those shows worldwide, thousands of performances that helped pay for this elegant, gated home atop Beverly Hills. The gay-themed "La Cage," he says, "has played in almost every country imaginable, which I never thought would happen, and there's never a time when there isn't a 'Dolly' or a 'Mame.' "

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