PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sheldon Harnick, the Tony and Pulitzer-Winning Lyricist of Fiorello!

By Robert Viagas
26 Jan 2013

City Center Fiorello! star Danny Rutigliano with Sheldon Harnick
Photo by Joan Marcus

Was it difficult to look at others from your generation — Kander and Ebb, and Charles Strouse, et al — having hit new Broadway shows during the '80s and '90s?
SH: Not in terms of competitiveness or jealousy, but when you mention Kander and Ebb, I was envious of the fact that their relationship never broke up as Jerry's and mine had… Yeah, I confess. I was envious.

Well, you got to work with Richard Rodgers…
SH: Oh, I got to work with a lot of other people… Richard Rodgers and Michel Legrand and others… Cy Coleman… So there were compensations.

Which of your post-Rothschilds projects do you think about most fondly? Phantom Tolbooth?
SH: That one I feel very fond of. One of the joys of that was getting to know the author, Norton Juster, who is wonderful man — a delightful man — so that was good. And then there's a project that I've been working on — off and on — for a long time, and I'm going back to work on it. It's based on a Russian play, and it's called Dragons, so I'm going to go back to work on that. And, also the one I mentioned before — Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead, I will be going back to work on that. The other collaboration was not a musical collaboration, but I collaborated with my wife, who's a photographer, and we did a book called "The Outdoor Museum," featuring 90 of her photographs and a lot of my poems. It will be on sale, as a matter of fact, during the run of Fiorello! And, that collaboration was very joyous.

Fiorello! is one of the few award-winning hit musicals from its period that has never had a Broadway revival. Why do you think that is? It's not like there's nobody who could play Fiorello.
SH: Maybe because of the City Center [concert] production years ago [in 1994]. Other than that, I can't explain it. I can't say why it isn't done around the country nearly as much as it should be. I guess there's a feeling that it's parochial, that it's too New York, and audiences across the country may not understand it — which doesn't turn out to be true. There was a production in Chicago, an Off-Loop production a couple years ago, that ran a year-and-a-half. It was very popular there.

Even if you only know Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from the airport, couldn't he now be just a musical theatre character like the Phantom — or Teyve for that matter?
SH: He's a character. I'm hoping that this City Center revival will do good things for the show.

(Robert Viagas is founding editor of, and the "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" series.)