Sheldon Harnick is having a wonderful third act of a life, replete with multiple curtain calls. On March 17, he took his second bow of the season, springing out of the audience and onto the stage of Studio 54 to join the cast of She Loves Me. Three months ago, he did it at Fiddler on the Roof. You don’t have to be a prognosticator to forecast a Harnick-and-Harnick horserace for 2016’s Best Musical Revival Tony.
“I loved this production, just loved it,” the 91-year-old lyricist bubbled joyfully as he exited the theatre with his wife Margery and son Matthew. “It only saddens me that Jerry Bock is not around to see this.” Bock, the composing half of one of Broadway’s great songwriting teams, died in 2010. Joe Masteroff, who penned the show’s endlessly engaging book, is very much alive and 96 but skittish about the weather.
“I’m going to call him when I get home,” Harnick promised. “Joe saw those wet streets when he was leaving the house and decided not to come for fear of falling.”
Harnick comes from younger and sterner stuff and doesn’t know how to retire. Prior to this new Broadway outbreak, he had a revival of A Wonderful Life at Goodspeed Opera House and a “revisal” of Rothschild & Sons (nee The Rothschilds) at the York. Coming up next is the one-act opera that he wrote with West Coast composer Henry Mollicone on Lady Bird Johnson. “It was commissioned by Texas State University, and in mid-April we’re going down to Texas to see the students do Lady Bird.”
Before the curtain went up on She Loves Me, Todd Haimes uncharacteristically took to the stage and provided ten minutes of introductory notes on the show’s unique niche in Roundabout Theatre Company’s history. “As we hit our 50h anniversary,” the artistic director said, “I wanted to find something really special to revive that would symbolize, at least to me, the arc and growth of Roundabout Theatre.”
It seems in 1993, when the company was still “in a fragile financial condition” after making the leap from Off-Broadway to the Main Stem, Scott Ellis (who had never directed a Broadway show at that point) suggested reviving 1963’s She Loves Me.
It was a show Haimes had never heard of, but, wanting to do a musical and having no other options, he said yes. “Happily, it was a hit--a huge hit for us—and it had a commercial transfer. Because of that one musical, She Loves Me, what followed were 23 musicals at Roundabout.”
Roundabout has now money-bagged three revivals of She Loves Me. The middle one was a one-night-only, book-in-hand, gala-concert reading at the Sondheim in 2011. It starred Kelli O’Hara, Josh Radnor, Victor Garber, Rory O’Malley and actors in the current revival (Gavin Creel, Jane Krakowski, Michael McGrath and Peter Bartlett).
Ellis, who directed all three versions, has no shame about “returning to the scene,” insisting “everything’s different.” “I didn’t redo myself at all. I just wanted new people to see it—a new generation, and I love the physical production now.”
Most of the musical’s action takes place in a Budapest parfumerie during the frantic rush of Christmas 1934. The shop comes with flaps on the side that, designer David Rockwell explained, “open and close in a way that brings the audience into the story.
“This is a dream-come-true show. There is no favorite part to it. It’s a chance to make every detail shine. I was speaking to Sheldon about having one word in a lyric that makes all the difference in the world. There are 350 bottles on stage that are part of the parfumerie, and each one of those is a chance to perfect a kind of jewel.”
Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash, the lead in this show, is pitch-perfect casting. One hears—instead of “Bingo!”—“Ice Cream!” at the pristine sound of our heroine’s heart melting over a shop co-worker she has an antagonistic relationship with in real life and an unknowingly amorous one in letters.
It’s Benanti’s first time back on Broadway since 2010’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown—and the first chance she has had to uncork the zaniness which that show allowed her to unleash. “To be not only at the heart of the piece but also to be funny and sing this beautiful coloratura soprano music is so rare, and I’m relishing every moment that I get to do all of these things,” she beamed enthusiastically. “I usually get to do one at a time, so to get to do them all at once feels like a dream.”
Benanti’s Tony-winning co-star in Nine, Jane Krakowski, plays Ilona Ritter, a friskier kind of shopgirl—the kind that Joan Crawford was popularizing in movies at the time of the story. Krakowski, it might be remembered, came to Broadway prominence, kicking up her heels in Crawford’s Grand Hotel role—and she’s still kicking. “I fell in love with Ilona when I did one night of her five years ago,” she said. “In the rehearsal process of this production, I have developed a greater appreciation and love not only for Ilona but for the whole show. It’s so perfectly crafted. When you start working on it, you realize what a brilliant job those three creators did.”
“I’ve got to talk to those guys who wrote First Date and ask them if She Loves Me was any inspiration for them,” he said. “There are so many parallels—a guy and girl who are getting to know each other but don’t like each other and then do like each other. This is the second Broadway show in a row where I’ve ended up with just a kiss.”
Part of that can be attributed to the basic decency of his character, Georg Nowack. “I like that he’s a good man who works hard, cares about his job and the other people in the store and is really trying to find love, which comes in a most surprising place.”
On film, the role has been filled by James Stewart in the original Hungarian setting (1940’s “The Shop Around the Corner”), Van Johnson in turn-of-the-century Chicago (1949’s “In the Good Old Summertime”) and Tom Hanks in contemporary Manhattan (1998’s “You’ve Got Mail”). “Those guys have always been kinda idols of mine. I like that they are also everyman actors. They bring a relatability and honesty and earnestness and wit to their roles. No, I wouldn’t mind getting in that groove.”
The ladykiller on the parfumerie premises, Steven Kodaly, is a real rat and roué, and Creel grew his first stage mustache to play him. He’s rewarded with the musical’s latent showstopper, “Grand Knowing You,” which he plays like a ceremonial exit.
“Other songs in the show are much better known than that one—‘Vanilla Ice Cream,’ the title tune, ‘Tonight at Eight,’ ‘Will He Like Me?’—so it’s a real gift for me to get to do that [song] every night,” he admitted. “You can sense the audience thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a great song, too. There isn’t a dud in the whole score.’”
Peter Bartlett surrendered two roles in Something Rotten! to do a single scene in She Loves Me as the imperious headwaiter at Café Imperiale, struggling in his pompously unflappable fashion to maintain decorum and, as his song goes, “A Romantic Atmosphere.” It was an easy sacrifice for him.
“I didn’t have to think about it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play that role and be a part of this beautiful musical, and I couldn’t resist when Scott asked me to do it five years after that benefit. He’s a wonderful director. He sits still and lets me play and go pretty far. If there’s something he doesn’t like, he tells me and I happily acquiesce. I trust him. The choreographer, Warren Carlyle, was such a darling, the antithesis of Michael Kidd and Jerome Robbins. He constantly buoyed my spirits.”
It was an excessively starry night at the theatre, and Haimes personally invited anyone who had anything to do with the Roundabout-saving 1993 production. Among those who showed Sally Mayes (Ilona Ritter), Jonathan Freeman (Headwaiter), Howard McGillin (Steven Kodaly), Lee Wilkof (Ladislav Sipos), Nick Corley (Keller), Joey McKneely (Busboy) and set designer Tony Walton.