He’s just past seventy-seven now: an icon, a Broadway fixture since his debut at the Imperial in 1962 in Oliver. He’s known for his music, of course (Mame, 110 in the Shade, A Chorus Line, La Cage aux Folles, among others), but his career is full of delightful odds and ends – two plays, The Contrast and Fashion, and even a brief turn playing Beethoven in a TV commercial for Scotch Recording Tape. When the Kennedy Center honors the accomplishments of Jerry Herman this week (March 12 – 14) in Jerry Herman’s Broadway, he will naturally be there.
We’re not talking about Herman himself – we’re talking about his musical collaborator, Don Pippin. A musical director of extraordinary gifts and experience, and one of the leading conductors in the United States, Pippin will take up the baton to lead the National Symphony Orchestra through a program straight from the heart of the Herman oeuvre. Some of it will be classic Herman, but some of it, as Pippin reveals in this exclusive DCTS interview, will be ” ‘cult’ songs which are not the best known of Jerry’s works, but are considered some of his best.”
Pippin and Herman go back to 1963, when they found themselves collaborating on some music for Robert Preston in Ben Franklin in Paris. Pippin’s forty-five years of work with Herman gives him a unique sense of who the legendary writer is and why his songs are so effective. It also has resulted in some startlingly original views about how Herman’s material would work best on Broadway. Wonder who Pippin might cast as Mack in a revival of Mack and Mabel? His answer might surprise you.
Jerry Herman’s Broadway will feature four of the most dynamic voices on Broadway today – Hugh Panaro, Ron Raines, Melissa Errico, and Debbie Gravitt. They will recreate some of the familiar Herman songs…but also some obscure and beautiful work, including music from the as-yet-unproduced Miss Spectacular. There will be music, Pippin promises, imbued with Herman’s signature optimism – but also the sad songs, and the ones thick with bitterness and bite. “Jerry writes for the character,” Pippin points out. “He writes their feelings.”
Donald Pippin is uniquely qualified to talk about Jerry Herman the man. The graciousness and generosity of spirit you can probably guess. But the iron constitution and the Green Beret-type courage? Read and find out.
An Interview with Donald Pippin
Questions by Joel Markowitz
DCTS: What will audiences see and hear when they come to Jerry Herman’s Broadway at the Kennedy Center?
Pippin: They will hear the best of this Americana composer. Not only the hummable melodies but the fantastic lyrics he wrote. The soloists are handpicked and are the perfect Herman singers. The program is unique in that it not only has the great vocals but also it features the National Symphony performing four major solo orchestral numbers.
DCTS: Have you ever conducted the National Symphony before?
Pippin: July 31, 1997, at Wolf Trap. It was one of the Bravo, Broadway programs. I also did another Wolf Trap program with Marilyn Horne and Jose Caceras – there were other artists but I conducted only for Marilyn and Jose. I recall that Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs. Warner, then) was there and I escorted her from the lower dressing rooms to the outside world. She was lost. I had a chance to have a close look into those beautiful eyes. What a memory!!! This will be my first time working with the National, performing in the Kennedy Center.
DCTS: I would imagine you wrote special arrangements for the NSO. Tell us about one or two that you think will be a very special sound.
Pippin: The Overture starts off a special evening. I arranged it and Jim Tyler orchestrated it. Jerry and I picked songs that demonstrate how his melodies soar even without lyrics. This is true of the orchestra’s playing “International Dolly”. Jerry’s most famous song is played with humor and fun which brings a freshness hearing it once more. Every vocal has been tailored to the special texture that suits the song best.
DCTS: There are so many show-stopping Jerry Herman songs. How did you select the songs for this concert?
Pippin: It was a most difficult job. There was an embarrassment of riches. There will be some of the “cult” songs which are not the best known of Jerry’s works, but are considered some of his best. Songs from Mack and Mabel and Dear World. We include a couple of songs from his newest unproduced musical, Miss Spectacular. We perform his great standards also.
DCTS: The cast for Jerry Herman’s Broadway are four of Broadway’s most talented voices – Hugh Panaro, Ron Raines, Melissa Errico, and Debbie Gravitte.
Pippin: Aren’t we lucky? These artists are so in demand for concerts that I had to have them booked over a year ago. We have worked together many times and it is always a pleasure. I chose the cast with Jerry’s approval. Jerry and I have similar musical taste.
DCTS: Did they come with special requests to do their favorite Jerry Herman songs?
Pippin: Not really. Of course, each artists has their favorite, but never requested any special songs. They had total trust in Jerry and my judgment to build a well paced and entertaining program.
DCTS: Which songs in the concert do you most look forward to conducting?
Pippin: I enjoy performing the “Wedding Scene” It is the most “legit” musical sequence of Jerry’s. It is from his first Broadway score Milk and Honey. “Song on the Sand” and “If He Walked Into my Life” are always breath taking dramatic moments.
DCTS: Has this cast performed this concert before?
Pippin: Each has performed this program, but sometimes it has not been possible to have them all for the same booking. What a delight that at last we have them together on the same stage tonight.
DCTS: You’ve know Jerry Herman for a long time.
Pippin: Jerry and I met in 1963 . He had come in to be a ghost writer for Ben Franklin in Paris. Robert Preston needed some new songs. Jerry and I had an instant bonding of musical minds and friendship. I have been associated with his works ever since.
DCTS: Tell us about the man.
Pippin: What can I say that has not been said? He is a great host and loves good food. He still weights the same 138 pounds. Amazing for a man whose favorite treat is chocolate and more chocolate. He loves his homes. He designs them. His taste is warm and homey yet very glamorous. Muted colors and a mixture of classical and modern styles. I’d call it “Hermanized”.
DCTS: What is there about him that makes you enjoy working with him?
Pippin: He is a brilliant musician. He never dictates. He believes in collaboration . I always feel free to express any idea—-even a silly or inept one——BUT—–from that many good ideas can spring. That’s the value of collaboration. Jerry is also very appreciative.
DCTS: How would you describe a Jerry Herman song to someone who had never heard one?
Pippin: Jerry writes with a simple and effective structure. There must be melody. There must be lyrics that scan well and are singable. His songs have something worth saying. No wonder the audience can go out humming.
DCTS: Many people think that Jerry Herman only writes “happy songs.” Does the selection of songs show another side of this well-known and beloved composer and his scores?
Pippin: There is no doubt that Jerry Herman is an optimist!! But he also writes very dramatic theatre songs. “If He Walked Into My Life”, “I Don’t Want to Know”, “I Won’t Send Roses”, “I’ve Never Said I Love You” and the anthem, “I Am What I Am”. Jerry writes for the character. He writes their feelings. However I must admit that no composer/lyrist can write a better “feel good” song than Jerry Herman.
DCTS: You’ve acted as Musical Director and Vocal Music Arranger for two of Jerry’s shows –Mack and Mabel and La Cage Aux Folles .
Pippin: Also associated with “Mame”, “Grand Tour”, London’s 25th anniversary performance of “Hello Dolly”, “Dear World”, the film “Mrs. Santa Claus”, and his newest show, “Miss Spectacular”.
DCTS: The Kennedy Center audience will be able to hear 5 songs from the show in this concert -“Movies Were Movies”, “Time Heals Everything”, “Wherever He Ain’t”, “I Won’t Send Roses” And “Mabel’s Roses”.
Pippin: I always enjoy hearing these songs again and again. Although’ the show was not one of the longest running, I have some of my strongest memories from working on Mack and Mabel. The music has become a cult favorite score.
DCTS: With incredible songs like this in the show, why is it so difficult to get Mack and Mabel mounted on Broadway?
Pippin: I think we have a great lack of creative producers. and it is an expensive show to mount. London has had very successful revivals of the show. It has won many awards The cast recordings are big sellers. It is an audience pleaser. Finding a director and a cast for Broadway would not be an easy job today. The show will return. All great shows do, though’ it may take a few more years .
DCTS: If you were a casting director of a new revival that did make it to NYC, who would you cast as Mack and Mabel?
Pippin: Wow. That’s a really a difficult question. Mabel must be a woman, not an ingénue, yet youthful. Mabel must be able to play drama and comedy. She must have a great singing ability. She must have great depth of emotions for the role. After all, she loves so deeply that only drugs can make it bearable to live without Mack. That is some lady. Who could play this tragic lady? I think we should run a Web site just for the answer. For Mack? Why not Hugh Jackman?
DCTS: Why will Jerry Herman’s shows and songs be performed for generations to come?
Pippin: Jerry’s songs are classic theatre. They will always survive as have the great songs of Porter, Berlin and Rodgers. Jerry’s writings are great melodies and lyrics. As Ira Gershwin said: “Who Could Ask for Anything More”?
DCTS: Tell us something about Jerry Herman that we probably don’t know.
Pippin: He is a medical miracle. Few people realize that Jerry was a guinea pig for the early testing of HIV medications. He almost died from the side effects. His contributions helped bring about the approval from FDA for the medications that today are saving lives. He is over a 20 year survivor. Jerry’s unheralded work in fundraising for Juvenile Diabetes, the AIDS benefits throughout the country that he participates in, and his ASCAP scholarship programs helping young talent which he funds — are generally not known.Viva Jerry !!!!!!
DCTS: Take a bow. Tell us more about yourself.
Pippin: My home is 50 miles north of Manhattan. I love the poison ivy, the deer and skunks. Marie and I have 6 dogs and 2 cats. Very active with the Humane Societies. I am a computer nut and use all of the high tech music programs as aids. I start my day on AOL writing to my many friends. I take Pilates classes 3 times weekly and give that credit for my good health. I enjoy all good music. Classical, theatre, rock, opera—just so it is well written and performed. And I always look forward to the Symphony dates. Especially the Jerry Herman’s Broadway program.