Saturday, May 10, 2008

Jerry Herman: Up Close & Personal

You can't be a showtune aficionado and not know the name Jerry Herman. As composer and lyricist of such musicals as Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage aux Folles, and a string of others, he is a musical theatre giant. Naturally, I was delighted to have a chance to see this living legend in person.

Jerry Herman: Up Close & Personal. (05/10/2008)
Jerry Herman: Up Close & Personal. (05/10/2008)

Held in Orange County's RenĂ©e & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the event — Jerry Herman: Up Close and Personal — was equal parts songwriting workshop and performance. Jerry Herman was interviewed on stage by Michael Kerker, vice president of ASCAP. Topics included everything from how he got his start to his songwriting process. Between each interview segment, we'd hear songs performed by folks like Jason Graae, Ron Raines and the amazing Debbie Shapiro Gravitte.

The show was at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. (04/22/07)
The show was at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. (04/22/07)

I thought I knew a lot about Jerry Herman before, yet I still learned so much. I found it interesting that he writes music and lyrics simultaneously, never writing one element first, then applying the other. I also loved the story about how Jerry Herman's mother, seeing his talent, arranged an interview for her young son to meet another musical theatre legend, Frank Loesser (Guys & Dolls anyone?).

Jerry Herman and Carol Channing as Dolly.
Jerry Herman and Carol Channing as Dolly.

Frank Loesser would grow to become Jerry Herman's mentor. To this day, Jerry Herman thinks of songs in the way Frank Loesser did: As a train, complete with an engine, a middle section, and most importantly, a caboose. The caboose, Jerry Herman said, could be summed up with a parting line. He cited as an aexample the final line in the song "I Won't Send Roses." Rather than ending on the words, "I won't send roses," Jerry Herman added "... and roses suit you so."

A not-so-recent headshot of the great Jerry Herman.
A not-so-recent headshot of the great Jerry Herman.

My favorite Q&A segment discussed how so many Jerry Herman songs have moved on to have lives of their own, beyond the scope of the musical they were written for. Think of classic songs such as "Hello, Dolly," "If He Walked Into My Life," "I Am What I Am," "The Best of Times is Now," and many others. Despite being written for a specific character at a specific time in a specific musical, these songs have become classics in their own right.

Angela Lansbury, Jerry Herman and Carol Channing.
Angela Lansbury, Jerry Herman and Carol Channing.

Jerry Herman seems just as surprised at this fact as anyone. He remembers the first time he heard a recording of one of his songs on the radio, a cover of "Shalom" by Eddie Fisher (Jerry was in the supermarket the first time he heard it). "Hello Dolly," for example, was popularized when Louis Armstrong recorded a jazz version. "If He Walked Into My Life," was made most famous when Eydie Gorme covered it as a torch song.

Jerry Herman and Lucille Ball.
Jerry Herman and Lucille Ball.

Jerry Herman also discussed how when they were casting Mame, no one at first wanted to cast Angela Lansbury, who as we all know, became legendary in the role. Having just finished filming the cold war political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury was the furthest thing the producers had in mind for the role of Mame. But Jerry Herman championed her, and eventually got his way (much to the delight of generations of musical theatre fans).

Jerry Herman and Bernadette Peters.
Jerry Herman and Bernadette Peters.

My only complaint was that the show was too short! I loved all the Q&A, but I also wanted to hear more of the songs, especially by the amazing Debbie Gravitte. But I was glad to hear her stirring renditions of "Wherever He Ain't" from Mack and Mabel and my favorite Herman ballad, "If He Walked Into My Life," from Mame.

A more recent photo of Jerry Herman.
A more recent photo of Jerry Herman.

They closed the night when all three performers joined Jerry Herman on piano for a rousing rendition of the La Cage aux Folles hit, "The Best of Times is Now." For the encore, they singers closed the night when they sang "Hello Dolly," or more to the point, "Hello Jerry." And when they sang the lyric, "Jerry don't ever go away," I couldn't agree more.

1 comment:

beastandbean said...

Wow...sounds like a lot of fun. Would have loved to hear them sing "Hello, Jerry!" But looking at those pics, I gotta say two things...

1. Carol Channing is way too tan in that pic with Jerry and Angela Lansbury!

and...

2. Bernadette Peters has not aged at all...kind of scary actually...but wow...

Also, love that bit about the "caboose"...it's too bad the "train" in Herman's clunker of a TV movie, "Mrs. Santa Claus" was so damn boring...if it had been better, I might have stayed awake to hear the "caboose" in that one too! Ha...