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

By Harry Haun
27 Jul 2012

Margery Gray and Sheldon Harnick

Of late, Harnick has been huddling with Brian Kulick, the artistic director of Classic Stage Company, about presenting his musicalization of Moliere's The Doctor in Spite of Himself. "He plans to do a reading sometime after the first of the year. I'm not sure when the actual production will be, probably in the fall of 2013."

The Doctor in Spite of Himself is the second time Harnick has triple-tasked himself (music, lyrics, book) on a full-length musical. His first is based on a Russian play called The Dragon and retitled Dragons. "It has had six college productions, and each time it gets a little better, but there's a problem with it: The man who wrote it [Evgeny Lvovich Shvarts] was anti-Stalin so he wrote oblique plays or he'd never get them produced. He wrote The Dragon as a fairy tale, and the censors passed it, but, as soon as it was produced, they said, 'Uh-oh,' and yanked it down. I'm still trying to figure out how to make the second act comprehensible to American audiences, how to make it mean something to them."

He is also peripherally involved in a musical based on Abigail Pogrebin's first book, "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," which his nephew, Aaron Harnick, optioned. "Aaron said, 'Read the book. Tell me if there's anyone you'd want to write a song about.' I read the book and said, 'Yeah. One of my heroes is in there: Norman Lear,' so I wrote a song about Norman Lear. He liked it and asked me to do another, so I wrote one on Jerome Groopman, a world-famous oncologist and one of the people who devised the cocktail of drugs which helps AIDS patients live longer.

"Aaron went to every songwriter he could think of and asked for a song and got a show. The book is by Charles Busch, and they'll try it out in Philadelphia this October. I think it's like Working — only this is Jewish, so it's Vorking."

The last new Harnick show to play Broadway played there one night, by design: an Actors' Fund benefit performance of A Wonderful Life, based on Frank Capra's film, "It's a Wonderful Life," and, more aggravatingly, a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern running about nine pages or so called "The Greatest Gift."

"The question is: Is the story published or not?" explains Harnick. "He couldn't get it published so what he did was print it up himself as a Christmas card and send it to a lot of friends because that constitutes publication. Every Christmas we have ten or so productions around the country, but we can't bring it into New York because we would have to have a piece of paper in our hands that says that we own the rights."

At this Actors' Fund benefit, the author's daughter met Harnick and told him that she loved the show. "Well, why can't we get the rights to do it on Broadway?" he reasonably asked. She promised to put him in touch with her children who handled that — but she didn't. The estate is famous for shooting off cease-and-desist letters and tried to halt productions at the Westchester Dinner Theatre and the Paper Mill Playhouse. "It's a heartbreaker and a mess, but we can't get it done in New York."

In that Paper Mill production six years ago, playing the only cabbie in Bedford Falls, Harnick spotted a potential Fiorello — Tom Bosleys don't come in bunches like bananas — and the sparkplug-feisty Robert Creighton wound up doing the role four years later at a one-night-only benefit for the American Musicals Project at the New-York Historical Society. His star has since risen (recently he played the purser and understudied Joey Grey in Anything Goes), so he might be ripe for Encores' reprise of Fiorello! Jan. 30-Feb. 3, 2013. That show jumpstarted the series 20 years ago, with Jerry Zaks in the lead. This upcoming version will feature Bock and Harnick's final flourish: a re-thought, character-clarifying new number for Fiorello.

Earlier that month — Jan. 12-14, 2013 — Harnick will lead off the 92nd Street Y's 2013 season of Lyrics & Lyricists, which he has hosted on numerous occasions. "I said, 'Has anyone done one on the daddy of us all, W.S. Gilbert?' They said 'No.' And Rob Fisher [guest artistic director of the event] said, 'We'll not only do one on Gilbert, we'll do one about songs that have been influenced by Gilbert' — for instance, in Pacific Overtures, Stephen Sondheim did a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song." There is another in Thoroughly Modern Millie as well. Hence: "The Very Model of a Modern Major Lyricist: W.S. Gilbert and the Broadway He Inspired."

Harnick is very much the model of a modern major lyricist himself. A year ago, in keeping with the changing times, he altered his lyrics to "Sunrise, Sunset" to make it appropriate for single-sex marriages.  "It turned out to be a very simple change, so I did it. The lyric is: 'Is this the little girl I carried, / Is this the little boy at play?' I just changed it to 'Is this the little boy I carried, / Is that the little boy at play?' It was there, that simple. And then, as long as I did that, I did one for women, too.

"I later got an email from one of the guys who got married. It really brought tears to my eyes. He said, 'You have no idea what an emotional experience that was for us.'"

Read more about the career of Sheldon Harnick in the feature Harnick On Harnick.