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

By Robert Viagas
January 26, 2013

Master lyricist Sheldon Harnick talks about his musical-theatre career on the occasion of a new Encores! concert revival of his Fiorello!, the biographical musical about New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia.



*

Sheldon Harnick, at 88 one of the great lyricists from the Broadway Golden Age of the 1940s-1960s, is back at work, preparing the Jan. 30-Feb. 3 Encores! revival of his 1959 musical Fiorello!, which won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and tied for the 1960 Tony Award as Best Musical with The Sound of Music — both beating Gypsy.

Working mainly with composer Jerry Bock, he wrote lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, Apple Tree, Tenderloin, The Rothschilds and other shows, and collaborated with Richard Rodgers on their 1976 musical Rex. Thanks to songs like "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," "Ice Cream," "No Song More Pleasing," "Politics and Poker" and "When Did I Fall in Love?," his words live in the heads of theatre fans everywhere.

You had tremendous success quite early in your career. You had two Tony-winning musicals, a Pulitzer winner, and what was at the time the longest-running show in Broadway history among your first five full Broadway scores.
SH: Yes, before I was 40, but I don't think that's all that young. In fact, I remember vividly, as I was about to turn 30 [in 1954], I was extremely depressed because I thought, "I have yet to have a book musical on Broadway. I wonder if it will ever happen." So, it actually came later in my life.

How did that affect your later writing — winning all those awards and having all that success?
SH: I think it was good. But I had worked at a summer resort, Green Mansions, and had a disaster there. We opened a new musical that we were trying out on a night when it was about 98 degrees. It was in a small theatre that seated 600, and we had 800 people in the theatre. It was impossible, so people began to leave, and they left because they were stifling. And, I thought, "They hate the musical!" By the end of the performance, there were about 50 people left, and I thought, "They hate it! My career is over," and that stood me in good stead because nothing was ever a nightmare like that again.

What was the show?
SH: The show was called Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead, which, after all these years, I'm about to exhume it and reinvestigate it because I know there are good things in it. But that experience was invaluable.

Tom Bosley in the original Broadway production of Fiorello!
It's been a long time since there was a new Sheldon Harnick show on Broadway. Does that bother you?
SH: Well, there will be a new show, but it won't be on Broadway. It will be next season Off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. I did an adaptation of the Molière play The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and everybody who's heard it likes it, but everybody also feels that it really is for Off-Broadway. And, if it's hugely successful Off-Broadway, there's always the possibility that it would transfer to Broadway.

Who's the composer?
SH: I am. I didn't start out to be, but it wound up that way, and I'm very happy with the score that I've written.

What appealed to you about that story?
SH: Well, I love to read plays, and, at one point, a couple years ago, I was reading the plays of Molière, and I got to that one, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and as I was reading it I thought, "Molière wrote this 350 years ago for Phil Silvers." It's just a very funny play, and I thought, "I wonder if there's a musical in this?" So I started to work on it, and I thought, "If it turns out to be a play with songs, that's not what I want to do," but the more I worked on it, I thought, "This is a genuine musical." There's a lot of music in this, so it was great fun to do.

There's a number of shows that revised their lyrics to fit changing sensibilities. Tom Jones opted to revise the song about rape in The Fantasticks and Stephen Sondheim removed the word "fag" from Company. I know that on the cast album of Fiorello!, the song "The Very Next Man" has a comic lyric about domestic abuse, but you later changed it. Will the original lyric be heard in the Encores! staging?
SH: No, no, no. No. Originally, it was a lyric that Marie, his wife, had sung, and it was meant to be sardonic. But she was talking about tolerating abuse. And, as women's consciousness' got raised — and men's, too — it just seemed that it was a tasteless lyric, so I had to change it. There's another lyric that I had to change when we opened. Are there enough people in the audience who knew what a Willys-Knight was? A Willys-Knight was an inexpensive automobile from the '20s and '30s that was like a Ford, but these days, nobody knows what a Willys-Knight is, so I had to change that lyric [in the verse to first wife Thea's song, "When Did I Fall in Love?"].

Like that lyric from Strouse and Adams' "All in the Family" theme, "Gee… The old LaSalle ran great…"
SH: Right. Who knows what a LaSalle is today?

Are you going to make other changes to the show? Are there new songs?
SH: There is a new number. In the second act, there's a moment where LaGuardia's first wife Thea has died, and he has run for the mayor and lost by a lopsided amount, and he's onstage alone…devastated. Jerry Bock and I had tried to write him a song. We made a couple of tries at it, and no matter what we wrote, our [original Broadway] director George Abbott said, "The song is self-pitying, and he was not a self-pitying man," so eventually we settled on the tiniest of reprises. He sings, "The name's La Guardia," spells his name and walks offstage. It was that small. And, about 20 years ago, I saw a production, and I thought, "We really need a song there," and it's taken all this time to find a song that wasn't self-pitying. Shortly before [composer] Jerry Bock died, I came up with an extended lyric for that reprise and a new lyric in the middle of a monologue. I gave it to Jerry, and he said, "This I like," and it was the last thing he set before he died. So we tried it out. There was a production [at] NYU — a wonderful production. We had a chance to try it out there, and it worked. And so we'll be doing it, but with a brand-new orchestration for this production.

Jerry Bock
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Regarding your late partner, Mr. Bock, looking back on your work together, how would you describe his career?
SH: Jerry Bock was an unusual composer in many ways. I remember Steve Sondheim making the comment that Jerry was one of the few composers whose music really had humor in it — there are not many. To work with Jerry was exciting. He used to send me tapes with music on it, and I couldn't wait to hear those tapes because there was always something on them that I couldn't wait to start setting lyrics to. Also, Jerry was a good lyricist himself, so that he was a wonderful editor. And, he would look at a lyric and know what to preserve and what to cut and make suggestions for parts that weren't working, so it was a very fruitful collaboration.

Was there a show after The Rothschilds that the two of you wanted to do that you never quite got on?
SH: Well, we started one about the English naval hero Lord Nelson, but the book writer abandoned the project, and somehow it all fell apart, so it never got finished.

What was it like working with Mr. Bock again on the 2004 revival of Fiddler, writing that "Topsy Turvy" song?
SH: Well, we had a falling out — an artistic falling out — over problems with The Rothschilds, but then [director] David Leveaux suggested that he wanted a new song for the Fiddler revival. He wanted a song about the way the matchmaker's profession had changed. And I thought, "Are we going to be able to work together after 30 years?" And, the years just fell away. We got together in his studio, and, after an initial period of a little stiffness, everything was wonderful, and I thought maybe we'd be working again, but it didn't work out that way.

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 Playbill.com, PlaybillEDU.com and the "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" series.)