Spotlight on


Jerry Herman

Jerry by V.J.

Broadway's legendary composer, Jerry Herman, is busy writing a new musical, not for Broadway, but for Las Vegas. He and Ken Ludwig are writing Miss Spectacular for a Mirage Hotel theater. I had written a short article for Las Vegas Life magazine which focused on this new musical, but Jerry and I talked Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, and other shows in a phone chat at the time. Although it was my first time talking with him, I felt like I was talking to a close friend.

VJ: Good morning, Jerry. How are you?

JH: Wonderful, John. I just got out of the shower and I'm sitting here in a cozy bathrobe.

VJ: Are you dry?

JH: I am dry.

VJ: Before I ask you anything about your new musical I have to tell you something. I was talking to a 19 year old theatre student the other day and I told her I would be talking to you, so I asked her what her favorite Jerry Herman songs were.

JH: Uh-huh.

VJ: And do you know what her answer was? "Well, I think I like 'I'll Be Here Tomorrow' and 'I Don't Want To Know.'"

JH: My God!

VJ: Can you imagine? Y'know I expected...

JH: Do you know that I have chills? Do you know why? This is a very important subject to me. It thrills the pants off me when young people know my work, period...when they know my obscure work it really just gives me chills because those are 2 of the most obscure songs of mine.

VJ: You would expect younger people to say "Mame" or something more well known.

JH: It tickles me. You would expect them to say "We Need A Little Christmas" or "If He Walked Into My Life."

VJ: Right, exactly. .

JH: And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm thrilled that they know those. But to say "I'll Be Here Tomorrow" really, really pleases me.

VJ: Isn't that something! And even when you were doing your show on Broadway last year with Lee Roy and Florence, the young kids were attending. I'm sure you met some of them at the stage door.

JH: I was amazed at the number of young people in that audience. And not for me, not in a personal way, but for the future of Broadway, which I sometimes have great reservations about. It made me feel there is an audience out there.

VJ: And that's what this whole thing is about right now, I mean, Broadway has turned into the land of theme-park musicals. I think everybody is really waiting for the next Jerry Herman musical....even though it's happening in Las Vegas. Everything lately has been so dark and gloomy. Y'know what I mean?

JH: Isn't it dark, isn't it? I mean, what other subjects are they going to come up with after lynching and assassinating presidents? I can't imagine.

VJ: (chuckling) Oh I hear you exactly. Anyhow, with this young girl, it just goes to show you that people are looking at the body of work.

La Cage aux Folles

In 1964, there was Dolly, then in 1966, you had Mame, and then of course, came Dear World, Mack and Mabel and The Grand Tour and those were not big runs but then here we go 18 years after Mame out comes La Cage aux Folles...

JH: Yes.

VJ: ...which was a big hit. And you win the Tony. Here you are on top of the world again conquering Broadway. And now we go from 1984 to 2000, a new musical, Miss Spectacular, and it's being written in less than 2 years which is a feat in itself. I mean a Broadway musical can take what, 5 years or more to write and produce?

JH: Yeah...

VJ: About 3 years ago you were writing "Showtune", your memoir, and you had already been diagnosed as HIV positive. What was your mind-frame back then?

JH: My mind-frame, honestly, John, was that my career was over. And that I was probably not going to be here very long. And I thought it was a good time to write my memoirs because I had such interesting people in my life...and such interesting stories to tell. I never thought that I would meet up with a Steve Wynn, which gets us to the reason that Miss Spectacular happened.

VJ: Steve Wynn approached you? To commission you to write a musical for the Mirage?

JH: Yeah.

VJ: But in "Showtune" you had stated that you were toying around with ideas for certain musicals but nothing was really hitting you. Just because he approached you doesn't mean you had an idea, so there had to be something happening here.

JH: I'll tell you...Steve's enthusiasm for me and the way he did it. He invited me for dinner and he sent a plane for me. I mean he really treated me like Prince Phillip. He said I was his favorite Broadway composer. And he said he had four of the most beautiful hotels in the world and all these restaurants and his own art gallery...the only thing missing is a Jerry Herman musical. So I said anybody that talks to me like that can have anything they want.

And he just got to me. His enthusiasm for Broadway and for me just got to me and I said I've got to do something for this man. And I've got to do something for this new way to do Broadway because I'm not happy with what's going on on 44th street and 45th street. And if this is a new way to do it I want to be there and be in the front-run of this. I got very excited and I got very excited about Las Vegas...because I hadn't been there in years. I saw the Bellagio and some of the other new buildings and I thought Wow! This is a great setting for a Jerry Herman musical! And that's what really caused me to come up with the idea for Miss Spectacular, which is about a girl who comes to Las Vegas to be a contestant in a contest to front a new hotel called The Spectacular.

And Steve loved the idea of using Vegas as the background. One of my songs is called "Las Vegas" and it's my "New York, New York."

VJ: Oh! Interesting...

JH: The whole idea of doing it a new way and working with a man with that kind of excitement and enthusiasm just turned my motors on.

Jerry Herman Musicals

VJ: Is this going to be a Broadway-type book musical?

JH: It's a Broadway-type book musical and it's exactly the type of show you've seem from me in the past. The only difference is it's going to be in a theatre being created for it in Las Vegas. It's going to have a great deal of Las Vegas spectacle, but it's going to have a very important book holding the songs together. It's not a revue.

VJ: And the book is by Ken Ludwig?

JH: Ken Ludwig, yes.

VJ: Oh. He's fabulous. I love him.

JH: He's fabulous. And he's perfect for me because we think alike. We have the most wonderful phone conversation every day. We get very excited because we're really on the same wavelength. We're both theatre-nuts and we both love comedy and humor and romance, so we're really having a great time. It's a very romantic little story that has these huge production numbers stemming out of it.

VJ: That's just what I was going to ask you. Is there going to be a big production number like Mame or Dolly?

JH: There are going to be four.

VJ: Oh, wow!

JH: Four huge production numbers. I mean with elevators coming up from the bottom of the stage, and John Napier is doing the sets. And wild costumes, I mean, it's going to be very spectacular if you'll pardon the word.

VJ: Is the score complete? I know you can write fast.

JH: Not only complete but it's been recorded as a concept album. And that's going to be released this year so that the world will hear Miss Spectacular in an unusual way, not as an original cast album, but they'll hear the songs.

VJ: That seems to be a very good marketing ploy today, recording before shows open.

JH: Yes. Steve and I thought that was a good idea. He said, "Why don't you just go to the people that you think are right to sing your songs." So, I made a list of all the people I thought would be right to sing the nine songs that I had written. And every single one of them said yes. I'm talking about Steve Lawrence, Michael Feinstein, Christine Baranski, Faith Prince, Davis Gaines, Debbie Gravitt. I've left somebody out, but this is a helluva cast.

VJ: Marcia Lewis told me she saw you while you were in New York recently and she heard some of the songs and she told me, "John, you're going to love it!"

How has this experience been different, in writing a musical...with Steve Wynn's blessing, than doing it on Broadway?

JH: He has given me full rein. He said, "Jerry, I trust you. And I want you to put an album together." And he let me go. He let me hire my orchestrator and my conductor, Larry Blank and Don Pippin. He didn't interfere in any way because he trusted me. And that's a very nice feeling to be trusted. He paid for everything and he's absolutely thrilled with the results. He's having a ball. The man is having just as much fun as I am. And when you have fun doing a musical it shows.

VJ: I read an article in the New York Post where Steve sang a couple of songs from Miss Spectacular at a stockholders meeting.

JH: Yeah.

VJ: And I heard the stock went down 2 points that day.

JH: (convulsing with laugher) He, he, he just can't stop. That's just his enthusiasm. Y'know, it was not about that...to hear about the stock And he can't stop his enthusiasm...and I love him for it. I just hooked up with the right people.

VJ: It's such a different story than the old David Merrick days. But, we're not going to go there.

JH: It's exactly the opposite. And it's made me very happy and made me write in my style without anybody looking over my shoulder.

VJ: It's sort of giving you the creative freedom to go anywhere you want.

JH: I've never had such creative freedom and it's wonderful.

VJ: Back around the early 1960's you wrote Hello, Dolly! with Ethel Merman in mind?

JH: Yes, I did.

VJ: But...and isn't that a turn of fate? Carol Channing...I was at the revival in '95...to sit in that theatre when Carol was at the top of that staircase...

Hello, Dolly!

JH: Oh my God! I mean, the roof came down. Just to have had that if I had had nothing else in my life. Do you know what it feels like to stand in the back of the theatre and hear that?

VJ: I can only just imagine. It was just one of the most thrilling evenings I've ever had in the theatre.

But, with that in mind, did you write Miss Spectacular for any particular actress in mind?