PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sheldon Harnick, the Tony and Pulitzer-Winning Lyricist of Fiorello!

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26 Jan 2013

Sheldon Harnick
Sheldon Harnick
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Master lyricist Sheldon Harnick talks about his musical-theatre career on the occasion of a new Encores! concert revival of his Fiorello!, the biographical musical about New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia.

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Sheldon Harnick, at 88 one of the great lyricists from the Broadway Golden Age of the 1940s-1960s, is back at work, preparing the Jan. 30-Feb. 3 Encores! revival of his 1959 musical Fiorello!, which won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and tied for the 1960 Tony Award as Best Musical with The Sound of Music — both beating Gypsy.

Working mainly with composer Jerry Bock, he wrote lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, Apple Tree, Tenderloin, The Rothschilds and other shows, and collaborated with Richard Rodgers on their 1976 musical Rex. Thanks to songs like "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," "Ice Cream," "No Song More Pleasing," "Politics and Poker" and "When Did I Fall in Love?," his words live in the heads of theatre fans everywhere.

You had tremendous success quite early in your career. You had two Tony-winning musicals, a Pulitzer winner, and what was at the time the longest-running show in Broadway history among your first five full Broadway scores.
SH: Yes, before I was 40, but I don't think that's all that young. In fact, I remember vividly, as I was about to turn 30 [in 1954], I was extremely depressed because I thought, "I have yet to have a book musical on Broadway. I wonder if it will ever happen." So, it actually came later in my life.



How did that affect your later writing — winning all those awards and having all that success?
SH: I think it was good. But I had worked at a summer resort, Green Mansions, and had a disaster there. We opened a new musical that we were trying out on a night when it was about 98 degrees. It was in a small theatre that seated 600, and we had 800 people in the theatre. It was impossible, so people began to leave, and they left because they were stifling. And, I thought, "They hate the musical!" By the end of the performance, there were about 50 people left, and I thought, "They hate it! My career is over," and that stood me in good stead because nothing was ever a nightmare like that again.

What was the show?
SH: The show was called Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead, which, after all these years, I'm about to exhume it and reinvestigate it because I know there are good things in it. But that experience was invaluable.

Continued...

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