Sheldon Harnick

Photo by Mary Henebry


In His Own Words: Writing Lyrics

David Leveaux, Jerry Bock, Joe Stein, and Sheldon Harnick attend a rehearsal for the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Photo by Carol Rosegg


When theatergoers enter Broadway's Minskoff Theater, the curtain is already up. The golden glow of lanterns and live birch trees make a striking backdrop for the villagers of Anatevka, who begin the latest revival of the international sensation Fiddler on the Roof with the number "Tradition" as they enter in a swirling line dance.

The entire show is "bathed in magic," wrote John Simon in a review for New York magazine. "The score comes across rapturously."

It was lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Mu49) who first created the magic with composer Jerry Bock and book writer Joseph Stein in 1964 when Fiddler opened to packed audiences and resounding acclaim, culminating in one of Broadway's longest runs. The three men have come full circle, collaborating on the latest revival by assisting director David Leveaux, the cast and the production team.

For Harnick the revival has struck a resonant chord. "When the cast came in for the first time and rehearsed their songs with the orchestra," Harnick says, "I had a tremendously emotional reaction.

"The producers — the Nederlander Organization — hired a wonderful musician named Larry Hochman who subtly enriched the original orchestrations," continues Harnick. "The songs still sound like the original orchestrations, but even better.

"On the whole, we didn't need to help that much, because Leveaux is a brilliant director," notes Harnick. "Our lead, Alfred Molina, deepens and enriches his performance with each successive evening. I think this revival is the most moving production I've ever seen."

The warm audience reception for Fiddler 40 years after its premiere proves once again that Harnick writes the kind of memorable lyrics that audiences hang onto long after the curtain falls and the music ends.

Although best known as a lyricist, Harnick is also an accomplished opera librettist, translator and musician. Whether writing for musical theater or opera, he strives to convey the most fundamental human experiences in language that touches the audience's heart. For this reason his impact on the music world has been profound, say his theater colleagues.

"Sheldon Harnick has made and continues to make a major contribution to the American musical theater," says Fiddler book writer Stein. "He is a brilliant and unique lyricist; his lyrics are at the same time both simple and profound, as they reflect his wit, his warmth and his wisdom."

Stein is not alone in his praise. Lee Adams, who wrote the lyrics for Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy and Applause, considers Harnick "a superb lyricist" and a formidable lifelong competitor and friend.

"I jokingly tease Sheldon that he robbed me of a Tony Award," Adams says. "One of my shows, Golden Boy, and his Fiddler on the Roof both opened in the fall of 1964. We were sure we had a Tony locked up until Fiddler knocked us out of the box."

A Chicagoan to the Core

Harnick grew up on Chicago 's northwest side in Portage Park, near his father's dental office. His mother was active in local organizations, and young Harnick gained experience performing for her arts club. He began studying violin at age 8, often practicing for hours. While still in high school, he played violin for amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

"Even though I was playing the violin, I could still hear the lyrics," Harnick remembers. "At that time I was turned on by the patter songs, so I began to familiarize myself with Gilbert and Sullivan. I was more fascinated by the virtuosity than anything else. Little by little, I also realized what a fine poet Gilbert was and how imaginative he was, even in the slower songs. So he became an enormous influence."

Harnick's plans for college were interrupted when he was drafted in 1943. He was eventually assigned as a technician in the Signal Corps, attached to the Air Force. While stationed at Robins Field in Georgia, Harnick used his spare time to write songs and perform in shows for his fellow troops. Indeed, his future life in musical theater was beginning to take shape.

On to Northwestern

After the war Harnick attended Northwestern on the GI Bill. He had good reason to choose the school.

"I knew that Northwestern had one of the most elegant student revues in the Chicago area — the Waa-Mu show," recalls Harnick, who majored in violin. "It was big, and the man who produced it, Joe Miller (J29), really knew what he was doing.

"My last year at Northwestern," continues Harnick, "I wrote half the show. My work with Waa-Mu was very rewarding, and it really pointed me in the direction of the theater."

Another Waa-Mu alumna, Charlotte Rae (C48), helped Harnick confirm his career direction when she returned from New York one day with the Finian's Rainbow album.

"I was dazzled," Harnick says. "I loved the music. But it was the lyrics that were a whole new world. I thought, 'My God, listen to what Yip Harburg is doing — the cleverness, the wit, the humor, the style, the inventiveness.' And it's not just to entertain; he's trying to say important things. I thought, 'Wow, that would be a career worth pursuing.'"

New York, New York

In 1950 Harnick moved to New York City to try his hand at writing songs for musical revues. His first song on Broadway was "The Boston Beguine" in the show New Faces of 1952.

But opportunities for lyricists to place songs in revues were becoming scarce.

"Television was making big inroads into the revue form because Sid Caesar's show and other shows like it could do a show a week," says Harnick.

"And these television shows were truly topical. A revue on Broadway took eight months to a year to put together. So it was hard to write topical material," Harnick explains. "Television could also get high-priced performers. You couldn't get that many stars in any revue. So the musical revue began to vanish from the Broadway scene and along with it my chance of placing songs."

Then in 1956, through his publisher Tommy Valando, Harnick met composer Jerry Bock. It proved to be a very successful partnership. Together Bock and Harnick created the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! (1959), based on the story of legendary New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia; the Grammy Award-winning She Loves Me (1963), which entranced audiences with its European charm and operetta elegance; and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), with Zero Mostel as the milkman Tevye. Fiddler, which won nine Tony Awards, including best composer and lyricist, became the longest-running show in Broadway history (1964-1972), a record it held until 1979.

Writing for Opera

In the early 1970s Harnick expanded his creative focus to include opera librettos.

He began in 1972 to work with opera veteran Jack Beeson, known for his Lizzie Borden, about the Massachusetts ax-murderess who does away with her parents. Harnick's collaboration with Beeson produced three operas: Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, Dr. Heidegger's Fountain of Youth and Cyrano.

"I was delighted to be working not only with one of the finest lyricists in the American musical theater but also with a trained musician, a violinist, baritone and composer," says Beeson of Harnick. "During the 18 years of our collaboration, there were no arguments — only the patient working out together of scenarios, characterizations, a cut here, an addition there."

Writing lyrics for opera helped Harnick grow in a new direction.

"I had to learn gradually — and Jack Beeson was a help in teaching me this. Writing opera is different from writing for the theater in one sense," Harnick explains. "You're not as worried about details. It's the sweep of it. You're not worried about filling in the history and the events, one leading to another. They're the broad strokes, just these sweeps of color that lead to these big emotional statements. That's what opera is about."

In recognition of his successful foray into the world of opera, Harnick won the Marc Blitzstein Memorial Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1993 for achievement in the creation of opera librettos.

Doing His Homework

While adept at painting the broad strokes needed of opera librettos, at the same time Harnick is known for his extensive research in preparation for writing.

In a recent collaboration with composer and conductor Henry Mollicone, Harnick completed Coyote Tales, a work based on American Indian legends, and premiered by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 1998.

Before the premiere Harnick and Mollicone traveled to nearby Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., to get American Indian students' reaction to the work.

"At first, there was just silence," says Harnick. "We kept asking if anything troubled them. We said, 'It's really important to us because we have great respect for the Indian community and don't want to do anything that offends you.'

"Finally one student said, 'Mr. Harnick, we are not just redskins. Each tribe has its individuality. You have three Indian legends in your first act, and you've lumped us all together. If you want masks, you've used masks; if you want rain sticks, you've used rain sticks. They are not used in each tribe.'

"So they talked for about an hour," continues Harnick. "We were just delighted.

"We wrote everything down, and we didn't argue with them. Our reward was that at the end of an hour, when they ran out of comments, a young lady stepped forward, introduced herself as Willow and said, 'No one listens to us. You people have listened to us. You have good hearts.' I can't say that without getting choked up. We almost wept," says Harnick.

Mollicone and Harnick enjoyed their partnership.

"The experience of working with Sheldon Harnick as a librettist was the very best experience I have had," says Mollicone. "I found him friendly and personable and extremely willing to collaborate in a reasonable way on the various issues that always come up when composing a new opera. The final result of his brilliant writing was exactly what I was hoping it to be."

Children's Productions

Harnick's love for musical theater led to several projects for children. In 1973 he and Mary Rodgers wrote a version of Pinocchio for the famed Bil Baird Marionettes, a troupe featured in theaters, films and nightclubs as well as on Ed Sullivan's and Sid Caesar's television shows.

Harnick got his first job with the marionettes through his friend Burt Shevelove, who was directing the 1958 ABC television special Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf (with music by Sergei Prokofiev and lyrics by Ogden Nash).

Harnick wrote dummy lyrics for Nash, who did not read music and needed a sense of the music's rhythm. Afterward, Nash autographed a copy of his book The Face Is Familiar (also known as The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery ) in words that Harnick's career continues to bear out: "To Sheldon Harnick, the one man Philharmarnick."

In Translation

Harnick enjoyed working with Bil Baird and collaborated with him on other projects, including a 1967 translation of Igor Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat. Harnick, who learned French from a private teacher, has always liked the language's sound and sensual quality. The experience of translating L'histoire opened up yet another window of opportunity for Harnick to exercise his writing talents.

He set himself a difficult goal, however, with the Stravinsky work. "I thought, 'I'm going to make this mine. I'm going to try and make the narration fit the meters of the original French,'" recalls Harnick of the challenge. "'If a French line has 12 beats to it, 12 syllables, that's what I'm going to try and do.' It was a wonderful challenge. I couldn't do it constantly, but close enough. It gave it the kind of variety that the original had."

Harnick went on to provide English-language translations for works by classical composers including Bach, Bizet and Ravel. His 1977 version of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow was premiered by the San Diego Opera Company and starred Beverly Sills; a subsequent album won the 1979 Grammy Award for best new opera recording.

Chautauqua Opera artistic and general director Jay Lesenger, who has worked with Harnick's version of Widow on several occasions, has nothing but praise for the lyricist's adept and clever translation.

"Many productions of Widow suffer from weak book and lyrics," Lesenger explains. "Sometimes the script is an attempt at a literal translation of the original German — the Austrian humor just doesn't translate well for American audiences. Other versions pretty much abandon the original and thereby lose the tone of Lehár's Vienna by playing up the musical comedy at the expense of the sentimental core of the piece.

"Sheldon is simply an expert on how to structure a musical book, and his lyrics are a lesson in clarity and wit; he captures the Mittel-European tone brilliantly."

The Writing Life

Harnick's involvement in the recent revival of Fiddler on the Roof is a testament to his boundless energy and continued creativity in the world of musical theater. In April Harnick celebrated a milestone birthday — his 80th. But he shows no sign of slowing down.

On a typical day in his apartment on New York 's Upper West Side, Harnick starts the morning doing his exercises — he is fit and looks much younger than his years — answering correspondence and playing violin. He recently began to play Handel violin sonatas with a friend.

In the evening he and his wife, Margery Gray, may go to a show — he is a Tony voter — or relax at home. But he reserves each afternoon for writing.

Harnick met his wife when she auditioned for his 1960 show Tenderloin, and he and director George Abbott found that she could sing, act and dance. "She was a triple threat," laughs Harnick.

Gray has performed on Broadway and with her husband for charity benefits, as well as on video — the two do a delightful performance of a scene from the Harnick-Mary Rodgers Pinocchio (1973), with music by Mary Rodgers. Also a sculptor, photographer and painter, Gray has studios in both their New York City and East Hampton, N.Y., homes.

Northwestern Premiere

Although he has spent most of his life near Broadway, Harnick has never forgotten his alma mater amid his creative pursuits.

His musical Dragons, based on a play of the same name by the Russian Yevgeny Schwarz, premiered at Northwestern in 1984. It is a story about the corruption that comes — to anyone — from the acquisition of power.

This show, for which Harnick wrote not only lyrics, but also the book and the music, is his "novel in a drawer." And in typical Harnick fashion, he has lavished time, effort and love on the work.

Harnick says the project taught him an enormous amount about writing the book for a musical.

"When I first did it, despite all the experience I had in musical theater, I would look at the original Russian play and think, 'Oh, this could lead to a nice song. This is an imaginative idea,'" he recalls. "I kept putting in things that were diverting, that kept getting in the way of the storytelling.

"Little by little, I realized that in a musical you've got to tell the story, and swiftly, so you digress at your own peril." The work "has never been more relevant than it is right now," he says.

The same could certainly be said of Fiddler. The musical's focus on such serious issues as persecution, poverty and displacement continues to be relevant in today's world.

For the lyricist's work to remain relevant almost 40 years after the musical's premiere is perhaps the best tribute of all to this talented man. Harnick has indeed become the gifted lyricist he hoped to be — putting words to songs that say important things with wit, humor, style and inventiveness.

Susan Hawkshaw is assistant director of Yale University's Oral History, American Music, a unique archive of interviews with leading figures in the music world. She holds a doctorate in musicology from Columbia University.

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