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From the Archives: In Conversation With Jerry Herman
Jerry Herman
Jerry Herman

This interview originally appeared in The Dramatist January/February, 2005.

For this special composers’ issue of the magazine, The Dramatist asked Council member Stephen Schwartz to talk with fellow Guild member Jerry Herman. Both men are among the handful of theatre composers to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway (Herman in 1969, Schwartz in 1976) and to reach the Billboard Top 40 in the rock era (Herman in 1964, Schwartz in 1972). Both are also currently represented on Broadway: Herman with the revival of La Cage aux Folles, and Schwartz with Wicked. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Stephen Schwartz:  Everybody always asks which comes first, the words or the music. Since you write both, I wonder if you have a relatively set process or if it varies from song to song. How do you generally start a song? 

Jerry Herman:  I write music and lyrics simultaneously, as a general rule. The song always begins with the idea of how to express the character or the situation I’m musicalizing. For example, “I Won’t Send Roses” was one of the most difficult songs I ever had to write, because I knew there was a place in the first act that Mack Sennett would have to sing something romantic to Mabel, yet we made it clear he was a man who didn’t know how to say, “I love you.” That was his great problem in his romantic life. So, I had to write a romantic ballad for a man who didn’t know how to say those words, or anything like them. It stymied me for quite a while, until I got the idea of Mack warning Mabel that he would not fulfill all the needs she might have. I thought that was an interesting and odd way to approach the song. 

When I got that idea, the words “I won’t send roses or hold the door. I won’t remember which dress you wore,” immediately came into my head -with the notes that accompanied them. I was so excited I went right to my caboose, as I call it, and wrote, “I won’t send roses, and roses suit you so.” I knew I had the framework for an interesting and original approach to the song. I filled in the rest as you would a jigsaw puzzle. That is how I write most of my songs. 

“Put on Your Sunday Clothes” came from a line of dialogue. I forget the exact line, but it was something like “Let’s get dressed up, Barnaby. We’re going to New York.” I wrote, “Put on your Sunday clothes, there’s lots of world out there.” I wrote those two lines and the notes that accompany them and went immediately to “For there’s no blue Monday in your Sunday clothes.” Again, I had a beginning and an end. 

Stephen Schwartz:  It sounds as if you like to come up with a framework of where you’ll begin and where you’ll end. 

Jerry Herman:  It’s not always that way, but some of my best songs have been written that way. 

Stephen Schwartz:  It sounds as if an idea will come to you somewhere, but then you go to the piano to explore it. Some composers do a lot of work away from the piano. I don’t; I always write at the piano. I wonder about your process. 

Jerry Herman:  I always like to work at a piano. However, I got the idea for “I Won’t Send Roses" walking past a florist and seeing dozens of bouquets of roses. I got those first notes on Eighth Avenue, of all places, ran home and did the rest of the song in a traditional way at the piano. 

For “Gooch’s Song,” I got the framework and the first couplet, then I wrote the rest of the lyric walking the streets of New York, so oblivious to traffic I don’t know why I wasn’t run over. I first wrote, “I altered the drape of a drop of my bodice and softened the shape of my brow. I followed directions and made some connections, but what do I do now?” That gave me the basis of the internal rhymes. Then walking the streets of New York, I wrote, “Who’d think this Miss Prim would have opened a window as far as her whim would allow, and who would suppose it was so hard to close it.” I would get so excited I would find myself someplace I wasn’t intending to be. I wrote a lot of that song walking the streets, but that’s unusual for me. That happens more when I write a list song.

However, the title song of La Cage aux Folles was also written that way. When I had the opening lines, “It’s rather gaudy, but it’s also rather grand, and while the waiter pads your check, he’ll kiss your hand,” I had a framework. Those were written in my traditional style of music and lyrics simultaneously at the piano, but then I was able to gather more words by walking the street. I do a lot of walking. My collaborators always laugh at me, because when we have a meeting, I pace around the room. 

Stephen Schwartz:  I also do a lot of pacing. 

You said “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” came from a line of dialogue. How much of the book do you like to have before you start writing songs for a project? Do you ever start writing before there is any book? 

Jerry Herman:  I love writing with the bookwriter. I love getting an outline at least or, in the case of an adaptation of a famous work like The Matchmaker or Auntie Mame, a great deal of dialogue. I got “Ribbons Down My Back,” for example, from a line of Thornton Wilder. The line was “We’ll be wearing ribbons down our back this summer.” Those words had to be sung. 

I love the word “collaboration.” It is my favorite word. I love working closely with a book writer. I always say, “Could you write up to this line and make it look seamless, as if one person wrote it.” The lines before “I Won’t Send Roses” are “I don’t mind spending a little time with you now and then, as long as you understand the rules…I won’t send roses.” The same person could have written both the dialogue and lyrics. 

The lines before “Sunday Clothes” are explosive. “Barnaby, we’re going to New York,” and the door of the grain cellar crashes down, as a downbeat. Then he sings, “Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers.” It’s a wonderful connection. I loved working with Mike Stewart, because he knew how to connect his dialogue to my lyrics and make it sound as if it were continuous. [Jerome] Lawrence and [Robert E.] Lee were able to do that, too, as is Harvey [Fierstein]. Collaboration has produced some of my favorite work. 

Stephen Schwartz:  When you embark on a new project, before you write specific songs, do you sketch musical ideas? Also, do you do musical research about the period or locale or do you just go with your instincts? 

Jerry Herman:  The answer is both. I always use my instincts and responses first, but I do a lot of research. When I was given the assignment of Hello, Dolly!, I went to the library and pored over books about 1890s New York and what it looked like then. The visual is important to me, because I’m a designer as well. I wanted to see the buildings. I wanted to see the horse-drawn wagons. I wanted to see the cobblestone streets. Cobblestones, for example, had a great to deal to do with rhythmic patterns of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.” I even walked on Central Park South to hear the horses’ hooves. I couldn’t prepare myself without pictures, without visuals, so I do research, but I always trust my instincts. When both work together, I feel most secure. 

Stephen Schwartz:  Do you do any sketching in advance or do you just begin writing songs? 

Jerry Herman:  I usually like to begin with a song that tells the audience something about the major character. The first thing I wrote for Hello, Dolly! was “I Put My Hand In,” because I wanted the audience to recognize her garrulous quality. I wanted to write a song that had almost no place to breathe. So, I wrote, “When a man with a timid tongue meets a girl with a diffident air…surely it’s obvious she’ll never be seduced ‘til some kind soul condescends to give her beau a little boost.” It went on and on, and I was delighted, because I thought this would be telling, not only telling about her being a meddler but also telling about her inability to shut up. 

The first song I wrote for Mame was from a phrase my mother said to me one day when I was young. I got back from school on a Tuesday in the middle of the winter—in other words, an uneventful day in our lives. The kitchen was filled with hors d’oeuvres, and I said, “Mom, what’s the occasion?” She smiled and said, “It’s today.” More than other memory I have of her, that gave me a clear picture of this lady. When I had to write my first song for Mame, I used that line as its title. It explained that Mame Dennis was a woman who did not need a holiday or any occasion to have a party. The audience knows Mame after that song. 

Stephen Schwartz:  Do you have musical patterns you feel represent your individual style and, if you’re aware of them, is there anything you feel you want to avoid, so as not to repeat yourself? Do you even worry about things like that? 

Jerry Herman:  I love this question more than I can tell you, because I have been criticized for having a style. I don’t know where that style came from, and I don’t want to know. However, that style is not always with me. I’ve written shows like Dear World, which diverted from that style, but it’s healthy to have a style, It’s a wonderful thing.

Stephen Schwartz:  Do you ever think, “I can’t use this chord sequence again?” 

Jerry Herman:  I wouldn’t purposely repeat a chord sequence, but it’s not the construction of the music that gives a person their style. There is no musical comparison between the songs “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame.” They’re different rhythms, different notes, different everything. Yet, they have a similar style. 

Stephen Schwartz:  You’ve been widely praised and awarded in your life, but do you feel that critics and those who write about theatre understand you? Is that something you think about? 

Jerry Herman:  I don’t dwell on it. If somebody doesn’t like my style or my work, I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. I don’t ever write a critic and bawl him out because he didn’t get what I was trying to do. I don’t let it stop me from doing what I want to do, though. I knew when I was writing La Cage that I was working in the unfashionable medium of simple melodic songs, but it did not faze me for one moment. I did not try to write a different kind of score. I felt I wrote a score compatible with the source material. That’s all I cared about. If one guy got it and another guy didn’t, it didn’t matter to me, because I was doing what I felt was right. So, I never shy away from doing something because I’ll be criticized. 

Stephen Schwartz:  Are there areas of composing you wish you were stronger in? For instance, I wish I knew more about orchestration. Is there anything you wish you had studied more or learned more about? 

Jerry Herman:  Nothing would ever have changed my natural affinity to writing simple melodic songs. I am what I am. I am perfectly satisfied writing popular theatre songs. My goal was to try to emulate the Irving Berlins of the world, because I sensed I had the ability—not to copy their style but to write in that framework, that genre. I never tried to do something I thought I would not do as well as that. 

Stephen Schwartz:  Do you have any goals as a composer you’d still like to achieve, any musical forms you haven’t written for yet? 

Jerry Herman:  I think I would like to do another score closer to my work on Dear World, which was a real departure for me. It was much more classically inspired. I used triple counterpoint and things I had not done before—well, that’s not true. Mame had a quartet of counterpoint. Still, the style of Dear World was an obvious departure, and it was not received well. The critics did not understand it. They expected another high-kicking musical with girls coming out of the woodwork, and they got a different type of show. Through the years, though, it has become much more admired and understood than the day after it opened. That happens frequently. So, I would love to return to that style of writing and do another piece like that. My great problem is finding source material, something I want to spend the rest of my life with. 

I have been offered Pocket Full of Miracles at least five times in my life, and it’s material I could write in my style without stretching a muscle, but I’ve always turned it down, because it felt to me like something I should have written in 1962. I just have no desire to do that kind of material. Finding La Cage, finding Auntie Mame, The Matchmaker, and Mack Sennett’s and Mabel Normand’s lives were so special to me. I can’t read a script that bores me after five pages and pretend to get excited about it. The reason I haven’t written more is because I haven’t fallen in love with any material. I would have written seven more shows, if I had come across material that made me want to go to the piano. 

Stephen Schwartz:  I think of people like George Gershwin composing Rhapsody in Blue or Richard Rodgers doing Victory at Sea. Those composers were adept at popular melody, like you, but they had the ambition to delve into instrumental writing. Is that something that ever occurred to you? 

Jerry Herman:  I have always felt that my talents lay in writing songs and show music. Yet, I am first and foremost a musical playwright. Writing music without lyrics doesn’t interest me. I love being a “songwriter.” A lot of composers think that term is demeaning, but I am proud to be a songwriter because it’s the songs that live. Fifty years later, I still remember Ray Middleton and Nanette Fabray standing onstage in Love Life and singing “Here I’ll Stay,” but I have no idea what the show looked like. Fifty years from now, I hope someone remembers me as a songwriter.

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