A Life in the Theatre: Sheldon Harnick

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Sheldon Harnick Meet the master craftsman Sheldon Harnick, the Tony Award-winning lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and She Loves Me.

Sheldon Harnick
Sheldon Harnick Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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When Sheldon Harnick was studying violin at Northwestern University School of Music in the 1940s and contributing songs to student revues, an actress friend, Charlotte Rae, returned from New York with a record album. She had seen Finian's Rainbow, remembers Harnick, "and she said I had to hear it. When I heard what [E.Y.] 'Yip' Harburg had done with the lyrics, I was dazzled. For the first time I thought, 'That's the career I'd like.' Finian's Rainbow changed my life."

Harnick, 86, is a Broadway great. His impressive credits as lyricist with composing partner Jerry Bock include Fiddler on the Roof, The Rothschilds, She Loves Me, Tenderloin, The Apple Tree and Fiorello!

Fiorello! won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Musical. Fiddler won nine Tonys in 1965, including Best Musical and Best Score. The show, based on Sholom Aleichem's stories about Tevye, a Jewish milkman in a Russian village in 1905, ran for 3,242 performances; for most of the 1970s it was the longest-running show in Broadway history.

Harnick grew up in Chicago and began violin in elementary school; his interest in theatre, on the other hand, was a long time coming. In the Army in the 1940s, he began writing songs and singing them at USOs. After college, he worked as a violinist in a dance band at a Chicago hotel.

"We were broadcast five nights a week. When they lowered a microphone I'd become extremely anxious. A doctor told me I had nervous exhaustion and had to lay off the fiddle.
I thought, 'I might as well go to New York and see if I can be a lyricist.'"

Harnick and Bock in 2005.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

In 1952, Rae was to appear on Broadway in that year's New Faces revue doing a song Harnick had written for her, but she was suddenly cast in another musical. "Producer Leonard Sillman replaced her with Alice Ghostley and asked if I had a song. I had started 'The Boston Beguine.' I played what I had, and he said, 'Finish it.' It was a showstopper. That was my Broadway debut."

In 1956, Bock, who had worked on Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr., was looking for a new partner; Harnick had been involved with Shangri-La, which starred Jack Cassidy. "Cassidy said, 'I want you to meet my friend, Jerry Bock.'"

Their first show, in 1958, was The Body Beautiful; it lasted 60 performances. Then came Fiorello! and, eventually, Fiddler.

Harnick recalls that Fiddler — directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with classics like "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Tradition" — was at first not an easy sell. The theatre-party people "didn't seem particularly happy to hear we had a pogrom at the end of one act and exile at the end of the other. Harold Prince, our producer, would say, 'You must remember we've got Zero Mostel. There's going to be comedy, a lot of laughter.'"

Last fall, Joseph Stein, 98, Fiddler's librettist, and Bock, 81, died a week apart. "Joe was perhaps my best friend," Harnick says. "We had an easy working relationship. He was so fast."

Bock and Harnick had a falling out in 1970 involving The Rothschilds and were estranged for a long time. "But over the years we became close again. By the time he died we were good friends. He was a great editor. Often I'd give him a lyric and he'd look at it and ask if he could keep part and make the song out of that."

Looking back, Harnick says he's "proud to have a place in the long line of lyricists that preceded me."

Read more of Harnick's thoughts about his shows, his craft and his colleagues in the Playbill.com special feature "Harnick on Harnick." 

Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Jerome Robbins
Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Jerome Robbins
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