With a clutch of new original cast albums from this season's Broadway musicals crowding the counter, I made the mistake of tearing open the wrapping of "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013" [Harbinger]. Looking at the content list within the booklet, I made the further mistake of picking a track that I needed to hear immediately. I've spent the rest of my time this week listening to the 52 selections on two discs. All those new cast albums will just have to wait.
Harnick, himself, is not what we'd call a hidden treasure. Fifty years ago — literally back-to-back — he wrote the lyrics for one of Broadway's finest romantic musicals ever (She Loves Me) followed by a landmark classic (Fiddler on the Roof). He's written eight complete Broadway musicals in all, along with a handful that haven't quite reached the street. From early on, it was apparent that he held a special position among his peers (i.e. Sondheim, Ebb, Adams and the slightly older Lerner and Comden/Green) for high-quality, intelligent, amusing, human lyrics. If Harnick was similar to anyone, it was Harburg; Sheldon was the next-generation Yip, without the edge, the need to show off or the sometimes obstructive personality.
The broad outlines of his career: Born in 1924 — he just turned a spry and nimble 90 — Harnick graduated from Northwestern University in 1950 and came to New York in search of success as a composer/lyricist. He first attracted attention with some well-crafted songs for Broadway revues, including the still sublime "Boston Beguine" in New Faces of '52. By the late '50s, though, the only theatre jobs he could find were doctoring lyrics for dying musicals. A featured actor from one of those flops — Jack Cassidy, as it happened — introduced Harnick to a composer friend looking for a lyricist: Jerry Bock. They wrote seven Broadway musicals between 1958 and 1970; the pair were so perfectly matched that while they only collaborated a dozen years, their names remain forever linked.
Harnick has continued writing, with various composers; Bock, too, attempted to continue working albeit on a comparatively limited scale. It turns out, though, the pair were so well-suited that a Harnick song — or a Bock song — is not nearly so special as Bock and Harnick.
In 2011, Harbinger Records released "Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures," a marvelous collection of little-heard recordings and demos from the distinctive songwriter-arranger. Harnick, one of Martin's diehard fans, wrote liner notes so incisive that they enhanced what we heard on the CD. One thing led to another, and now we have Harnick's "Hidden Treasures." And treasures they are, most of them. (All but 12 of the 53 songs have music by Bock or Harnick.)
"Hidden," too, is the operative term. This is not one of those "let's sing our hits" collections; there are only two well-known titles included. (Bock and Harnick give us their demo of "Sunrise, Sunset." Harnick points out, in his extensive liner notes, that at the time of the demo "Jerry apparently thought of the song as a kind of mazurka," which does, indeed, come through in his piano accompaniment.)
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