Jerry Herman, composer behind 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Mame,' talks about Goodspeed's revival and more
Jerry Herman is a legendary name in the music-theater world. He did, after all, write the songs for "Hello, Dolly!," "Mame" and "La Cage aux Folles."
Goodspeed Musicals is reviving his "Hello, Dolly!" starting Friday, and it staged "Mame" last season - and Herman has a connection to Goodspeed even beyond that. He worked on his musical "Dear World" at its Norma Terris Theatre in 2000, and he received the Goodspeed Award in 2007.
Herman, 81, is recovering from a broken hip - he says, "I'm okay, but I'm not really able to run around the way I used to" - and won't be coming to Goodspeed to see this "Dolly."
But, he says, "Of all the productions of mine that are about to happen, I'm most interested in the Goodspeed's because it's an organization I'm very fond of. I think it has proven that it stands for a lot of the same values in theater that I've written about - which are entertainment and color and glamor and all those old-fashioned things." And he laughs.
Klea Blackhurst will play the title character in Goodspeed's "Hello, Dolly," and Herman met her on a theater cruise together. He figures she'll make a fine Dolly.
"So many different kinds of people have done (the role)," he says. "If the person brings her own personality to the role and has kind of a sly sense of humor and a voice, you can't go wrong. I think Klea has all that."
When asked if there was a performer he wished had played Dolly but hasn't, Herman is quick with his response: "Bette Midler. She would be great."
Here are some excerpts from a recent phone conversation with Herman.
"Hello, Dolly!" famously had trouble during out-of-town tryouts - but the creative team fixed the show:
"I learned that there's nothing better for a show than to be out of town - meaning anywhere in the world except on Broadway - and have the chance to sit back and look at it and to make notes. I would sit in a box in most of the theaters that had boxes ... and I would watch (the show), and the most important thing was to watch the audience. When there was a stretch of more than two minutes and I'd see people look at their program or lose the focus of what was going on on that stage, I'd work on that part of the show. ...
"I added songs and deleted songs, and my bookwriter and I would sit together and pinpoint places in the show that we felt needed work. It was really a wonderful creative experience because the show got better and better by removing those bumps in it."
"Hello, Dolly!" premiered on Broadway on Jan. 16, 1964, just two months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Star Carol Channing once said, "Americans desperately needed a feel-good moment, an escape, and 'Dolly!' was it." Herman agrees:
"It was a perfect time for a piece of American entertainment, colorful and funny and melodic, to cheer the country up after the assassination. Its timing was kind of perfect."
"Hello, Dolly!" was a huge hit, becoming the longest running show on Broadway at the time. It ran in various incarnations over the years. When discussing the show's success, Herman praises the work of the show's librettist, Michael Stewart, who died in 1987:
"I think a great deal of the credit has to be given to Mike Stewart, who wrote the book, the script. He never allowed those slow passages that we would look at together. I don't think he's ever gotten enough credit. It's a delicious book for a musical. It's witty and funny, and it made my job easier. It was a great collaboration, and I miss him terribly."
Asked if it was fun writing for characters as big, bold and colorful as Dolly and Mame, Herman replies enthusiastically:
"Oh, God, yes! I love having a character that I would like to take to dinner and to spend an evening with. ... That's why, if you notice my successes, they're 95 percent peopled by characters that are funny and charming and colorful."
Herman wrote the songs for "La Cage aux Folles," which debuted in 1983:
"It has become a bigger success than both 'Mame' and 'Dolly.' It has played more countries, more theaters and been just enjoyed by more theatergoers than 'Dolly' and 'Mame.' Of course, when they write about me, they always pinpoint Dolly and Mame because they are of the same glamorous, fun female (type). And 'La Cage' is about two guys. But let me tell you that that show has really treated me so remarkably well."
Back when he was working on "Dear World" in 2000 at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, he told the New York Times, "Thank God for Chester - it is sorely needed. I don't know of any other theater like it. I've certainly been discouraged; there is no place for a new Jerry Herman musical. There is a hostile environment for accessible theater music, and that's the kind of work I do.'' We asked if he still felt that way:
"Basically, yes. I'm not a complainer, and God knows I have no reason to complain. I've had a wonderful, wonderful life with the kind of musicals I like to write. But it's not as fashionable to write happy, Technicolor musicals as it is - we had a period of very gray musicals, and they're wonderful and I admire them and some of them are my favorite shows of all time. But I've always been fascinated and excited about characters that I love and that I feel an audience would love. All my shows really had that element, and they gave the audience someone to root for, someone to care about ..."