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Sing a song of Herman

Special to The Times

Rehearsal is over, and six weary actors are sprawled around a table waiting for feedback. Songwriter Jerry Herman pulls up a chair and smiles broadly. “I always love my casts,” he says. “Just think of me as Jerry.”

Oh, sure. This Jerry wrote music and lyrics for “Hello, Dolly!,” a show that ran seven years on Broadway and won 10 Tony Awards. For “La Cage aux Folles,” which ran four years and won six Tonys. For “Mame,” which ran nearly four years. His three super-hits still pack theaters all over the world, and even the less successful “Mack & Mabel” bounced back as a 1995 revival in London to win awards there.

Actor Robert Yacko says he wasn’t exactly intimidated, but having Herman drop by rehearsal did give him pause. “Jerry Herman holds a very prominent place in musical theater history,” Yacko says, “so of course there’s a little nervousness of wanting to be perfect for him.”

Yacko and colleagues get their shot at perfecting Herman in “Showtune: Celebrating the Words & Music of Jerry Herman,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse. Forty songs plucked from four decades of Herman shows make up a revue of tunes both inherently dramatic and even familiar outside the shows they started in. “Jerry always picks very strong books and strong characters to hang his songs on, and yet these songs stand alone,” says Freddie Gershon, whose music licensing company, Music Theatre International, is marketing “Showtune” to theater organizations. “Audiences walk away singing the songs when they leave the theater.”

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“ ‘Showtune’ shows off my lyrics,” Herman says. “You have to listen to every word. People call me ‘composer Jerry Herman’ and I can’t be upset because that’s true, but they forget I write the lyrics.”

The revue has been traveling the U.S. and England for nearly 20 years in various forms, but you’d never know it from his enthusiasm about this version, this cast. To Merle Dandridge, who sings “Time Heals Everything,” he speaks of how a pause can signal a change in emotion, and his advice to Yacko on “La Cage’s” “A Little More Mascara” is simple: “Just have fun with it.”

Whether talking with his cast, crew or the media, Herman clearly likes to have fun. Sitting at the dining room table in his sprawling Beverly Hills home, the pool and cityscape just beyond a glass wall, the slight, 71-year-old glides comfortably between past and present, telling his stories as if for the first time. Again and again, he leans back and laughs: “It’s been such a trip, my life.”

Broadway bound

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Herman writes in his 1996 memoir -- also called “Showtune” -- of growing up in Jersey City in “this very warm, happy home that was full of music.” His schoolteacher parents were both musical -- his mother even had a radio show called “Ruth Sachs Sings” -- and after dinner, the family would head for their living room to play songs from Broadway shows. Herman would play piano, his mother accordion, his father saxophone. At 14, he saw Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway and decided he wanted to write songs.

Today, Herman calls himself “a star-struck kid,” but apparently a practical one who thought writing songs was a great hobby, not a profession. Studying architecture and design at Parsons School of Design, he didn’t change course until his mother managed a meeting for him with “Guys and Dolls” composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, who listened to his songs and gave him encouragement. Then 17 and living at home, Herman went off to study theater at the University of Miami.

Soon he was back in New York, playing piano in a Greenwich Village cocktail bar. He assembled his songs into a revue, got backing to move it off-Broadway and soon landed his first Broadway show, a musical about Israel called “Milk and Honey.” “Hello, Dolly!” opened in 1964, followed by “Mame” in ’66. There were some flops -- including “Dear World,” which reinvented “Mame” star Angela Lansbury as Jean Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot” -- before he was back on top again with “La Cage” in 1983.

Herman is small, frail-looking but decidedly upbeat, a man more likely to dwell on his good days than bad. His face lights up, for instance, as he recalls a period in 1969 when “Dolly,” “Mame” and “Dear World” were all playing on Broadway. Once a week, he’d make the round of his shows, catching his favorite numbers, spending intermission at one theater, dining out afterward with the cast at another. Then, when he’d get home, he’d stare in the mirror and say out loud: “This is the little Jewish boy from Jersey City whose greatest dream was to one day have a Broadway show.”

By now, there have been thousands of productions of those shows worldwide, thousands of performances that helped pay for this elegant, gated home atop Beverly Hills. The gay-themed “La Cage,” he says, “has played in almost every country imaginable, which I never thought would happen, and there’s never a time when there isn’t a ‘Dolly’ or a ‘Mame.’ ”

Even 1974’s short-lived “Mack & Mabel,” about film producer Mack Sennett and star Mabel Normand, had so substantial a following that it prompted a new look in 2000 by Reprise!, the Los Angeles organization devoted to concert stagings of old musicals.

Songs from all those shows, as well as the 1996 CBS television special “Mrs. Santa Claus,” constitute “Showtune.” He doesn’t really write songs outside musicals, Herman explains. “I tell you very honestly -- I would be a terrible pop songwriter. I need to musicalize a character or a scene. I keep the story going and, in some places, heighten the emotion of the scene with music and lyrics. That’s really what I do.”

What he also does is support his profession. He has underwritten the ASCAP Foundation Jerry Herman Legacy series, which sends Herman and four colleagues around the country, preaching the musical theater gospel to young people.

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He’s keen on all the revivals dotting Broadway as well. “It makes me realize that my work will go on and on,” says Herman. “It also pleases me because too many wonderful things are disposable in this country at this time. I never wanted the musical theater, our great American art form, to be one of them.”

Staying put

Herman moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1992, a few years after his longtime companion, Marty Finkelstein, died at 36 of AIDS. Herman was later diagnosed as HIV-positive and, he says, “I went through a very low period when I felt very ill, and I came out here to retire. I thought that I had been handed a death sentence, and in my mind that was the time to stop working. I made a very firm decision to come out here and be in warm weather and spend the years -- or months -- I had left.”

Herman soon bought an 18,000-square-foot home in Bel-Air from producer David Wolper. He set about remodeling it as he’d done earlier with five second homes here, several in Key West and even more in New York.

Having responded well to medications, he is now settled in Beverly Hills -- in his 30th house -- and has no plans to move again. He’s written a new score for a future show called “Miss Spectacular,” which he says would be directed by Tommy Tune and produced in Las Vegas in 2004. The tale of a young girl and a Miss Spectacular contest being held for a new Vegas hotel, it has already spawned a concept album featuring such stars as Michael Feinstein and Christine Baranski.

“Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” have both been made into movies and, he says, there’s been interest in doing both for TV as well. Likely first, however, are Broadway revivals of “Mame,” “Dolly” and “La Cage,” courtesy of New York’s Nederlander Organization. Nick Scandalios, Nederlander executive vice president, says no order is set yet, but whichever is first would probably be produced in fall 2004, with the other two following in 18-month cycles.

Meanwhile, there’s “Showtune,” begun 24 years ago when architect-playwright-set designer Paul Gilger came up with the notion of putting together an evening of Herman songs arranged thematically, not chronologically. Gilger’s script found its way to Herman, who was enthused, and that led to an initial production in 1985 in San Francisco. Originally called “Tune the Grand Up,” the show went on to play Sacramento, London and New York, and most of its creative team have been involved with it now for years.

“The composer doesn’t often have the chance to give an opinion,” Gilger says, “but he’s always been a phone call away.”

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When Herman did his first revue, “Nightcap,” in New York in the ‘50s, he says, “I had four people in my cast. I was the piano player because we couldn’t afford anybody else. I did some of the scenery myself, and it was Judy and Mickey putting on a show. Here we are after a wild career, doing a revue with six people, a piano, percussion and bass. It’s a very comforting reminder of those days.”

A new book, “Jerry Herman: The Lyrics,” is due out this fall from Routledge books and, says Herman, “this is a very good time. Because of the ASCAP concerts, I’m constantly on a plane somewhere. My health is good, and the medications are working like gangbusters. There went my retirement.”

*

‘Showtune: Celebrating the Words & Music of Jerry Herman’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.;

Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: July 27

Cost: $45-$60

Contact: (626) 356-PLAY

Barbara Isenberg is the author of “Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical.”


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