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The parade hasn't passed Jerry Herman by yet

The Broadway musical isn't what it was in his heyday, but if the right project came along....

June 22, 2007|Frank Rizzo | Hartford Courant

NEW YORK — It's an entrance that Dolly Levi would love.

Jerry Herman, the composer of such Broadway classics as "Mame," "Hello, Dolly!" and "La Cage aux Folles," is shamelessly grinning and looking slightly verklempt as he makes his way down the aisle of the darkened auditorium, surrounded by the shouts and applause of those who know of him and those who knew him when.

Although the somber surroundings of the Yale Club are far from the warm glam and glow of the Harmonia Gardens, where Dolly Levi made her celebrated entrance, the affectionate feeling is the same. It's the welcome return of a beloved favorite -- the old Broadway regular who makes us remember our happy past and a glorious era, a musical elder back for one more embrace before the parade passes by.

The man who is synonymous with audience-pleasing shows is now starring in his own feel-good show -- and not of his own making.

Herman -- who will turn 76 in July -- is the subject of a new documentary, "Words and Music by Jerry Herman," that will be broadcast next season on PBS. It was created and produced by Amber Edwards. Before the televised showing, screenings of the 90-minute biography are being held at film festivals and special events, such as this one at New York's Yale Club and coming programs at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Herman has yet to receive a Kennedy Center Award, but he's been honored by a steady stream of salutes. In an interview before a recent screening in Manhattan, Herman spoke from his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, along with Edwards, a documentarian, Emmy-winning television producer and professional singer with regular club engagements in New York and Connecticut.

"I was just charmed by this lady, and I believed in her instantly," says Herman, gesturing to a beaming Edwards. "Well, wouldn't you?"

Edwards started shooting the documentary in 2002, first with a series of talks with Herman and then with others associated with the composer, including Angela Lansbury, the late Charles Nelson Reilly, George Hearn, Carol Channing, Arthur Laurents, the late Fred Ebb, composer Charles Strouse, Michael Feinstein, Marge Champion and Phyllis Newman.

For theater buffs, the treasure lies in the documentary's archival finds, including home movies taken from the wings, orchestra pit and rehearsal studio, many of them supplied by Herman's longtime music director, Donald Pippin. There also is footage from TV specials and news and variety shows: Mary Martin entertaining troops in Vietnam with "Dolly" and Carol Channing performing the show's title song at the White House; Pearl Bailey looking incandescent singing "Before the Parade Passes By" with an all-black cast on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Perhaps the greatest moment comes in seeing footage taken from the back of the theater showing the Act 1 closing number from "Mame," with a radiant 40-year-old Angela Lansbury.

Herman waited until late last year before he saw a rough cut of the documentary at his home in Los Angeles.

"I got more and more and more excited and nervous about how I was going to react if I didn't like it," he says. "I was seated with the TV right in front of me and she put it on and I have to tell you, it was an overwhelming experience. I'm a big talker and I was honestly speechless. I didn't know what to say other than I loved it and I was very grateful to her.

"It also made me absolutely certain that I was very wise to end my Broadway career with 'La Cage' [in 1983] because I am smart enough to know that my style was no longer in fashion and to fight that was foolish. I know that I was at the right place at the right time, and I took advantage of it. But I didn't want to be a composer who saw his last shows become less and less than his past successes. I knew that after 'La Cage' I would never write another Broadway show.... It was a secret feeling that I kept to myself.

"I never thought that hummable, melodic music would not be the thing. How can you not leave a musical and have four songs in your head like I did when I first saw 'Annie Get Your Gun'? I remember coming home to my mother's piano and I played all of 'They Say It's Wonderful,' and I knew the whole melody line of 'There's No Business Like Show Business' and I knew bits and pieces of two or three other songs. And I thought that's what a Broadway show was. The same thing happened when I saw 'My Fair Lady.' I couldn't wait to transfer what I had heard to my fingers. I can't do it when I see a show now."

He keeps an eye on new versions of his past hits. A recent revival of "Mack and Mabel" at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, received great notices. And a first-class revival of "Dolly"? "I think about it every day," he says. Then there's the years-long speculation about another "Mame," either on TV or on Broadway.

Near the end of the question-and-answer period after the screening at the Yale Club, Herman is asked if he plans to write a new musical.

He acknowledges the applause, then hesitates before saying, "I kind of think I may be too old to write musicals."

"Oh, no, no, no, no," say members of the audience. Herman straightens up like a thoroughbred hearing the get-ready bell, and the earlier confession of no more is either a forgotten thing or displaced by the effort of a showman wanting to give his audience what they want to hear.

"But if something came along that would knock my socks off, something that's positive and that says tomorrow is going to be better than today" -- he smiles that eager-to-please smile -- "well, I've been known to change my mind."

Rizzo is a staff writer at the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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