ON THE RECORD: "Hidden Treasures" Offers a Candy Box Assortment of Sheldon Harnick

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15 Jun 2014

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Cover art

This month's column visits "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013," a collection of work by award-winning composer Sheldon Harnick.

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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.)

Sheldon Harnick
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The rest are obscure, deleted songs from famous shows and lost songs from lost shows; I count only four selections that I have heard on commercial recordings (not including tracks from Harnick's various "and then I wrote" appearances). The format is chronological, beginning with a college song written in 1949 — just after his college mate Charlotte Rae brought him a souvenir from her spring break trip to New York, a copy of the original cast album of Harburg's Finian's Rainbow — and continuing until 2004. The last selection is "You Made My Day," a song he wrote for Marlo Thomas' follow-up to Free to Be You and Me. (This was a culturally groundbreaking concept album from 1972, for which Harnick made two memorable contributions. Neither are on this album, and I'd like to hear them again). Harnick's 2004 contribution was recorded — by Audra McDonald, no less — but not released; the producers thought it was "too sophisticated." Thus, the collection ends with a special treasure from Audra.

Bock and Harnick's seven Broadway musicals are all represented, as are selections from their 1966 television musical The Canterville Ghost; the abandoned 1967 London musical Trafalgar, about Lord Horatio Nelson; and Man on the Moon, a Bil Baird puppet show which played a week at the Biltmore just before She Loves Me opened in 1963. Not included are any of the songs they ghosted for Baker Street and Her First Roman, nor any of their special event or industrial show wares. We do get "Mr. A.," a dazzling ditty they wrote in 1962 for George Abbott's 75th which perfectly catches the facets and crotchets of the great director:

When surgery is urgent and there's trouble with the star
And the author's in the nearest bar
Who is busy with his scissors in his private abattoir?
Mr. A!

An abattoir, by the way, is not George Abbott's study but a slaughterhouse. Harnick also comments that it's a thrill "when he walks across the stage, when he walks across the links, when he walks across the pool" — which perfectly expresses the mixture of awe and admiration Abbott commanded from his many younger collaborators.

There are three selections from the Horatio Alger-themed Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, which Harnick wrote with David Baker prior to meeting Bock (although it wasn't produced until after Harnick won his Pulitzer for Fiorello!); four from Rex, the hapless Henry VIII musical written in collaboration with the aging and ailing Richard Rodgers; and single songs from A Christmas Carol (with composer Michel Legrand), Wonderful Life (with Joe Raposo), and Harnick's own still-in-progress Moliere-musical, Malpractice Makes Perfect.

Listeners unfamiliar with Harnick's origins should be delighted by his early satirical work. "Ballad of the Shape of Things" — written as nightclub material for Rae in 1950, and sung by her as an interpolation in the 1956 Littlest Revue — is a droll madrigal that turns murderous; "Merry Little Minuet," too, is an unexpected charmer. ("They're rioting in Africa! They're starving in Spain! There's hurricanes in Florida — and Texas needs rain.")

Next come the Smiling the Boy Fell Dead songs, with "Let's Evolve" and "Two by Two" brightly rambunctious. There are five from Bock and Harnick's 1958 debut musical, The Body Beautiful, a flawed and unworkable show with enough strong songs to earn the tunesmiths a shot at the big time (which is to say, Fiorello!). Few listeners would likely identify these as Bock and Harnick, but "All of These and More" is an explosive 'Gee, I'm in love' ballad while "Just My Luck" is a lightly bluesy torch (delectably played by Bock). "A Relatively Simple Affair" is a breezy duet which indeed looks forward to Fiorello!

The latter is one of five Hidden Treasures sung by Margery Gray, in this case with Leigh Beery. Gray appeared in Fiorello! and Tenderloin and married the lyricist in 1965; they are approaching their 50th anniversary. Most of the songs are sung by Harnick, often with Bock chirping in from the piano; others come from Charlotte Rae, Danny Meehan, Susan Watson, Michel Legrand and even the great Hugh Martin singing a 1953 Martin/Harnick collaboration.

The 1959 Fiorello! is represented by two effective songs which didn't ultimately work in their slots and were cut during the tryout: "Where Do I Go from Here" — a lovely ballad for the secretary (Marie), pining for her boss (Fiorello) — and "'Til the Bootlegger Comes." The latter is a fine comedy number that was lost when the scene in which it was contained was removed; the very same flavor, though not the melody, is apparent in "Reform" in the 1960 Tenderloin.

Fans of the 1963 She Loves Me will be especially happy with the cut songs from that cherished score. Heroine Amalia Balash — about to embark on a date with her mysterious "dear friend" — pleads with her parfumerie coworkers to "Tell Me I Look Nice." The song is perfectly lovely; Harnick explains in the notes that he wrote the lyrics with a waltz rhythm in mind, but that Jerry chose to set it in five-four time — that is, omitting the final note of every other measure — to communicate Amalia's underlying anxiety. There is also "Merry Christmas Bells" for the four subsidiary clerks as they put up Christmas decorations; Kodaly flirts with Miss Ritter, while the young Arpad and the wisened Sipos suffer through it. Harnick comments that the piece was too complicated for the slot it had to fill; those of us who know the score will recognize patches that turn up elsewhere in the finished show, including as the counterpoint patter in "Ilona."

Next comes "My North American Drugstore," for Kodaly after he has been fired. This was a grand showstopper for the actor who played the role, Jack Cassidy (who had introduced the songwriters five years earlier). The creators felt it impeded the action, though — so they wrote him another showstopper to replace it, "Grand Knowing You." The section ends with the beautifully atmospheric closing number, "Christmas Eve." They realized that the show didn't need a closing number, and the song was relegated to the heap of hidden treasures.

While we needn't go step-by-step through the whole recording, you are likely to pay special attention to the Fiddler section. First comes the opening number "We've Never Missed a Sabbath Yet," for Golde and her five daughters. The music perfectly captures the nature of the show; as an opening number it presumably put attention on the wrong characters, though, and was cut early on. When Jerome Robbins came onto the project and demanded a new opening number, Bock pulled the third section of the song — where Golde sings one theme ("there's noodles to make and chicken to be plucked...") in counterpart with the daughters ("the noodles will be made, the chicken will be plucked..."). Golde's theme became "Who day and night must scramble for a living..."; the daughters kept their theme, with a new lyric ("and who does mama teach..."); this also served as the Fiddler theme that was ultimately used to open and close the show. They wrote two more counterpart themes, for the mothers and the sons, and the whole jumble became "Tradition." The opening section of "We've Never Missed a Sabbath" remains in the show as scene change music following "If I Were a Rich Man"; Harnick also suggests that Jerry used a variation of the melody for "Matchmaker."

The cut "Letters from America," too, played a key part in the finished show. This had been intended as the second act opening, a comedy number following the pogrom just before intermission. The village men consider letters from relatives who've emigrated to America — "who needs America!" they sing — always circling back to a bouncy ditty about their obstinate, Orthodox little shtetl, "where pigs roam through the street." (Bock sets it with musical fills in the accompaniment that suggest 19th-century Russian vaudeville.) Long after the song was cut, Robbins instructed the boys to write a slower, melancholy version of the bouncy ditty, and there was "Anatevka." And then there's one of the prettiest of all Bock and Harnick songs: "Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine" for Motel and Tzeitel, a good example of a perfect song that they discovered didn't quite fit in the final version of the show.

There's plenty more to be mined on "Hidden Treasures" — including a typically Harnickian line in a song for the Brando-like antihero of the Passionella section of The Apple Tree, who instructs the Marilyn Monroe-like movie star to "learn to be like Brecht, man — use your intellecht, man!"

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)