FROM THE ARCHIVES: A 1969 Interview with Jerry Herman

For decades, Tams-Witmark published a periodical newsletter called MUSICAL SHOW. The mini-magazine (originally a mini-newspaper) included photos and summaries of our shows, along with essays, interviews, and reminiscences from some of Broadway’s greatest writers. We thought it would be fun to revisit some of those articles, so we’ll share those gems here from time to time.

In August of 1969, Tams-Witmark sat down to talk with composer/lyricist Jerry Herman. At this point, Mr. Herman had written the music and lyrics to four Broadway musicals: MILK & HONEY, HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, and DEAR WORLD. He had already won his first Tony Award (for Best Composer & Lyricist of HELLO, DOLLY!) and was just wrapping up his work on the film version of HELLO, DOLLY!, which opened a few months later, in December of 1969.

Jerry Herman Interview Mame, Dear World, Hello, Dolly! Milk and Honey, MusicalsTAMS-WITMARK: Do you ever contemplate also writing the book for a future musical?

JERRY HERMAN: God, no! I have enough on my shoulders doing both music and lyrics.

Are many really important contributions made to a musical in the hustle and bustle of out-of-town tryouts?

I’ve written some of my most important material under those circumstances. ‘Before the Parade Passes By,” “So Long Dearie,” “Chin Up, Ladies,” and “I Don’t Want to Know” were all written locked in hotel rooms under the terrible pressure of having to replace something that wasn’t working the way you intended it to.

Do you tailor a score for a specific star?

Never. I find that it limits my imagination and interferes with getting to the heart of the character. It is much more successful for me to write for Dolly Levi, and then add a few finishing touches that personalize it for Carol Channing.

Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY! Musicals Jerry Herman Interview

Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY!

Of your four Broadway musicals, which was… the most difficult?

HELLO, DOLLY!

The most fun?

MAME.

The most satisfying creatively?

DEAR WORLD.

Jerry Herman Interview Musicals

Jerry Herman during the recording session for HELLO, DOLLY!

What do you think about today’s trend toward rock musicals?

Is it really a trend? The musical that mopped up every award last year [HALLELUJAH, BABY!] is traditional and melodic. Hasn’t every generation’s current jukebox sound been transferred to the stage of that period? And haven’t these scores invariably become dated less than a decade later? Certainly rock has its place on the American musical stage, just as the next pop sound will have its place several years from now, but it’s the musical comedy writing that ignores today’s jukebox that remains classic and timeless.

Leslie Uggams in HALLELUJAH, BABY! Musicals Jerry Herman Interview

Leslie Uggams in HALLELUJAH, BABY!

What comes first, the music or the lyrics?

I almost always build a melody and a lyric simultaneously, though it’s true that the lyric idea motivates the entire mood of the song, I find the most successful way of working is to treat the whole thing like a jigsaw puzzle, letting a lyric inspire a few bars a music, and then letting those few bars of music lead me to a further lyric development.

Who was responsible for your first break into professional theater?

So many people. Gerard Oestreicher, who produced MILK & HONEY, took an enormous chance using an unknown for his first Broadway musical… Ed Sullivan and Lee Jordan were tremendous boosters… the late Danton Walker… and an army of family and friends who provided me with encouragement through those years when I was playing the piano in cocktail lounges.

What musical comedy work do you most admire?

My favorite score is GYPSY. Its roaring theatricality, bite, and humor absolutely knock me out. THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and CAROUSEL are high on my list.

Jerry Herman Interview GYPSY Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman with Karen Moore and Jacqueline Mayro in GYPSY

What writers do you feel have influenced you most?

Frank Loesser gave me invaluable advice and encouragement in the lean years, and has always been an idol of mine. I adored his inventiveness, his soaring, simple melodic gift, and his restless search for new forms.

Anyone else?

Rodgers, of course… and probably most of all, Irving Berlin. His work is ageless, touching, simple and memorable. When people left a Berlin musical, they had something to take home with them. And my greatest satisfaction is to hear an audience, at one of my musicals, hum as it leaves the theater.

Jerry Herman Interview Musicals

Jerry Herman with Musical Director Donald Pippin

What would you like to see done by colleges and universities to prepare students for a career such as yours?

My university (Miami) had an experimental program that required students to write, direct, and set their own productions that were viewed and criticized by live audiences. If more colleges would realize that the only way to learn theater is to do theater, we’d have many more prepared graduates. Those four years were worth a decade of stock experience and another of classroom theater, because at a mighty tender age, I saw my work performed… succeed or fail in front of tough audiences.

Don’t you feel that Off-Broadway satisfies this role to a great extent?

Honestly, no. When the Off-Broadway movement began, it truly was a place to learn… to experiment… but financial and union demands have altered all that. Today it is governed by the same problems – the same critics, the same need to be either a smash hit or nothing – as Broadway.

What about the future?

Jerry Herman Interview Hello Dolly Musicals

Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie adaptation of HELLO, DOLLY!

I’m currently very interested in doing a score for an original film musical. Working on the film version of HELLO, DOLLY! has gotten me enormously excited about the medium, and my next project will probably be Hollywood-based, but of course, Broadway will always be my prime interest. You see, I’m hopelessly in love with the musical theater.