Musical man humming along

NAME: Jerry Herman

DESCRIPTION: Shuttling between Los Angeles and Leicester, England.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: The best of times is now.

“It’s going to be a fall and a half,” says composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, who looks poised to be this season’s musical theater man of the moment on both sides of the Atlantic. In recent years, Herman’s star has been in eclipse, clouded over by the British behemoths that defined the musical throughout the 1980s and – in critics’ eyes, at least – by the ongoing intellectual heft of Stephen Sondheim, whose ironic and darkly witty musical realm lies at some remove from Herman’s penchant for a parade.

Now, the parade is back in town. On Oct. 11, “Hello, Dolly!” is returning to Broadway to the Lunt-Fontanne, allowing Carol Channing one final chance to bring New Yorkers to their feet; announced for seven weeks, the “limited engagement” has a $2 million advance and seems guaranteed both to extend its Broadway gig and continue on a world tour. Herman has been “all-over supervisor” on the production, he says, during its lucrative U.S. tour: “That in itself was a full-time job.”

Oct. 24 sees the start of London previews at the Piccadilly of Herman’s favorite of his own shows – “Mack and Mabel,” with Howard McGillin and Caroline O’Connor in the roles of silent filmmaker Mack Sennett and his leading lady Mabel Normand, originated on Broadway by Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters.

The London stage debut of a 1974 New York flop is carrying an advance of $1.57 million.

Away from the stage, Herman, 62, is no less active. He is working on a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version of “Mame” to star, he says, “a lady yet to be found.” And lest his first Mame feel in any way neglected, Herman is writing an original musical, “Mrs. Santa Claus,” for Angela Lansbury to air next year on CBS. “I’ve never been busier in my life,” says the New York-born Herman, who made his Broadway debut, at age 28, with “Milk and Honey” in 1961. “It’s almost ridiculous.”

Speaking from the English Midlands city of Leicester, where “Mack and Mabel” is having a monthlong tryout at the Haymarket Theater, Herman was sounding particularly keen about a show that might have gone unsung had Olympic ice skating champions Torvill & Dean not chosen its overture for their gold medal triumph, thereby ensuring the score’s prolonged life.

“I shouldn’t say this, because shows become like children, and no one would say I like my daughter better than my son,” said Herman, but, “I have a special affection for this piece. For that reason I’ve tried even harder to get it on.”

The “big mistake” with “Mack and Mabel” the first time around, Herman recalls, was “trying to do a tragic musical even though it’s set in a wacky world” – the slapstick cinema days of the Keystone Kops.

“Our audience, who had fallen in love with Mabel, was not thrilled to hear about her death,” he said, referring to the original ending. “This isn’t The Phantom of the Opera’; it’s an old-fashioned entertainment, and I love the word ‘old-fashioned’ – you can use that about me.”

The reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber prompts consideration of Herman’s self-assessment amid a musical climate dominated by the contrasting talents of Lloyd Webber and Sondheim. “I’m a great Lloyd Webber fan because he’s a great melodist, and anyone who can write melodies I can go into a theater and leave humming is all right with me.” (Accepting his 1984 Tony for “La Cage aux Folles” – which won over Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” – Herman pointedly cited the return of the “hummable” tune.)

“I purposely intended to write for a mass audience,” continues Herman, who recalls being “bitten by Irving Berlin at an early age…. I wanted to write simple, melodic songs that propelled the show but then could be taken out and have lives of their own. If critics sort of tossed me off as the popular writer and not the cerebral one, that was fine with me.”

Besides, any erstwhile creative knocks pale next to his sense that, as the number from “La Cage” puts it, “the best of times is now.”

“The critics were usually picky with me,” says Herman, “but slowly, these same men and women started, I think, to appreciate a style which has sort of gone by the wayside. All of a sudden now, with the reviews of ‘Dolly,’ I’m finding myself a national treasure. It’s very interesting – all you have to do is put the work out there. You may be criticized for it one year and admired 10 years later, but the work itself doesn’t change.”

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