Jerry Herman Gathers His Girls for a Swinging Broadway Bash

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Pacing the back of the theater on the opening night of Jerry's Girls, songwriter Jerry Herman, 52, had more than his usual case of jitters. Not that the man behind such smash Broadway musicals as Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles needed to worry. His 10 shows in 25 years, producing such hit songs as If He Walked Into My Life, I Am What I Am and versions of Dolly sung by practically everyone from Satchmo to Streisand, have set audiences gushing along with his bank account. But Jerry's Girls isn't about money; this revue—featuring 37 tunes from nearly all his musicals—is a statement. Fearing that his kind of music might be going out of fashion, Herman is taking a stand for what he calls "the simple, hummable show tune." Just another way, he says, of expressing his credo: "The heart of me, the essence, is I love to entertain."

For more than a decade now the sophisticated, analytical scores of Stephen Sondheim have dominated Broadway. "I thought, how awful, they don't want what I'm doing anymore," says Herman, whose last three shows (Dear World, Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour) had proved disappointments. Then two years ago his spirits lifted when his score for La Cage (still running) won the Tony award over Stephen Sondheim's more adventurous Sunday in the Park With George (now closed). Herman saw the Tony as a "welcoming back." But Jerry's Girls, which started as a road tour in 1984, would prove that La Cape was not a fluke and that Broadway wanted him home to stay.

So there in the far reaches of the St. James Theater, Herman watched nervously as his stars, Leslie Uggams, Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera, maneuvered through dozens of costume changes to give each song the flashy showcase he wanted. "I've devoted most of my career to larger-than-life ladies," says the 5'8" Herman, which explains why there are no men in the revue.

But for Jerry the most important larger-than-life lady was missing: his mother. Before she married Jerry's father, Harry, a teacher who died in 1983, the former Ruth Sachs sang on her own radio show in the 1930s. "She was glamorous like Mame and witty like Dolly," says Herman. "When she walked into a room, she lit it up." Ruth died of cancer at 44 when Jerry was just 21, too soon to see any of her son's shows. "She should be here," he says. "On opening nights I stand in the theater and wish she could see my work. She's there, though, in my characters." Carol Channing, a Herman friend since 1963 when she created the role of Dolly, thinks Ruth is the key to understanding Herman and his work. "He grew up adoring this big, pizzazzy woman. Jerry always writes for wonderful, big avalanches of women. Jerry never replaced his mother in his life. He's been writing for her ever since."

Ruth, a housewife, nourished her only child's musical gifts. At 13, Jerry returned from his first Broadway show, Annie Get Your Gun, and pounded out the tunes by ear on the family piano. "Music was fun," says Jerry, "but I never thought you could earn a living from it." After attending Manhattan's Parsons School of Design for one year and later graduating from the University of Miami in 1954, Jerry planned to pursue a career in interior design when his mother urged him to show his songs to a friend in the music business. "Go ahead, waste a half hour of your life," she said to him. That day he sold his first song for $200.

In 1961 the 27-year-old Herman became one of the youngest composers on Broadway with his first show, Milk and Honey. "The music just poured out of me," he recalls, noting that Mame's title song took precisely 20 minutes to write. During "the lean years" of the rock/disco '70s, Herman turned not to drugs or drink, but to decorating houses and reselling them. Herman could have lived handsomely just off the profits of Dolly, but he finds decorating therapeutic.

His five-story Manhattan town house (he also has a home with a swimming pool on Fire Island) reflects what Channing calls "a chiseled, tidy little man." A trainer comes four times a week to supervise workouts for him. "I still weigh 135 pounds," he says with pride. His sweaters (he buys four or five at a time) are neatly folded one on top of the other in his closet. Jerry's only live-in companion is an Abyssinian cat named Barnaby. A good time for Herman is "going out to the movies and then out for a hamburger with friends." His taste is as simple as his music.

Slow to anger ("With bad news you lose him," says Channing), Herman does show a ruffled feather when mention is made of gay critics who claim La Cage, about middle-aged gay lovers, is too safe. "One day when they are old and gray," he says, "they will realize what this show is doing for their cause and send a thank-you note."

La Cage, now on tour in 26 cities, is rumored to become a film starring Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon, as ZaZa, the drag queen. When he puts on his makeup, says Jerry, ZaZa is "just another one of my glamorous, larger-than-life, anti-bigot females." ZaZa, Dolly, Mame and other homages to his mother are on view in Jerry's Girls, now settled in for a Broadway run. Though Chita Rivera is temporarily out of the show due to a car accident last week that fractured her leg, the musical will go on with understudies. Jerry couldn't be happier. "It's very emotional," he says. "I stand at the back of the theater for two hours and see and hear my whole life go by."

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