STAGE TO SCREENS: Sheldon Harnick's TV Musicals Flicker Anew in NYC Screenings July 28

By Harry Haun
27 Jul 2012

Michael Redgrave as the Ghost, with Peter Noone and Tippy Walker in "The Canterville Ghost."
photo courtesy of The Paley Center for Media

Harnick began his career on a shoestring, Off-Broadway, with Ben Bagley's Shoestring Revue and assorted Julius Monk revues at Downstairs at the Upstairs, via ditties like "Garbage," torch-sung by Beatrice Arthur, and "The Merry Minuet (They're Rioting in Africa)." Broadway beckoned with Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952, where his "Boston Beguine" began.

He estimates he has gone through "eight or ten composers, maybe more" in his lifetime, counting himself, and now acutely including himself for a couple of new works-in-progress (The Doctor in Spite of Himself and Dragons).

An early brush with established lyricist E.Y. Harburg helped change his game. "I'd written a song for Charlotte Rae to do at The Vanguard, and she told me one night that 'Yip' was coming down. We met, and he invited me to come over to his house to play for him. Most of what I played was college stuff, but he was very encouraging, and he said, 'Let me give you a piece of advice: In your comedy songs, your verses are like recitatives. It's like you want to set it up and get to the chorus. Don't do that. When a person hears a comedy song, if it's funny, the first time they hear it they will laugh. The second time they hear it, they know the joke. They ain't gonna laugh. What gives the song legs is the music, so every part of that song has to be as good musically as you can make it.'" Thus, the eight-to-ten — maybe-more collaborators in his career.

For all his Fiddlers and Fiorelloes, Harnick hit his share of potholes on The Great White Way, especially early on when he was still "loning it." His most colorful, funny-on-reflection pit-stops? Portofino and Shangri-La.

The Playbill for Shangri-La

For Shangri-La, the musical version of "Lost Horizon," he was brought in to improve the lyrics of the original novelist, James Hilton, and (toiling between Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee — that's how lost Shangri-La was. A separate film musical version 27 years later flopped, too.

"Harold Lang was in the show, and they wanted a new song — a soft-shoe because he played a dancer," Harnick recalls. "Harry Warren wrote a charming soft-shoe in about 45 minutes, and I thought, 'By God, I'm going to write the lyric in 45 minutes.' I raced back to my hotel. It took an hour and a half, but I went back to the theatre with my lyric. I gave it to them. They put it into the show, and it stopped the show. It was wonderful. Then, this crazy director said, 'Well, now we know that song works, so I'm going to take it out of the set and we're going to do it in front of the curtain while we change that set.' Harold said, 'You can't. It won't work. In the set, it's part of the show. Out of the set, it's a revue number. Not only that, I don't have room to dance in front of the curtain.' And the director said, 'Trust me, Harold.' So they took the song out of the set. It didn't work. Harold fell down. And they cut the song.

"Alice Ghostley had a showstopper in it, too. It was peculiar because I could never quite hear the lyric. The director said, 'Alice, they can't hear the lyrics. I'm going to sit you down and you're going to sing it. It'll be even stronger because they can hear the lyrics.' Alice said, 'If they hear the lyrics, it won't work. The reason I'm doing what I'm doing — whirling around, jumping, craziness — is because it's a terrible song.' He said, 'No. Trust me.' Those words. He sat her down. She did the song. It died. She went to the producers and said, 'Either let me do this the way I was doing it, or you have my notice,' so they let her do it her way. He was a terrible director."