Musical Chairman

Jerry Herman is coming to town, and you should care only if you're interested in the future of theater.

Herman is one of musical theater's most successful practitioners and biggest defenders. He wrote most of the music and words to such Broadway standards as Mame; La Cage aux Folles and Hello, Dolly! None of those shows was particularly provocative; none drove the form in a new direction. Herman is proud of that.

"My kind of theater is entertainment, melodic, simple," he says. "I write for a mass audience, and I want people to leave the theater humming along to something they've heard."

Never mind Herman's assertion that the musical is alive and well. His stop in OC—masterclasses Saturday, a revue of Herman's work Sunday—is a harbinger of musical theater's apocalypse, part of his effort to invigorate America's only unique contribution to world theater. Offering pointers on everything from directing to breaking into the industry, Herman's classes are intended to recruit.

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"I'm trying to bring a new generation into the musical theater and to create a new audience," Herman said. "Obviously, the average teenager doesn't know about Broadway or doesn't get a chance to see a Broadway show, so we're bringing Broadway to them."

Not just the teenager, but also the average American. Few would lose sleep if musicals go the way of spats.

The answer is not, Herman says, to intellectualize or make relevant the musical. Nor is the answer to compete with Hollywood. But in the 1980s, the Broadway musical went there anyhow. Chandeliers fell from ceilings; helicopters hovered over stages; boats sank; walls crumbled; scores got Gothic; and plots got serious, violent and brooding. The experiments of the 1980s—manifested in such theatrical absurdities as The Civil War, Les Miserables and Rent—failed: opera notwithstanding, it's close to a physical law of the universe that breaking into song amidst real tragedy just ain't right.

Herman says musical theater has lost its sense of play. "There was a period there for a long time when the darker, more serious pieces of work were the only ones around," said Herman. "And the melodic, fun musical was sort of dismissed. But obviously there's still a huge audience."

As proof, Herman points to the current success on Broadway of such old-fashioned musicals as The Producers and Hairspray, which boast more contemporary music and subject matters but are frothy entertainment vehicles first.

Nearby, in Long Beach and Thousand Oaks, theaters are staging Herman's Mame. Herman attended both. "The audience reaction was so positive," he said. "They gave the overture a round of applause. These people hadn't seen that kind of show in a while. They'd been seeing a lot of the darker pieces that have come out, and while I think many of those are wonderful and I'm all for an eclectic musical theater, that's not my kind of musical theater. I don't want the kind of theater that I love and grew up seeing to die out."

Herman loves answering critics who say theater is increasingly irrelevant. "Sure, you can see wonderful plays on television; there are plays on every night," Herman said. "Law and Order is a play, but you can't replace the experience of actually being there, of a happening. . . . Nothing in the world can ever replace sitting in a theater seat and hearing a live orchestra play. Nothing can replace live dancing and live performance, and that experience goes into drama and all kinds of plays. It's an event. And it always will be. Believe me, theater is not in any kind of trouble."


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