Page 2 of 3   <       >

Broadway legend Jerry Herman, no stranger to a full house

A clip from the current New York production of 'La Cage aux Folles." Kennedy Center Honoree Jerry Herman wrote the score to several Broadway hits, including 'Hello, Dolly!,' 'Mame' and 'La Cage aux Folles.' "

This melody will not leave your head for the rest of the day. This is what Herman wants. This is his immortality.

"I write for a mass audience," Herman says, retreating to the guest room, away from the lurch and buzz of construction. "I write for people, for a smiling public. . . . I don't think there's anything more gratifying in my business than to know the work will go on after I'm not here anymore. Because I don't write for 1964, or for 1997. I write songs that I hope will still be hummed years from now."

A revival of "Hello, Dolly!" will hit Broadway in the near future, says Herman, who plans to be the production's guiding spirit. Signature Theatre in Arlington will include a Jerry Herman musical in its next season, according to Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who directed Christine Baranski in "Mame" at the Kennedy Center in 2006.

Herman's music and lyrics survive because of the tartness beneath the sugar, Schaeffer says. The Mame who slides down a banister at the top of Act 1 steals the show, but the Mame who quivers with doubt during the plaintive "If He Walked Into My Life" makes the show.

"What I really found exciting about working on his stuff was the veneer," Schaeffer says. "When people think of Jerry Herman, they think of big costumes, glamour, glitz - and he's got that. But take that off and there's a great undercurrent of emotion. . . . He's been underappreciated. As times change, people say, 'Oh that's so out of style and old-fashioned,' and you're like, 'No, that's great songwriting.' People aren't writing those songs anymore."

"Annie Get Your Gun" did it. The ticket was $4.40. Herman's parents, both teachers, took their teenage son to see Ethel Merman at the Imperial Theatre in the '40s. Jerry was smitten. When he got home, he played whole chunks of "There's No Business Like Show Business" by ear. For the next 25 years, his own melodies came just as naturally.

In 1955, after doing avant-garde theater at the University of Miami and studying architecture for a year at the Parsons School of Design in New York, Herman moved to a $90-a-month third-floor walk-up on East 10th Street and peddled his tuneful portfolio to cabarets. A long-running revue of his material attracted Broadway producers, who commissioned him to write "Milk and Honey," which opened in October 1961, brought him his first Tony nomination and ran for 543 performances.

"Hello, Dolly!" opened in January 1964 and ran for nearly seven years.

"Mame" opened in May 1966 and ran for nearly four.

The country quaked through the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement and Vietnam. But in the cocoon of Broadway, Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury strutted and kicked and belted to the rafters. Onstage, life always resolved on a strident major chord.

And it did for Herman, for a while: truckloads of money, awards, Life magazine covers and famous friends, including Merman herself, who was a replacement Dolly.

The '70s were a more fallow time. After his next two shows fizzled, he believed his early success was unrepeatable. Afraid to write, Herman focused his energy on buying, renovating and restoring properties around the country. Then he saw the movie "La Cage aux Folles," a 1978 French comedy about two men who run a drag show in St. Tropez. This was divine source material, he thought, and this will be my next musical.

<       2        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company