June 24, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
News that Sheldon Harnick left us yesterday at age ninety-nine swept through my theatre friends’ social media feeds with sadness, but also joyful remembrances. One of the theatre’s most outstanding lyricists, his contributions to the American musical will forever stand the test of time. Never will his elegant, sensitive and incomparably witty songs go out of style. What’s more, he was a true mensch, Yiddish for a person of intense honor and dignity. His profound love for words and wordplay made his contemporaries sing his praises. When Stephen Sondheim attended a preview of Harnick’s first musical, The Body Beautiful, written with composer Jerry Bock, he called his friend Harold Prince and said, “Hal, you’ve got to see this show. There’s a team that I think you should hear.” Prince bought a ticket, listened, and wound up hiring the pair for Fiorello, which brought its entire creative team the Tony for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize.
Harnick’s Broadway debut was when he wrote both words and music, to the hilarious song “The Boston Beguine,” for a revue called New Faces of 1952 (introduced by new face, Alice Ghostley). It didn’t bring him “A Star is Born” moment, but it made people aware that his was a fresh talent to be reckoned with. In the decades that followed, he worked tirelessly with a broad spectrum of collaborators on projects that went produced — and unproduced — because that’s all he knew how to do. He was trained for it. And it made him happy.
Receptions to his shows have run the gamut. Fiddler on the Roof (1964) is possibly the world’s most beloved musical, while Rex (1976), written with no less a virtuoso than Richard Rodgers, was greeted with the kind of scorn that would send any artist to the psychiatrist’s couch. She Loves Me (1963) now revered and considered a classic, ran just nine months in its original production. Fun fact: with just seven Broadway book musicals to his full credit, seven Tonys were awarded to actors who created roles in them. That’s because every Sheldon Harnick lyric bares his distinct touch of wit, sensitivity, and brilliant way with a rhyme. They are a gift to actors, and they are gifts that keep on giving, due to the many revivals of his work all over the world. Besides Fiorello!, She Loves Me and Fiddler, if you don’t know the scores to Tenderloin, The Apple Treeand The Rothschilds, make it your business to get those albums ASAP.
Born in Chicago, Harnick took up the violin while a young boy in grammar school. After his service in World War II, he returned home and enrolled at nearby Northwestern University on the G.I. Bill. There, he was introduced to writing lyrics as well as music, when he signed on for Northwestern’s famed musical revue, The Waa-Mu Show. The creative challenges (and fun) it brought, made him think a career in the theatre could be in the cards. So he went to New York City.
Harnick has admitted in interviews that his lyric writing has been greatly influenced by the work of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, especially after he first listened to the original cast recording of Harburg and Burton Lane’s Finian’s Rainbow. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of both men, who delighted in finding the cleverest of rhymes. It took a few years for Harnick to break through, but luckily it was a prolific time for on and off-Broadway revues, a popular genre of entertainment in the 1950s. He sought collaboration with a host of composers without pause, mainly due to the advice he was fortunate to personally receive from Harburg, his idol, near the beginning of his arriving in New York. “Harburg told me that in his experience, there are more capable theater composers than there are theater lyricists. So if the opportunity comes to work with different composers, don’t hesitate.”
Finally, lightning struck with one composer. It was in 1956, when he was introduced to Jerry Bock, four years younger, and already someone with a Broadway hit under his belt, Mr. Wonderful, a star vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. The two sparked as a team and began writing together, producing a wholly original musical (the aforementioned Body Beautiful) about the boxing world, which reached Broadway in 1958. Sadly, it did not capture the imagination of audiences (or the critics) and folded quickly.
One year after that show’s painful (and disdainful) dismissal, the very same critics greeted Fiorello!, with unanimous praise. In its early stages, its score was to be composed by Bock without Harnick. The show’s book writer Jerome Weidman was set to write the lyrics as well, though as time went on, it proved too difficult a task. So when George Abbott was brought on board to direct, he not only began making changes to improve Fiorello!’s plotting (eventually taking a co-writing credit with Weidman), he also insisted another lyricist be employed. Yip Harburg and Stephen Sondheim were considered, but in the end, it was decided to give Bock’s earlier writing partner a chance. Thus paved the way for the Bock & Harnick partnership to flourish, which it did, for what was a spectacular, if relatively short run.
The break-up of Bock & Harnick has been written about extensively. The split was painful, especially for Harnick, as it was Bock who left the partnership. Save for one new song they wrote for the 2004 Fiddler revival; it was forty long years that they remained un-partnered (Bock died in 2010). Wishful prayers by musical theatre fans everywhere went unanswered, as the always hoped for reconciliation never yielded a new Bock & Harnick musical.
For me, it is the humanism in Harnick’s lyrics that makes his craftsmanship so vivid and true. When writing for the characters of Adam and Eve in Act One of his three-act musical The Apple Tree (and you don’t get more human than the original humans), Harnick allows for sentimentality, while at the same time, using his caustic wit to maximum effectiveness. For example, in “What Makes Me Love Him,” Harnick gets to Eve’s later-in-life realization how much she adores Adam with this deceptively simple lyric:
What makes me love him?
It’s not his learning
He’s learned so slowly, his whole life long
And though, he really knows a multitude of things,
They’re mostly wrong.
Or this, from She Loves Me, where Amalia dreams aloud of her romantic ideal, who she’s met through love letters they address to one another as “Dear Friend”:
He writes me what his feelings are
On Shaw, Flaubert, Chopin, Renoir.
The more I read, the more I find, we’re one in mind and heart.
I know the kind of home we’d share,
The books, the prints, the music there.
A home, a life, that’s warm and full
And rich in love and art.
And it can’t go unsaid, how Bock’s music allows for Harnick’s words to sit on the melodies so beautifully. To mourn his passing is appropriate. To revel in the knowledge his songs will stay with us forever, is the salve to bathe the wound.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.