ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Midtown March Medley Marches On, Plus Alan Cumming and Sheldon Harnick

By Seth Rudetsky
11 Mar 2013

Sheldon Harnick
Photo by Robb Johnston

I also had the amazing Sheldon Harnick on the Chatterbox and he was riveting. If you don't know, he's the lyricist who partnered with Jerry Bock to write Tenderloin, Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds and She Loves Me. So many amazing stories!

First of all, he began as a violinist but also wanted to write shows. First, though, he went into the Army. He had to sail to Japan in a flat-bottomed boat! Crazily nauseating! When he finally landed in Japan he was so happy to be on dry land that he was told later he was one of the only Americans who kissed the ground. He got back to the states and playing violin in a Chicago hotel orchestra. He would tense his body a lot when he played that his doctor told him he had to take a year off to get his body back in shape. (PS, if you want to see a tense violin player, come see me in The Daring Duo in the March Medley.)

He decided to use the year off to go to NYC and try his hand at writing musicals. I asked him what Broadway show he first saw, and he told me Ankles Aweigh. I told him it was known as a bit of a clunker and he told me that he saw it for that very reason! Turns out, when he got to town, his brother invited him to see a backers' audition of a new musical. Sheldon was excited to see what a real backers' audition was like and readily agreed. He was then devastated… because it was so good. He thought that if every struggling composer/lyricist in NYC was that talented then he would never get a show produced. He decided to see a Broadway show that sounded like a clunker so he'd have some hope that one day he could have a show on Broadway. He looked in the papers and decided that Ankles Aweigh sounded stupid so he saw it to give himself hope that even dumb shows get produced. The hilarious part of the story is that the backers' audition he went to, which he thought featured an average NYC composer/lyricist, was for a new musical written by Stephen Sondheim! No wonder he wanted to throw in ye olde towel.



On a side note, when I interviewed Richard Maltby Jr. (the great lyricist who wrote Baby and Closer Than Ever) he said there should be a course in musical theatre writing school called "Dealing with Sondheim." Richard said that every lyricist has the devastating moment where he thinks "I want to write a song about blank," and then realizes Sondheim already wrote it and it's perfect.

I asked Sheldon about working with director-librettist George Abbott, and he said that, because Mr. Abbott was known for broad comedies, Sheldon assumed that he'd allow anything for a laugh. However, when they were in rehearsal Fiorello!, Tom Bosley (who played the title role) improv'd a line that got a huge laugh from everyone. Sheldon was ready for the line to be added to the show. Mr. Abbott then asked Tom if he thought Fiorello would have said that in real life, Tom admitted it was unlikely, and the line was cut. So much for anything for a laugh. Hm…maybe I should learn that lesson (I've been typing this article using a rubber chicken).

I also asked Sheldon about She Loves Me, which I adore. He remembers writing "Ice Cream" for Barbara Cook. He and Jerry Bock performed it for her and she told them it could go into the show that night. They were shocked, til she explained that the song features her reading a letter so if she forgets anything, she could just check out her onstage lyric sheet! Hmm….maybe I can add a "letter" to The Daring Duo this week? Is there such a thing as a 107-page letter? P.S., Watch Barbara Cook sing "Ice Cream" and sound fabulous

 Continued...