Harnick on Harnick

By Mervyn Rothstein
05 Mar 2011

Montego Glover and Chad Kimball in Memphis
photo by Joan Marcus
HIS FAVORITE MUSICALS OF TODAY: I was very fond of Memphis. I wasn't sure whether I would buy into the music, but I thought that the book was so smart, so honest, so meaningful, that I was very moved by it. I thought the score did exactly what it should have done for a show called Memphis.

Adam Guettel's Light in the Piazza. I thought the score was absolutely beautiful, and I enjoyed the book. I thought it was a lovely show. With Adam's other show, Floyd Collins, I loved the score. I thought the book had problems, but it didn't keep me from enjoying that evening.

Ragtime, especially in this last revival, which I thought was magnificent.

THE QUALITY OF TODAY'S MUSICALS: I'm kind of worried, because I go see a show like American Idiot, and on several levels, I found it very off-putting. One was just the sheer volume. I sat there with my fingers in my ears, and I thought, that's not the way to watch a musical. Also, the book seemed to be relatively unimportant. What seemed to be important was the rock-concert element of it. I felt the same when I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway. And I thought that for my taste, this is lowering the bar. It's campy. It's not my idea of theatre. What worried me was not the shows but the critical reaction to them, because both garnered rave reviews, and for my taste they don't deserve rave reviews. I don't know whether this is the harbinger of the future. I know that shows with contemporary music can work for me. Rent, for example. I thought it had wonderful songs.

With Next to Normal, the volume was such I could sit in the theatre, and I thought the songwriting range of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is wonderful. It's not just a rock show, it touches all the bases. So it's possible to do that kind of show.

Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza.
photo by Joan Marcus

THE STATE OF THE BROADWAY THEATRE: The Broadway theatre today troubles me. It seems to concern itself more and more with sheer entertainment, and is not exploring social issues, in the sense that it did years ago with plays by Elmer Rice and others. It's harder and harder to get that kind of a piece on. Maybe it's because the audience gets that in TV and film. But it bothers me that the Broadway theatre is almost entirely entertainment oriented.

WHAT'S UP IN YOUR FUTURE?: When I turned 80, I wondered what scripts I have that didn't work but might bear reinvestigation. I thought, well, let me look at Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, a Horatio Alger spoof. I had the script we performed when the show was done unsuccessfully Off-Broadway in 1961. But I also had four other scripts, and in each there was wonderful material that hadn't been in the other scripts. So I thought, well, I'm going to use everything I've learned in 40 years. I prepared a new script, because by that time the composer, David Baker, and the book writer, a literary parodist named Ira Wallach, had both passed on. I showed it to my wife, and she said it was delightful. We had a reading of it at a New Jersey theatre, and the audience was very enthusiastic. So far I haven't pushed to get productions, but I believe that Jim Morgan of the York Theatre is going to do the new version this summer as part of a summer series of Off-Broadway shows in his "Musicals in Mufti" series.


As previously reported on Playbill.com, a concert reading of Harnick's new musical, A Doctor in Spite of Himself, based on the Moliere play, will open the 30th Annual William Inge Theatre Festival, which runs from April 13-16 in Independence, Kansas. He wrote music, book and lyrics.

Read the recent Diva Talk column in which Kate Baldwin talks about her Harnick tribute show at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.