Harnick on Harnick

By Mervyn Rothstein
March 5, 2011

The acclaimed Fiddler on the Roof songwriter sits down with Playbill.com to reflect on his life in musical theatre — and share his thoughts about the form.



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Sheldon Harnick, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning lyricist (with composer Jerry Bock) of Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree and The Rothschilds, is appearing March 8-12 as a special guest of Tony nominee Kate Baldwin at Feinstein's at the Regency. The show is called She Loves Him, and it's Baldwin's musical tribute to the 86-year-old lyricist. Expect favorite tunes, plus early Harnick specialties.

It seemed a perfect time to sit down with the master lyricist. Mervyn Rothstein, Playbill's A Life in the Theatre columnist, recently talked to Harnick about everything from leading ladies to leading men, his favorite current musicals and his least-favorite current musicals, his views on the state of the art and his plans for his future in the theatre. (Harnick will also be the subject of Playbill magazine's A Life in the Theatre column in the coming months.)

Here is some of what Harnick had to say:

ON LEADING LADIES

Bea Arthur (Fiddler on the Roof): Bea was an extraordinary performer, an extraordinary comic presence. But when we hired her to do Yente, at all of her auditions (Jerry Robbins, the show's director, saw everybody three or four or five times), we always said she's wrong for this role — she's New York today, she's not Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was the strongest performance of anybody we saw. So Robbins said she's the one I want, and we hired her. And we told her there would be very little singing for her to do. But she became relentless. She used to follow me around the theatre and tell me about ideas, something that Yente could sing in this scene, or Yente could sing in that scene. So as much as I admired her as a performer, I began to dread seeing her, thinking I would have to fight her off again.

Hal Holbrook and Barbara Harris in The Apple Tree.
photo by Friedman-Abeles Photographers

Barbara Harris (The Apple Tree): Barbara was somebody one wanted to take care of. She was so fragile. Our director was Mike Nichols, and although all of us felt he was doing a superb job, it was his first musical, and he didn't trust himself, so at one point he called in Jerry Robbins. And Robbins said, "Can you keep this show out a couple more weeks?" And Nichols told him sadly, "We can't. If we do, we won't have a leading lady." And as a matter of fact, Barbara told the management that she might be losing her voice. So Jerry Bock and I went into the theatre to see what she was doing. And her singing was fine, but we saw that in one section of The Lady or the Tiger? part of the show she was screaming, because that's what the scene called for. And we went back and said, "Barbara, you don't have to scream, because the song covers everything." But once she got out on stage, she was so immersed in the role that if the character screamed, she would scream. And unfortunately the result was that by the time her contract expired, she no longer had a head voice, she only had a chest voice.

Barbara Cook (She Loves Me): Because of the nature of the shows [like The Music Man] that Barbara Cook had done before we worked together, I had this image of her as being this kind of sugar and spice ingénue. Jerry Bock and I played the score for her and she accepted immediately, and we were thrilled. And then she began to come to the auditions with us, and I would sit next to her, and I got a whole different picture of Barbara Cook. She was never mean, but she was always very candid in her opinions of the performers. And I thought, wow, this is a spunky lady. It was borne out through the years — she is absolutely candid. That's one of the things that she brings to her performance — she is absolutely honest in everything she does.

Jill Clayburgh (The Rothschilds): I had a crush on Jill. She was adorable. The only thing I remember about Jill though was that she had done Off-Broadway — she had never been in a long-running show. And she told us once, with this astonished look in her eyes, "I have to buy additional makeup."

LEADING MEN

Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof

Zero Mostel (Fiddler): Zero did me a huge favor. During rehearsals, when I watched "If I Were a Rich Man," I kept thinking, I wonder if the ending is suddenly too serious. Maybe I should keep the whole piece light and humorous, and change the ending. And he was part of that discussion, and he just stared at me and said, "If you do that, then you don't understand this man." He said the humor is just fine, but what Tevye is is the man who would give his soul to be able to "discuss the holy books with the learned men" and "have a seat by the eastern wall." That's the man. So I said O.K., and I didn't change it, and I'm awfully glad I didn't.

On the other hand, he did things onstage, he took liberties. Sometimes cast members would turn to give a line to him and find he was not where he was supposed to be. It made it very difficult. At one point, a theatre critic from a Kentucky newspaper came to New York, saw the show, went back and wrote a column that said this show is wonderful, but wait until Zero Mostel is out of it, because as funny as he is, he's distorting the scenes. And Harold Prince [the producer] composed a letter to Zero which couldn't have been more politic, and he had Joe Stein [the librettist] and Jerry Bock [the composer] and I read the letter, and we said yes, this is so delicate. And he sent it to Zero. What it said basically was that we understand that a man of your creative abilities gets tired of doing the exact same thing every night. All we ask is that when we feel that perhaps you've gone over the line we should be allowed to discuss it with you. He hit the ceiling. He said, "You don't tell me how to do this show." He was very difficult. But I must say that although some of the things he did bothered us, they never bothered the audience. They loved him no matter what he did.

Alan Alda (The Apple Tree): He is such a generous man and a wonderful performer. There are things in The Apple Tree which I didn't write which he just ad-libbed, and they went right into the script. What I didn't realize at the time was that he had the capability of being a very fine writer. I think he was happiest when he won awards for episodes of "M*A*S*H" that he had written.

DIRECTORS

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."

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.

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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.