"I'm secure for the first time in my life," says composer-lyricist Jerry Herman. "I really haven't been until now. But I know what my contribution has been and what my talent is. It's taken me 50 years of living to come to that realization. You wake up one morning and say, 'Hey, I'm okay. What I'm doing has a place.' "

Herman has ample cause for the self-confidence that has buoyed his step these days. At the Palace Theatre, where his latest musical, "La Cage aux Folles," is in previews, audiences are carrying on with something approximating outright pandemonium. For weeks, a constant stream of customers--fans of the two French films of the same name; fans of Herman; fans of, well, feathers and fans--have steadily pushed up the advance sale so that it probably will have hit $3.5 million when the show opens next Sunday.

Meanwhile, "Mame," Herman's 1966 musical smash, has been revived at the Gershwin Theatre, and although its box office fortunes were initially shaky, business is said to be picking up. And on the road, his 1964 smash "Hello, Dolly!" is mopping up on its umpteenth national tour with Carol Channing in her appointed niche at the top of the staircase.

Just as the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens once assured Dolly Levi, the Broadway showfolk are telling the diminutive, still boyish-looking composer that it's good to see him back where he belongs. There was a time when they didn't, when the kind of tuneful, upbeat show he has always favored was brushed aside for musicals more intricate and cynical than his. For much of the 1970s, the Stephen Sondheims and the Andrew Lloyd Webbers represented the cutting edge. Herman was thought sugary and anachronistic. Who wanted "Mame" and her bugle when you had "Sweeney Todd" and his meat cleavers?

"Wow! Don't take a picture of me," Herman whispers to the photographer at his side as he slips into the lobby of the Palace. "Take a picture of that line, instead! I don't think I'll ever go through that terrible period again when I doubted whether anyone wanted the stuff I did. If the three major critics in New York say this is the vilest musical ever brought to New York, it will not change my opinion of myself."

What the three major critics say may not be all that important. "Cage" comes as close to being critic-proof as a musical can be. Based on the Parisian farce of the same name, which ran for seven years and spawned two high-grossing movies, it is as unabashedly sentimental as a Mother's Day card and just piquant enough to titillate the jaded. The story focuses on a domestic crisis in the life of Georges and Albin, two aging homosexuals who run a popular nightclub on the Riviera. Georges (Gene Barry) is the silver-haired emcee, while Albin (George Hearn) struts and preens as Zaza, the star of the club's racy transvestite revue.

As dutifully as any husband and wife, they have raised Georges' son, Jean-Michel, the product of a once-only heterosexual fling. Now the young man is ready for marriage and has proposed to the daughter of a zealous right-wing politician, whose rampages against homosexuality make Jerry Falwell's fulminations sound like the twittering of birds. A meeting of the prospective in-laws is inevitable, and Jean-Michel wants the flamboyant Albin, his long-devoted "mother," out of sight. Tears, huffs, cajolery, misunderstandings, reconciliation, not to mention men in glitter and fancy wigs--what it may well add up to is "I Remember Mama" for the gender-flecting '80s.

Business was so brisk during the Boston tryout that when the producers decided to extend the engagement by two weeks, the box office was obliged to stay open for 36 hours straight, disposing in the process of about $360,000 worth of tickets. Even more startling, Boston--staid, squeamish Boston--took Albin and Georges to its bosom. What Herman, Harvey Fierstein (the Tony-winning playwright and former drag queen who did the adapation) and director Arthur Laurents seem to have accomplished is a marriage of outrageousness and heart.

Herman now admits he was "wet with sweat" when the orchestra first struck up the strains of "Song on the Sand," the romantic ballad which Georges sings to Albin midway through the first act. "A man singing a love song to another man--I don't think that's ever been done in a Broadway musical before. And, I mean, this was Boston, Katherine Cornell country. Frankly, I didn't know whether or not they'd throw stones. The audience gave it an ovation. That's when I started to think, 'We've done something right. They've bought the characters.' "

Albin's defiant first-act finale, "I Am What I Am," which can be read as one man standing his ground but can also be read as a ringing anthem of gay pride, had them cheering. By the time Georges and Albin--having weathered a son's passing ingratitude and a zealot's intolerance--walked hand in hand into the St. Tropez sunset, the audience was on its feet. What "La Cage aux Folles" celebrates, after all, is loyalty and love, respect for others and respect for self and, yes, even family. The good old values. That this particular family is unconventional is, apparently, of relatively minor concern. The enthusiastic nightly reception even embraces "Cage's" chorus line of 12 opulently costumed Ziegfeld beauties--10 of whom happen to be men, which doesn't prevent them at one point from throwing themselves into a seam-splitting cancan.

The word out of Boston spread so fast that Herman's main worry is keeping a lid on advance expectations. "As far as I'm concerned, we're still in previews with a show that has to go before the New York critics," he says. But now and again he slips and says, "I consider shows like 'Cage' a gift in my life, a seven-layer cake somebody gave me, because I realize how few and far between the hits really are." Even if the New York critics go into a perfect sulk on opening night, insiders estimate that the show has a solid two-year run ahead of it. With raves? Move over, "Annie."

For Herman, "Cage" is the logical extension of a career that has had him tailoring songs to extroverted women who sweep through society like Attila the Hun through Europe. What is Albin/Zaza, he acknowledges, "but another in my album of larger-than-life ladies." But the show also represents the vindication of his view of musical comedy as a magical land of splashy glamor and songs you hum on the way up the aisle. Herman belongs to a diminishing breed that Broadway once called "tunesmiths," composers who turn out catchy melodies you catch the first time around and whose lyrics come from the heart, not the thesaurus.

"I'm a big fan of Stephen Sondheim," he says. "I'm a big fan of Marc Blitzstein. I'm a big fan of everybody. They're geniuses compared to myself. But I am in love with the theater song--you know, songs people recognize after a few bars--and I haven't heard a lot of them lately. I can think of three that have popped up in the last decade: 'Send in the Clowns,' 'Tomorrow' and 'What I Did for Love.' Three! That's the amount that used to be in one good show. I can't think of a fourth. But there were mornings when I would ask myself, 'Am I trying to fight a trend? Am I off the track?'

"My parents took me at a tender age to see 'Annie Get Your Gun,' and I was absolutely dazzled. I have one of those retentive ears, and when I came home I sat down at the piano and played about five of the songs. My mother was amazed. I was bit by that bug and I was bit by that man--Irving Berlin. If I had my way, that's who I'd like to be. Berlin wrote for the masses and he hit the heart of this country. That's my goal, but I've been criticized for it. A lot of people think simplicity is easy.

"You take a song like 'Hello, Dolly!' It's been praised for years as a terrific commercial song. Well, that's fine. But what people don't realize is that that song works for an emotional reason. The audience is dazzled because the woman they've loved for an act and a half suddenly sets out to do what she says she's going to do. That song is the heart of the show."

He pauses for a moment, gathering thoughts in his argument with absent carpers. Then he admits, "I don't take criticism especially well. Oh, I'm better at it now. But if a critic says that Herman has written another happy, simplistic tune--if the work is sloughed off, as it sometimes is--that hurts me and I hold that hurt deeply for a long time. I feel like going up to that person and saying, 'Isn't there a place for the happy, melodic song? Isn't it as valid as the stuff you're so quick to praise? Look how long these songs last, how much pleasure they give people.' "

Another reflective pause. "I want to please the entire world. I did as a kid. And I do right now. I want everybody to love me. It's the old story--an only child wanting to be praised. And we have this setup whereby the critics are the people who praise us or don't. At this stage of my life, I should realize that you can't please everybody. But one of these days I'm going to walk up to John Simon, shake him by the shoulders and say, 'Hey I'm better than you think I am.' That's admitting something very private. I don't know if I could have said that 10 years ago."

Ten years ago, Herman was coming down from the first heady round of triumphs, which, combined with his ingenuously youthful looks, had made him the Wunderkind of Broadway. "Spoiled rotten," he now says, by a father who ran a children's camp and a mother who doted on his accomplishments and whom he, in turn, adored, Herman had begun his career by writing for off-Broadway revues. In 1961, his first Broadway musical, "Milk and Honey," brought him fame. "Dolly" and "Mame" multiplied it tenfold and earned (and continue to earn) him more money than he is ever likely to spend. The money has allowed him to indulge his fondness for extraordinary living quarters. But money's not love.

The shows that followed--"Dear World" in 1969, "Mack and Mabel" in 1974, and "The Grand Tour" in 1979--were less warmly received by the critics and the public. Although Herman's lilting way with a song remained undiminished, rock musicals like "Hair" and the "concept musicals" of Sondheim had drastically altered the Broadway climate. Herman's trademark--the rousing production number that takes a recurring refrain through one key change after another, each time bigger and stronger than the time before--was viewed as formulaic. According to friends, the failure of "Mack and Mabel," which recounted the doomed romance of silent moviemaker Mack Sennett and his favorite star, Mabel Normand, threw Herman into a particularly serious tailspin. It was, he thought then and still thinks, his finest score.

"That was a very tough flop because I dearly loved that show and thought it deserved more of a life," Herman says. " 'The Grand Tour' bothered me less. I did it because I had nothing else to do. I didn't really care about 'Jacobowsky and the Colonel,' the play on which it was based. And I really have to be passionate about a script. But I'm going to do 'Mack and Mabel' again. Mike Stewart and I have rewritten the ending so it's not so tragic. It has a nice twist now that leaves the audience in a happy frame of mind. I'm dedicated to bringing it back."

Casting about for projects that excited him, and finding none, Herman moved to L.A., allowed himself to get lulled into the swimming pool culture, and actually entertained the notion of pulling out of the business altogether. "I had written two of the classical American musicals that will be performed long after I'm gone. That gives you a place. And I thought, if they don't want the kind of show I'm doing anymore, then why not go into my second love--architecture and design?" A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, he regularly purchases and remodels houses as an avocation. His latest (and he says permanent) home, a fashionable town house on the East Side, will be featured in an upcoming issue of Architectural Digest.

But even at his lowest ebb, "I'd get incredible fan mail from all over the world," he remembers. "People saying, 'Nobody's writing songs any more. We're depending on you.' That gave me more encouragement than anything else. People are hungry for melody. I got one letter from a lady in Nebraska--she'll never know how important she was in my life. Every morning when she had to get the kids off to school and the laundry was piling up and she had this tremendous workload ahead of her, she put 'We Need a Little Christmas' on the record player and she danced around the apartment and that got her through the day. I had a lump in my throat for a week from reading that letter.

"She made me say to myself, 'Okay, I don't care if you are the only drummer at this particular moment. There are people who want this kind of theater, so get out and do it and stop the nonsense.' Then about four years ago, I saw the film version of 'Cage aux Folles' in L.A. I walked out of the cinema thinking this had to be my next musical. But when my agent checked out the rights the next day, I learned that "Grease" producer Allan Carr already had tied them up. So I went on reading scripts, looking for something that excited me. Fortunately, I didn't find anything."

At the same time, "Cage" was going through various versions that involved at one time or another such high-powered talents as Maury Yeston, Jay Presson Allan, Mike Nichols and Tommy Tune. Nothing was jelling, however. So a year ago, Carr junked the show that had been set in New Orleans and come to be known as "The Queen of Basin Street" and decided to start again from scratch. This time, he called in Herman and Fierstein. There is little question Herman thinks fate was somehow involved. Their first move was to switch the locale back to St. Tropez in keeping with Fierstein's view that an American audience would accept a gay couple more quickly in a pretty, if not to say remote, setting.

If Herman had qualms about writing songs for a drag queen, his lover and entourage, he shrugs them off now. "All my life I've written about things I know nothing about," he says. "What do I know about a matchmaker in the 1890s? What do I know about an aunt bringing up a child? I knew the least about my first show "Milk and Honey" , which was about middle-age romance in Israel. I don't think it matters if you have a theatrical imagination.

"I've always felt it's my job to get under the skin of the characters a little more than the original play does. Take the play 'Auntie Mame.' There's no moment where Mame looks back, as she does in the musical, and asks herself, 'Would I make the same mistake if I did it all over again?' That's a benefit of musical intervention. In 'Cage,' I asked myself, 'Why would a man choose to live part of his life in bugle beads and feathers?' And I thought it's simple: When he feels beautiful, his world becomes beautiful.

"The first song that popped out of me was 'A Little More Mascara,' in which you actually see a dowdy, aging, not-terribly-happy man transform himself into this glamorous creature. First of all, it's a wildly theatrical number, but more importantly, it gives you the why.

"Next I wrote the love song, "Song on the Sand," so I had a ballad and an uptempo number. I played arrangements of the two over and over again, like an overture, to get myself to realize I had started, that the paper before me was no longer blank. After that, the score just poured out. There were just so many layers of stuff to get my teeth into. I walked around the streets of New York a lot, working out this jigsaw puzzle of words and notes in my head, not even saying hello to people I knew, I was so preoccupied. I suppose I'll get run over some day. But it was lovely to feel all that emerging."

Now Jerry Herman is feeling on top all over again. Theatergoers are doing what he has always wanted them to do--tapping their feet and clapping along and even dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. At previews, Herman claps along with them. And if the audience is occasionally peppered with men in evening gowns and certain of his "Cage" songs are likely to be co-opted by the gay community, well, "I couldn't stop them if I wanted to, which I don't."

That's a response of sorts to those critics who have been calling Herman old-fashioned all these years, an indication that he may be in touch, after all. In his new euphoria, what he calls "the time of my life," Herman even welcomes the adjective that used to sting. "I'm still a young man in my head and I have many years ahead of me writing musicals, musicals with songs and fun and glamor in them. If people want to call me old-fashioned, they're actually complimenting me. Because in my mind, that means solid and with value."

As Zaza sings in the hot pink spot at the Palace, "I am what I am," Herman doesn't march off the stage and stride up the aisle of the theater as Zaza does. But the sentiment is unquestionably his.