Jerry Herman doesn't play favorites with his musicals. Ask him to rank "Mame," "Hello, Dolly!" or "La Cage aux Folles" and he'll tell you, "I love them all." But as for which character he most wants to emulate, he'll admit that it's the Jew who calls himself S.L. Jacobowsky.
"I want to be him," says Herman of the main character in "The Grand Tour," his musical that originally appeared on Broadway in 1979 and closed after 61 performances. "He's this man who creates joy in the face of horror. He never lets other people take away his optimism."
The 74-year-old composer and Broadway icon has another opportunity to see his beloved character realized onstage when a revival of "The Grand Tour," of which Herman wrote the music and lyrics, opens Nov. 5 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Featuring Herman's Tony-nominated score and an extensively rewritten book by Mark Bramble, the show stars veteran theater actor Jason Graae and has sought to rectify "the problems" of the original production, according to director Evan Weinstein.
"The show had disparate elements that never gelled," said Weinstein, particularly with "maintaining an appropriate balance between the natural ebullience of Herman's music and the seriousness of the story."
"The Grand Tour" arose out of one of the earliest theatrical attempts to explore the Holocaust. The musical is based on a tragi-comic play by Franz Werfel called, "Jacobowsky und der Oberst," which was adapted into a 1944 Broadway production of "Jacobowsky and the Colonel" by S. N. Behrman and a 1958 film called, "Me and the Colonel." "The Grand Tour" chronicles the plight of S.L. Jacobowsky, a Polish-born, Jewish refugee trapped in Nazi-occupied France. Accompanied by an anti-Semitic Polish officer carrying important underground papers, the indomitable Jacobowsky attempts to flee France for England. Along the way, he falls in love with Marianne, the colonel's charming French girlfriend, pretends to be a circus performer, hides in a brothel and, above all, forges a friendship with the initially hostile colonel.
After its Broadway run, "The Grand Tour," aside from a 1988 Jewish Repertory Theatre production, fell into obscurity. In the original script, "The Nazi characters were more farcical elements, think 'Hogan's Heroes,' and today, are out of step with where Americans understand the Holocaust," said Weinstein, who has a day job as the co-executive producer of the CBS reality series, "The Amazing Race." In the new version, "the Nazis are a more constant presence so the audience gets a better sense of the terrible reality the characters face. At the same, there's humor that the characters use to put a wall between themselves and the horror."
The challenge of striking this balance played out in a recent rehearsal. In the part of the show where Jacobowsky is singing of his love for Marianne, actor Graae had to stop several times to consult with Weinstein.
"It's such a lovely song and so casual," Graae told the director. "But I'm in the middle of fleeing the Nazis. I need to play against the loveliness of the song."
With the nuance updated and otherwise adjusted through Weinstein's direction and Bramble's book, Herman said that now, "all the song and dance numbers are inherent to the production. There's no mindless dancing, no people sliding down staircases. And the hope is that you get a sense of the genuine threat that wasn't in the original production."
For Herman, "The Grand Tour" has always represented a return to Jewish roots. After his first Broadway musical, "Milk and Honey," about the founding of the State of Israel and, premiered in 1961, producer David Merrick "told me I had to prove I could be more American," Herman recalled. "So I started tackling shows with more American characters like Dolly and Mame."
Herman lost no close relatives in the Holocaust, but his maternal grandmother would tell him stories "about running from the czar. The story of the Jewish refugee was a familiar one to me," he said.
Growing up in New Jersey, Herman learned to play the piano without formal training and received his big break at 17, courtesy of his mother who taught Jewish music at the local Y. Though he wanted to be an architect, his mother had arranged for him to meet famed Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser.
"I was scared to share my work and my mother said, 'Would you please waste a half hour of your life?' That line of my mother's changed everything," he said.
From the music of his idol Irving Berlin, Herman "learned the value of simplicity, how to say something in fewer words and create melodies that audiences can hum as they leave the theater. I think I've allowed my work to be accessible," he said. "I've always written optimistic shows about optimistic, larger-than-life characters whom audiences can take into their hearts."
Lamenting the current, increasingly corporate state of theater in America (his most recent revival of "La Cage" cost $10 million), Herman said he's devoted the rest of his life to "reviving the shows that were not the super hits. 'Dolly,' 'Mame' and 'La Cage,' will be here long after you and I are long gone," he said. "But while I'm still here, I want to make sure that all my children are healthy."
"The Grand Tour" runs Nov. 5-Dec. 4 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m. Additional Sat., Wed. and Thurs. performances Nov. 12, 19, 23 and Dec. 1. Tickets range from $43-$48. For information, call (818) 558-7000, ext. 15.