Broadway legend Jerry Herman, no stranger to a full house

By Dan Zak
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 12:34 AM

IN WEST HOLLYWOOD -- The condo is coming together.

The limestone floors have been laid. The walnut doors are installed. The sofas will arrive at 2. This will be, Jerry Herman says, his final living space.

Making a home is like making a musical, according to the composer-lyricist of "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" Tiny details deliver a larger vision. Instead of casting a starlet or adding a harp to the orchestrations, Herman auditions showerheads and arranges shelving in his walk-in closet.

"I think I have more shelves than I do shoes," Herman says, inspecting the closet as contractors trample over plastic tarp. Construction dust glints in the late-morning light.

This is the 38th home he has designed and decorated, and it will be his last. His 79-year life has taken him from the humble parlors of Jersey City to the heights of Broadway to the pages of Architectural Digest to this 15th-floor nest just below Sunset Boulevard, with a terrace that overlooks downtown Los Angeles, a wisp of the Pacific Ocean and the dramatic slant of the November sun over Century City.

Herman, slightly stooped, grips the balustrade on the terrace, scanning the horizon through bronze-tinted sunglasses. Melodies still come to him, quickly and out of nowhere, as they've always done (he wrote the title song to "Mame" in 25 minutes). Licks and harmonies and vamps zing around his head, then trickle to his fingertips on the Yamaha grand piano inside. These melodies will remain unsung.

"The world doesn't need another Jerry Herman musical at this point," he says. "There are people who think it does. But I don't."

A Jerry Herman musical is never not playing somewhere. Right now, in a high school storage closet serving as a greenroom, a senior is donning a gargantuan feathered hat to become that rascally matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. Regional and community theaters are rehearsing or producing "Mame" and "Mack & Mabel" at this very moment. A revival of 1983's "La Cage aux Folles" is currently running at New York's Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street. "Warm" and "winning," wrote New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, despite the "saccharine-crusted" nature of Herman's songs.

That's the everlasting caveat of the critic: Jerry Herman musicals are delicious, but they melt in your mouth. There's no intellectual rigor or nourishment. Just sequins and sunshine.

Hellooo, Dolly.

Well hellooo, Dolly.

It's so nice to have you back where youuu belooong.

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.

An old-fashioned vaudevillian romp with transvestism and a gay love story at its center, "La Cage" ran at the Palace Theatre on Broadway for more than four years, through the darkest stretch of the AIDS crisis, which decimated the cast, rendered Herman HIV positive and killed his partner Marty. The defiant Act 1 finale "I Am What I Am" became the anthem of an era.

"Times have changed so drastically," Herman says, when talking about the current revival. "Now I don't have to excuse [the show] or give the cast any advice about how to proceed. The whole atmosphere changed from kind of having something to teach the world - even though that was never my intent. I did not do 'La Cage' to make a political statement. I did it because I thought it was great entertainment."

Without Herman's idea of entertainment, the theater world might not have Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Harvey Fierstein as we know them today. Herman lobbied for Lansbury to play "Mame," even though her only musical credit was in Stephen Sondheim's flop "Anyone Can Whistle."

"He cares tremendously about matters of the heart, and humanity, and the warmth of relationships and people looking out for people," says Lansbury, who left her latest Broadway musical, Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," in June. "Stephen's music and lyrics are more cerebral, shall we say, and require more of an edge, whereas Jerry's is immediate and has an emotional tug, and has a more universally acceptable and receivable message."

"He writes big ballads - you have to make sure your voice is strong and up to it," says Peters, whose first substantial role on Broadway was in 1974's "Mack & Mabel," a commercial failure that is now lauded as Herman's richest score. " 'Time Heals Everything' was a heartbreaking song, sung at end of Mabel's life, after she lost Mack. I think it says a lot in a very simple way. It's about living the pain, day to day."

In other words, there is more to his music than a joyful reprise and a brassy dame.

"We went to hell and back in those years, when nobody wanted to talk about anything but AIDS, but because of 'La Cage,' we had a place to focus positive energy and discuss another aspect of being gay," says Fierstein, the librettist for "La Cage," who in February will assume the role of the drag queen Albin in the revival. "Jerry does have this inner glow, this innate optimism - which isn't very Jewish. It is part of the fascination with him: How can you write a show like 'Mack & Mabel,' with those heartbreaking numbers, and still have a positive way of looking at life? That's a real gift."

Herman does yoga in his 61-foot saltwater pool at his villa in Palm Springs, Calif. He has a suite at the Waldorf whenever he's in New York. He recently Netflixed "The Kids Are All Right" and the BBC miniseries "Sherlock." The last time Broadway knocked his socks off was in 2008, when he saw the revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center. Nothing pleases him like the golden age of musical comedy, which he is happy to prolong but not interested in resurrecting.

"I was as blown away by this ['South Pacific'] as I was the first time I saw it when I was in my teens - it made me appreciate that really fine work never dies," Herman says, sitting at a long glass table in his otherwise bare condo, opposite from his partner of 12 years, Terry Marler, 64, a real estate agent.

Though he hasn't written a new musical since "La Cage," Herman swells with pride at the mention of the Pixar movie "Wall-E" - which excerpted "Hello, Dolly!" and introduced his music to a generation of 7-year-olds - and of appearances he's made in front of musical theater students.

"You would've thought he was Justin Timberlake," Marler says, recalling the line for autographs at a 2003 college event in Utah.

Chuck Fultz, Herman's longtime friend and construction manager, enters the condo to eyeball the progress of this not-quite home. He is gruff and succinct, a contrast to Herman's warm breeziness.

"This is the jewel in the crown," Fultz appraises, moving to the stainless steel kitchen. "It's a beautiful, simple combination of all that he's had over the years. The simplicity and clarity reflects his music."

Herman ordered a Brioni tuxedo for the Kennedy Center Honors, a career-capper from his country that complements last year's lifetime achievement Tony Award from his peers. He describes the sweep of his life in terms of "Before the Parade Passes By," the rousing Act 1 finale from "Hello, Dolly!"

"It's a very long, colorful parade," Herman says. "With lots of balloons. And banners. And confetti. And all of that. But it's also kind of near the end of it. That's very moving. And very rewarding."

But first, the sofas will arrive at 2. There's decor to harmonize, a veneer to polish. And there are new melodies that he will play just for himself, away from the parade.

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