When Jerry Herman left New York, his lifelong home, to move to Los Angeles more than a decade ago, he said he was retiring. And he thought he meant it.
Herman was grieving over the loss of his longtime lover, Marty Finkelstein, to AIDS. He was struggling against his own HIV infection. And his illustrious career as a Broadway composer-lyricist had included some of the biggest, most beloved hits — Hello, Dolly! (1964), Mame (1966), La Cage aux Folles (1983) — in musical theatre history.
What was there left to do?
Get better. Work again. Fall in love.
Now, just a few months shy of his 72nd birthday, Herman has done all of those things, and his outlook on life is far different. His four-year relationship with Palm Springs realtor Terry Marler is going strong. He wrote a ten-song score for the popular television musical Mrs. Santa Claus starring Angela Lansbury, has plans for a Las Vegas premiere of his new stage musical Miss Spectacular, and is a driving force behind a major La Cage aux Folles revival — initially mentioned for London’s West End, but now, Herman says, more likely to be seen first in New York due to high public demand.
He’s also been appearing throughout the country in Hello, Jerry! A Musical Salute to Jerry Herman along with singer-actress Karen Morrow, Jason Graae of Forever Plaid and Ragtime, and Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle in Disney’s animated musical Beauty and the Beast. Presented under the auspices of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Foundation, Hello, Jerry! — to be performed next Thursday, May 1, at the Kennedy Center — is designed to serve both an entertainment role for Herman’s legions of fans and an educational role for musical theatre devotees seeking intimate insight into Herman’s songwriting craft.
Retirement, it seems, just wasn’t meant to be.
METRO WEEKLY: I understand that your career really took off with one of your New York revues in the late ’50s.
JERRY HERMAN: Yes, I wrote a revue called Nightcap, and it was really like Judy and Mickey putting on a show. I mean, we sat on the floor of this little dark nightclub on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village and actually sewed the curtain — a red curtain, because I said, “I have to have a red curtain.” All of us — the cast, the owner of the place — it was really like being in summer stock, but right in the middle of Manhattan. It was all topical material, and a couple of ballads, and a song called “Show Tune” which became “It’s Today” [in Mame]. It had Charles Nelson Reilly in it, in his first appearance in New York. He was hilarious — absolutely hilarious, and I was able to write material that really suited him. It was my first experience writing for a specific talent.
The morning after we opened, there was a review in the New York Post by Richard Watts, Jr. that said, “A new Rodgers and Hart has come to town. Get down to the Showplace.” And the limousines started coming. I wasn’t prepared for anything like that, or any kind of success. I just thought this was a good opportunity to show off some of my stuff. It ran for two solid years. Unheard of in those days. We kept on replacing the cast, and I finally replaced myself at the piano and went on to do other things. But it was an extraordinary beginning for me.
I loved my Off-Broadway days. I did another revue after that called Parade, which had some of the same material in it. The recording has just been re-released, by the way. If you listen to it, you’ll see how dated the source material is. But at the time, they were very funny songs.
MW: I wasn’t really exposed to Charles Nelson Reilly until television in the ’70s. Was he as flamboyant and over-the-top starting out in the ’50s as he was later on?
HERMAN: Yes, Charles was always Charles, and he was always funny offstage and onstage. An absolutely adorable man. I mean, a very kind, loving human being. And we have remained friends through everything — through all these years. We had a very special closeness because we both started our careers on that tiny little postage stamp stage. When he became very successful and I started becoming successful, we would laugh at that show, and how our beginnings were so humble. But it’s been just wonderful having grown through life with someone like that.
“It gets down to one basic thing: most audiences respond to melody. Audiences love the old chestnuts, because they find a comfort in hearing songs that are old friends.”
MW: Were audiences in the ’50s and ’60s recognizing in performers like him, or Paul Lynde, for another example, any kind of gay caricature or characteristics, or just more of a comic flamboyance?
HERMAN: I don’t think they thought of it as a gay character. They were just funny. Funny, flamboyant — there wasn’t a sexuality involved. It was just a talent. Charles Nelson Reilly is first and foremost a great comedic talent. And that’s how he was perceived. The numbers he was in — I didn’t write anything that was slanted toward anything gay.
MW: There was never a subtext for gay people in the audience, perhaps?
HERMAN: The only truthful answer is that I did not get into a gay sensibility as a writer until La Cage aux Folles. In fact, just the opposite. I think there is no more heterosexual writing than “It Only Takes a Moment” and all the other songs in Hello, Dolly!, or Mame. They were gay favorites because these were bigger than life, strong women, and gay audiences loved the flamboyance, color and the excitement of a real Broadway musical. But there was nothing subliminally gay about any of my work. Certainly not Milk and Honey, which was about middle-aged couples in Israel.
Let me very truthful with you. I know it’s not the answer you’re looking for, but I have been an out gay man since I started in this career. I just realized that I was in a profession that accepted gay people, and Jewish people — which I am both — and I knew that I was comfortable. For me, the word comfortable is one of the most important words in the English language. I was comfortable in the industry that I was in, because there were other gay people around, and I never felt I had to make a statement of any kind. I was just a gay guy writing Broadway musicals. And I wrote them to be what I thought the script of the musical demanded. I never went into anything else but what Dolly Levi had to say, and what Mame Dennis had to say, and what the Madwoman of Chaillot [in Dear World] had to say. Then, in 1982, I saw the film La Cage aux Folles, and I said, “I have to do that. I know how to do that.” And I was true to that material. So what I’m really saying is that I’m simply true to the material I choose.
MW: A lot of your great songs really transcend sexuality, too.
HERMAN: I really try and hit everybody, and not one group. Take the La Cage aux Folles song “I Am What I Am,” which I don’t have to tell you has become an anthem, and a great disco favorite to dance to in the clubs — which delights me. But when I did [the revue] Jerry’s Girls on Broadway [in 1985], I gave that song to Leslie Uggams, and a black woman singing that song with great power and great determination was so exciting, and so miraculous, because it became everybody’s song. Everybody who is an individual, or who might be a hair different that the person sitting next to them. That’s what thrills me the most, is when songs have a universality.
MW: You say you were always comfortable being openly gay in your profession. But you were doing that over a period of time that was very tumultuous for other people trying to come out of the closet.
HERMAN: Oh, I recognize that. But I was so grateful that I was not working in a Ford factory, you know? I mean, if I had been in almost any other business, I probably would have been very uncomfortable.
MW: Did you encounter any intolerance at all in your profession in the ’50s and ’60s when you were starting out?
HERMAN: Honestly, no. Not in that business. I was surrounded by gay directors, gay choreographers and gay dancers. Half the industry seemed gay. And I wasn’t even sure whether some people were gay, but I knew that I was in a comfortable place. I’ve always been very grateful for that, because I’ve never had a problem with my sexuality.
MW: How did you feel affected, then, by all of the changes going on in the world-at-large throughout your career?
HERMAN: I cheered all the landmark things that I lived through, and was absolutely delighted to start seeing some of the changes. I’ve seen tremendous change. I mean, whoever thought we’d have shows like Will and Grace embraced by America, not just by gay audiences? But there’s never enough change. Nobody is ever satisfied. If you’ve lived the life I have, though, and you’ve seen the progression, we’re doing very well. But we’ll never be finished until there are no more Matthew Shepard horrific incidents, and until a huge mass of people in the country change their attitudes. And that’s not going to happen in my lifetime, unfortunately. But I have always believed that you’ve got to be patient — that you cannot change these people, these horrible bigots. You cannot change a Pat Robertson or a Jesse Helms just by sitting him down and saying, “You know, you’re really on the wrong course here.” They’ve been brainwashed for a lifetime, and I don’t think people realize that it can’t happen overnight. Sometimes, extreme activism doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“In the beginning, it was life and death. When I was diagnosed [with HIV], I was positive that I would be gone in five years. All this time since then has been a great gift.”
MW: Is there anything you miss — that you think we’ve lost in the gay culture over the decades you’ve experienced?
HERMAN: I think because of the fight against AIDS, we’ve lost a certain innocence. We’ve lost a certain part of gay culture that was carefree and charming. We’ve been fighting so hard. That’s a natural thing when a whole community of people are trying to stamp out something as horrific as AIDS. So I do think that change has occurred. Fortunately, I’ve been able to be very active in doing AIDS benefits all over the country with people like Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Lansbury and Tommy Tune. Tommy and I actually did the first AIDS benefit that was ever done. It was at Fire Island, and we didn’t even know what it was. But we knew that there was a problem out there, and that money was needed. It had a different name at that time. We got all of our friends like Chita Rivera and just wonderful pals of ours to come out to Fire Island. Since then, I’ve never stopped doing them. I’ve lived for over fifteen years with HIV, and I’m very, very healthy today. Because there are cases like mine, I look forward to the time that we don’t have to have AIDS benefits. But we still do, very much, because it’s rampant in Africa and all over the world. We have to keep fighting it. In the beginning, it was life and death. When I was diagnosed, I was positive that I would be gone in five years. All this time since then has been a great gift.
MW: How have you approached that additional time if you were still unsure about how long you might have left?
HERMAN: I felt I had a short time in the beginning. I was immediately put on AZT, and I went through the whole regimen that everybody who was diagnosed in those days went through. I guess my strain was maybe a little different than some of the others, but the medicines worked on me. And my gratitude is to all the wonderful physicians and researchers who have really kept me alive. I have a wonderful, caring doctor who has been with me through all of this — and when I realized he was keeping me going, I started to shed my fear of dying, and my plans to do nothing. Talking to you now, I feel twenty years younger. I’m just lucky. As Carol Channing says, “Just lucky, I guess.”
MW: Did you have some really low health points?
HERMAN: Oh yes, I was really sick about twelve years ago. That’s one of the reasons I came to Los Angeles. I just wanted to be in a quiet, warmer climate. I had all kinds of side effects from the drugs. I never had an opportunistic infection, though, so that was the lucky thing about me. Nothing ever really blossomed. But I was losing ground, and I knew that I was failing. It was when I was put on my first protease inhibitor that it started going in an upward spiral.
MW: What was the impact of your illness on your career?
HERMAN: Oh, it affected it tremendously. I could not say to a producer, “I am with you and there’s no possibility I won’t be with you on opening night.” And I couldn’t put an entire group of investors and producers in a position where they were working with somebody who might not be there a couple of months later. I just refused to work. When things started going well for me, I went back to work. I did the television musical Mrs. Santa Claus for Angela Lansbury, and I did Miss Spectacular, which is a very “up” new score of mine. It’s going to open next year in Las Vegas, directed by my old friend Tommy Tune. And I was cookin’ again.
MW: I’ve heard the concept album for that. There, you started with the songs only, without a book.
HERMAN: It was the first time I ever did that. I just wrote a story and then added the music. Now Tommy and I are working on the book. It’s about a girl who has daydreams — sort of Walter Mitty-ish daydreams — and she enters a contest for someone to front a new hotel called the Hotel Spectacular in Las Vegas. It’s very nontraditional. It’s not a classic kind of a Broadway book, because we wanted to be specifically for Las Vegas audiences. They don’t really want to sit through six-page book scenes, so we have a wonderful method of doing it that was Tommy’s idea. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a very new kind of a concept, and I’m terribly excited about the whole idea of doing a show with more glitz and more girls — I’m a gay man who loves women, and I’m going to have more beautiful girls in this show than I have ever dreamed of. And I’m just so excited about it.
MW: Will you create more full-length musicals after this?
HERMAN: I never say no. So if a script came across my desk, and if I read the first three pages and I got excited, and I read the whole thing — sure. I’m rarin’ to go if I find something that I love.
“You cannot change a Pat Robertson or a Jesse Helms just by sitting him down and saying, ‘You know, you’re really on the wrong course here.’ They’ve been brainwashed for a lifetime.”
MW: You had a creative period from the late ’60s to the late ’70s where your new works such as Dear World, Mack & Mabel and The Grand Tour met with commercial failure, and your approach to musicals was dismissed by some as being too hokey and old-fashioned. Even though you rebounded with such a huge hit in the ’80s — La Cage aux Folles — that criticism of your style still pops up sometimes.
HERMAN: Well, it isn’t fashionable. But there’s still a huge audience for it. You know, it gets down to one basic thing: most audiences — not only in this country, but worldwide — respond to melody, and respond to songs that they can take home with them. And that will always be the case. There’s room for everything. I love eclectic theatre and think there should be everything from a Philip Glass musical, if you can picture that, to a Gilbert and Sullivan revival playing around the corner from each other. But we mustn’t forget that the entire art form began with hummable songs — with the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin. It certainly couldn’t stay like that. But at one point, we also almost threw away that kind of music and lyrics. That has very clearly come back, because if you look at the last couple of Broadway seasons, there have been enormous successes with revivals of Kiss Me, Kate, The Music Man and Oklahoma! Audiences love the old chestnuts, because they find a comfort in hearing songs that are old friends. You know, we don’t discard our opera. We still are listening to La BohÃ¨me — moreso this year than ever — why should we discard our musical theatre works? I would never want there not to be a My Fair Lady playing somewhere.
MW: Considering the level of success you’ve had, and just how well-loved some of your works are, how do you account for your giftedness?
HERMAN: It was given to me either by my mother and father’s genetics, or a higher being — whatever a person believes in, I’m not telling you what I believe — but it was a gift that was given to me. And the only thing that I did was to use that gift. I didn’t squander it, I used it.
MW: Did you know at the time of works such as Hello, Dolly! and Mame how special this material was that you were able to generate?
HERMAN: No, I didn’t really in the beginning. I just was very grateful that people responded to it. But it’s taken several decades for me to understand what my contribution has been. Because I never dreamed I would be talking to you today about an entire career. I would have been very satisfied if I had had one Broadway show when I was a kid. I never dared dream beyond that. So everything that’s happened to me has been a gift.
Hello, Jerry! A Musical Salute to Jerry Herman will be performed at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. A discussion with the cast follows the performance. Tickets are $20. Call 202-467-4600. Visit www.kennedy-center.org.