Jerry Herman on 'Mame,' One Grand Dame
Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman has won Tonys, Grammys and a spot in the Theatre Hall of Fame. His first Broadway show, 1961's Milk and Honey, was followed by the smash hit Hello, Dolly! in 1964.
Then came Mame, which opened on Broadway in 1966 and is getting fresh attention these days. A 40th-anniversary production is running at the Kennedy Center through July 2, starring Christine Baranski and directed by Eric Shaeffer.
Angela Lansbury starred in the original Mame, which piled up 1,508 performances on the Great White Way. Rosalind Russell created the role in the 1958 stage comedy Auntie Mame, which wasn't a musical. The story was first told in a 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis.
Herman tells Liane Hansen about the road to Broadway, his reaction to the revival and how he has adapted the work to fit so many different leading ladies over the years.
NPR's Jesse Baker produced this feature.
LIANE HANSEN, host:
At the Kennedy Center, here in Washington, D.C., a 40-year-old musical is enjoying a new life.
(Soundbite of "Mame")
HANSEN: Mame originally opened on Broadway in 1966 at the Winter Garden Theatre. Angela Lansbury starred in the title role and the show played for more than 1,500 performances. In the latest revival, Emmy Award winner Christine Baranski plays Auntie Mame. Jerry Herman wrote the music and lyrics for Mame, as well as for Hello Dolly, La Cage aux Folles, and Mack and Mabel. He worked on the musical arrangements for the latest production. And last week, during a dress rehearsal, Jerry Herman sat and listened as the orchestra and cast belted out some of Broadway's classic numbers.
(Soundbite of "Mame")
HANSEN: Jerry Herman, thanks for taking time out from your rehearsal to talk to us.
Mr. JERRY HERMAN (Composer/Lyricist): It's such a pleasure to see you again.
HANSEN: The pleasure is all mine. I was watching you in the theater during the rehearsal, and I thought, is every production new to you? Is it like, in some ways, starting from scratch?
Mr. HERMAN: This is particularly exciting and new, because it's our 40th anniversary, and we're using the original orchestrations and the original choral parts. So it's déjà vu raised to the 9th power. Can you imagine how it feels for me to still be able to get the same goosebumps when I hear that overture? It's really a remarkable experience.
HANSEN: What was your first reaction when you were approached about a revival of this show?
Mr. HERMAN: I just said, Wow. I didn't need any time to think about it or - I just plunged right in and I wanted to be part of this. And I've had a lovely time working with everyone.
HANSEN: Let's go back and just get a little bit of history about the production. How did your involvement in the original production happen?
Mr. HERMAN: Hello Dolly was running on Broadway, and I got a call from Lawrence and Lee, the wonderful writers of Inherit The Wind and Auntie Mame, and I had never met these gentleman, and they asked if I would mind having lunch with them. And I was absolutely thrilled because I love those two plays. And we went to Sardi's, and after a few minutes of conversation, one of them said to me, How would you like to musicalize Auntie Mame? And again, I didn't have to think or say, oh, I'll call my agent or any of that business. I just went, Oh, boy, yes. It was such an instantaneous love affair that I had with this piece of work because I honestly could have written seven or eight more songs for this character. She's so rich and she's so full of fun and she has her problems and her romance and her disappointments, and it was just everything that a songwriter dreams about being offered.
HANSEN: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Mr. HERMAN: Yes, the first song I wrote was Open A New Window.
(Soundbite of "Open A New Window")
Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Open a new window, open a new door. Travel a new highway that's never been tried before, before you find you're a dull fellow punching the same clock, walking the same tightrope as everyone on the block. The fellow you ought to be, it's three dimensional, soaking up life, down to your toes.
Mr. HERMAN: I went to that because it's really about a lady teaching her nephew how to live, live, live. And there is a phrase in the actual play where she says, You've got to open windows every day. And the song just flew out of me and I got - I knew that I had made a start with that.
HANSEN: How long did it take you to finish?
Mr. HERMAN: With the score?
Mr. HERMAN: About six months, which is fast, and it really was very natural material to me because I had a mother who was a glamorous lady, who believed in all the things that Mame believes in. And so I didn't have to study the subject matter. I grew up with it.
HANSEN: Was the road to Broadway then bumpy or smooth?
Mr. HERMAN: This was unbelievable. You're supposed to have all kinds of problems when you're out of town with a musical, and I have had those experiences. But with Mame, well, I'll sum it up in one sentence. Angela Lansbury, Bea Arthur and I went to the movies because things were going that smoothly. Now, that should tell you what kind of an experience it was. I remember sitting with the two ladies and I said, If we told anybody what we're doing this afternoon in Philadelphia, with a new musical, they would not believe it. And the two ladies started to giggle, and we were almost asked to leave the theater because we laughed so hard. That's the kind of experience it was.
HANSEN: Could you have imagined at the time, had any idea, that this show would actually endure for 40 years?
Mr. HERMAN: Honestly, no. I was just so thrilled to have it open and be the success it was, and then went on to other things. But Dolly and Mame and now La Cage have never stopped. Right now, for example, Dolly is being rehearsed by Tovah Feldshuh at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and I was trying to get to Tovah to give her a hug and some support, and I'm so busy with my orchestra here that I wasn't able to. But they're rehearsing at the same time, and Mack And Mabel, one of my true favorites, is playing in London as we speak. So this has been quite a fall for me.
HANSEN: How does the original vision of the show, which was directed by Gene Saks, you think compare to this new production, which is being directed by Eric Shaffer?
Mr. HERMAN: Eric has taken the best of what this show was, and made it work like a film. It never stops. In 1966, when we finished a big number, we had to pull a curtain and we had to do something in one, it's called, you know, in front of the curtain. And he figured out a way to do this show seamlessly, and it's very exciting.
HANSEN: So sitting here, does it feel as though 40 years have gone by?
Mr. HERMAN: I can't believe that 20 years have gone by. I do when I look in the mirror, but aside from that, it just amazes me that it was 40 years ago. I mean, I was a child and didn't realize it at the time. I felt all grown up and writing a Broadway musical and didn't realize how lucky I was to have been handed material like this at such a young age.
HANSEN: Do you still get goosebumps when the curtain goes up?
Mr. HERMAN: Oh, yes, yes. Just talking about it, the hair is standing up on my arm.
(Soundbite of overture to "Mame")
HANSEN: Jerry Herman is the composer and lyricist for the musical Mame. A 40th anniversary production of the show, starring Christine Baranski, is now playing at the Kennedy Center here in Washington. Mr. Herman, thank you so much for your time.
Mr. HERMAN: Thank you.
(Soundbite of overture)
HANSEN: My Best Girl and other songs from the original production are at our website, NPR.org, where Jerry Herman offers more thoughts on how he adapts his musicals for new stars. Our feature on Jerry Herman was produced by Jesse Baker and recorded by Brooke Hun. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.