Sheldon Harnick Approaching 90: Fiddler Lyricist Recalls a Mentor

News   Sheldon Harnick Approaching 90: Fiddler Lyricist Recalls a Mentor
Sheldon Harnick, the prolific lyricist, chats with about his approaching birthday and still-continuing career.


Sheldon Harnick
Sheldon Harnick Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Sheldon Harnick is a rich man. The lyricist of landmark musicals including Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and She Loves Me doesn’t turn 90 until April 30, 2014, but three distinguished New York institutions are rushing to crown him with laurels in major New York City salutes.

Both Encompass New Opera Theatre (Oct. 27) and the Anti-Defamation League (Nov. 25) are bestowing Lifetime Achievement Awards in evening-long tributes that will include performances by Broadway stars Barbara Cook, Tommy Tune, Kate Baldwin, Randy Graff and more. 

Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company has turned over its entire spring 2014 Musical in Mufti season to five rarely-seen Harnick musicals, including Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, which has attracted a cult following since its brief Off-Broadway run in the early 1960s.

Still sporting an impish face and a halo of silver hair the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner said, "I was delighted when they called me." He wrote the widely-known lyrics to "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Ice Cream" and more, in shows that also include The Rothschilds, The Apple Tree and TenderloinAll feature music by the late Jerry Bock; the children’s musical The Phantom Tollbooth features music by Arnold Black.

The Oct. 27 Encompass event at the National Arts Club is scheduled to include performances by Baldwin, Cook and Tune, plus fellow writers Stephen Schwartz, Harvey Fierstein and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Harnick said he’s hoping they will perform a number from his translation of Carmen, originally done for Houston Grand Opera. The Nov. 25 Anti-Defamation League gala at the Hudson Theatre, titled ADL and Broadway: Side by Side Against Hate for 100 Years, promises performances by Carolee Carmello, Lillias White and Jason Robert Brown, as well as a special duet by Graff and Harnick himself on the Fiddler classic "Do You Love Me?"

The milestone celebrations jogged Harnick’s memory about an event that gave him a boost early in his career. While a student at Northwestern University in Chicago, Harnick's friend Charlotte Rae (later of TV’s “Diff'rent Strokes” and a two-time Tony nominee), then an acting student, went to New York over Christmas and came back with something that would change Harnick's life: The original cast album of Finian's Rainbow.

"I listened to it again and again, and I knew I wanted to be Yip Harburg," the fanciful lyricist of that show, plus the immortal film of "The Wizard of Oz," including the song "Over the Rainbow."

Several years later, after Harnick and Rae began their careers in New York, Harburg came to see Rae's act at the Village Vanguard nightclub, which included one of Harnick’s songs. It was at this event that Harnick met his idol, who said he liked the younger man’s work and wanted to hear more. Harnick engaged a pianist and went to perform his best material for the great man, who had been writing on Broadway since the 1920s.

"He gave me some wonderful advice," Harnick said. "He told me I should write with different composers, which helped my career enormously. He also said he was going to tell me the secret of writing for Broadway: That I should concentrate on writing character songs songs and comedy songs instead of the ballads — which was the exact opposite of what [his ex-partner] Jay Gorney had told me.

"Afterward he did something so sweet: He sent me a greeting card on which he drew a cartoon of an angel playing a harp with its feet. It said, 'Dear Sheldon, Keep whanging that lyre.'" 

Harnick has followed that advice all his life. He is still hard at work on a variety of musical theatre projects, several of which will be showcased in the winter-spring 2014 Musicals in Mufti series. They will include the following:

A World to Win, a revue of Harnick songs, including some rarely-heard numbers he calls "hidden treasures." Malpractice Makes Perfect a musical adaptation of Moliere’s comedy The Doctor in Spite of Himself, about a man who impersonates a doctor. The show features music, book and lyrics, all by Harnick.

Dragons, based on an anti-Stalin play from the Soviet era in Russia, a parable about how power corrupts the powerful. Harnick has been working on the musical for the past 30 years and said he has finally solved the second-act problems, "to preserve the humor and charm" of Act II.

Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, Harnick’s first complete musical, which originated at the Alley Theatre in Houston and had a brief run at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1961. With a score by David Baker, the show was rescued from Harnick’s trunk recently by his wife. There have been five rewrites over the years, Harnick said, and the new one incorporates the best aspects of all five.

A new version of Tenderloin, Bock and Harnick’s 1960 musical about a religious crusader in Gilded Age Manhattan. It had a disappointing 216-performance run originally and is rarely revived. Harnick said he liked the drastically condensed libretto used in the 2000 Encores! production done at City Center in New York, and that version, prepared by Walter Bobbie and John Weidman, will be used at the York as well.

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