Harnick on Harnick

By Mervyn Rothstein
05 Mar 2011


Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins (Fiddler): I loved Jerry. By the time I worked with him, his work had moved me so deeply on a number occasions. When I saw The King and I and saw the Uncle Tom's Cabin ballet [The Small House of Uncle Thomas] I began to cry. It was so theatrically gorgeous — the creativity of it, the invention of it, was so beautiful, I just sat there thinking I hope I can someday do something that approaches what's on that stage. So by the time I met him, I thought this man has given me these extraordinary gifts. I knew about his dark side but I only saw it once, and I had been alerted to it. One of his closest friends was [the performer] Sondra Lee. She told me that not too long before a show opens, all Jerry's demons come into play. She said if you cannot reach him through humor, stay away from him, because he's dangerous. And sure enough, about two weeks before Fiddler opened, I was talking to Jerry, and he seemed different, and I tried a joke, and he glared at me, and in this icy voice said, "And where is this lyric I've been asking you for for months?"

George Abbott (Fiorello!): He looked very aristocratic, and it was a long time before I dared to call him George, and usually that was when my emotions ran away with me. He was a man one came to love, because he was principled. I remember coming into his office one day and he was reading The Nation. I had subscribed to The Nation for years, and I asked if he subscribed. He said, "No, I don't, but I do think we should know the other fellow's point of view."

Harold Prince (She Loves Me, which he also wound up producing, as he did Fiddler): In 1962, we had seen A Family Affair before Hal had been called in to try and fix it, and after Hal had tried. [It was the first Broadway directorial credit for Prince, who had become famous as a producer.] It had had severe problems, and Hal damned near fixed them. Jerry Bock and I knew that Hal had much more going for him than just producer skills. When we were doing She Loves Me, we were talking about directors. The first one suggested was Gower Champion, and Jerry and I said sure. But it turned out Gower had prior commitments. And we said, how about Hal Prince? So Hal was approached, and he was delighted. And I think a day or two after Hal was approached, Gower called and said, "I no longer have those commitments." And Jerry and I said, "No, we can't do this. We offered it to Hal, let it be Hal." And we were so glad we did. (Hal became our co-producer later.) Because what Hal brought to rehearsals was an enthusiasm and an exuberance and a sense of humor and a sense of theatre and a mastery of what he was doing. It was not a surprise, but it was a wonderful confirmation of what we expected from him.

Joe Raposo

ON LATE COMPOSER JOE RAPOSO, his collaborator in the 1980s for A Wonderful Life, based on the classic Frank Capra movie "It's a Wonderful Life": I miss Joe terribly. He was an ebullient personality, the kind of personality I respond to, because I tend to run scared, and I love that kind of confidence. When Joe and I worked together, the thing I was afraid of was that he might be glib in his composition, because music came so easily to him. And I was delighted to find that he was not glib at all. He worked very hard on everything he wrote. There are several very complicated numbers, and he notated them in piano vocal score, and when he died I was so glad to have that. They were very complex, and he was a thoroughly schooled musician. The other thing that was a special joy with Joe — every composer I've dealt with was a capable pianist, but Joe was more than capable. He was an absolutely superb pianist. So when we had written a song, for me to get to sing it with him playing was really a thrill. I met him in Boston. I had gone to Boston for some reason, and She Loves Me was playing, and he was the pianist — the accompaniment was just piano and drum, and I was blown away by the sensitivity of his accompaniments. I met him, I introduced myself, and he said he was coming to New York. I said, "Good, let's stay in touch." Not too long after he came to New York he called me and said, "Would you like to work for this new project, 'Sesame Street'?" He explained what it was, and I said it sounds wonderful but my schedule won't allow it. So I almost became part of that team." [Raposo, who wrote the famous "Bein' Green," for Kermit the Frog, died in 1989.]

ON WRITING BOTH MUSIC AND LYRICS, as he did at first and has done recently: All the years I was working with Jerry Bock, I always wrote with a tune in mind. It's not that I'm looking for it, it's just there. It may not even be a fully formed tune, it may be kind of fragmentary, but there's something in my mind. At a certain point working with Jerry I had to forbid those tunes from entering my mind, because otherwise, when I gave a lyric to Jerry, if I saw it as a waltz, and he saw it as an up-tempo, it was very difficult to hear what he wrote through the filter of what I thought it should be. So I had to be very careful not to get very attached to the tunes that came into my head.

Jerry Bock
photo by Aubrey Reuben

ON CRAFT, and what he tells young writers about craft: Usually I tell them that the degree of craft they exercise is pretty much up to them, because audiences don't care that much. Audiences will accept off-rhymes, things that are less than pristine about a lyric. So it's up to you to decide how strict you want to be with yourself. I try to be very strict with myself because I want my work to compare with the work of other people I admire most, going back to Gilbert and Sullivan. On rare occasions, I've had to cheat with a rhyme I'm not entirely satisfied with. I tell young writers that for myself I try to make all the rhymes pure, I try to keep the language fresh, I try to exercise my craft in every way I can. I try to sing the songs when I finish them to make sure they're comfortable in my mouth, that consonants don't bump up against one another and make songs hard to understand — all those craft issues. But I recognize that, especially in today's musical market, young writers hear a lot of successful songs that don't bother with that kind of craftsmanship. So I try not to be such a purist and say, "You cannot do this, you must not do that."

THE NO. 1 RULE: When you're writing lyrics, it's not like a poem on the printed page. With a poem, take Emily Dickinson, a four-line poem may be so dense that you have to read it four or five times before the meaning opens up to you. With a lyric, you have an audience that's listening, and they're hearing new music, and there are other elements — lighting, costumes, performers. So the audience has to grab that lyric the first time they hear it. The trick is to be both fresh in the language but also immediately comprehensible, because otherwise they're going to turn off.

I remember a lyricist, who shall remain nameless. He invited me to see one of his shows in previews. I called him afterward and said, "Well, you do something that disturbs me — you're using these three- and four-syllable rhymes, and you use them so much that it constantly calls attention to you, and I keep forgetting the context. All I think is that this is the writer showing off, which I don't think is good." Long pause, and then he said, "Well, most of my other friends tell me they're very impressed by my virtuosity." And I thought, "OK, that's what you want to do — do it."