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

By Harry Haun
27 Jul 2012

Sheldon Harnick
Photo by Krissie Fullerton

Richard Ney defined "terrible" on three different fronts as the debuting producer, book writer and lyricist of the infamous Portofino. The triple-no-threat had a Broadway career of three days. He'd come to quasi-prominence as the son of "Mrs. Miniver" (a part Montgomery Clift declined because it came with an M-G-M contract); months later, Ney married his movie mum, Greer Garson. Portofino was to be a new start, writing words to the music of Louie Bellson, Pearl Bailey's drummer hubby, but Ney developed second thoughts and hired Harnick to shore up his words.

"Something he said at our first meeting made me very nervous," Harnick recalls. "He said, 'I know right now I have to take my ego and rip it out by the roots. Write whatever you like. It'll be great.' So I went to work. Two days before the opening, he called the company on stage and said he'd changed his mind. 'We're going back to my lyrics. You're not going to do any of Mr. Harnick's work.'" Harnick said nay to Ney, pointing out that the leading man was French (Georges Guetary of "An American in Paris" fame) and had, at best, a tentative grasp of English so his lyrics stayed. "But one poor girl, in her Broadway debut, started her song with his lyrics, slipped into mine and started improvising words that made no sense at all.

"There was a movie 'star' in that show — Robert Strauss — who was so arrogant that the company hated him. At our opening-night party, the first review that came out — I think it was Walter Kerr's — said, 'Robert Strauss is twice as bad as everybody else because he is playing a double role,' and a cheer went up from the whole company."

Then there was a Harnick show that never got to town: The Amazing Adele. "It had a book by Anita Loos, and a score by Albert Selden. The star was Tammy Grimes. I wrote her an opening number so she could stop the show with it in her hometown, Boston. I wrote some other things, but it didn't help. While we were still in Boston, Selden called a meeting and said, 'I regret to tell you this, but we're not going to New York. I have great faith that all of you will have wonderful — ' By this time, Tammy was on the floor, sobbing, and I went to her and said, 'Tammy, I wish I had as much confidence in my own career as I have in yours.'"