Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

Today is Sheldon Harnick's 94th birthday. One of the theatre's most outstanding lyricists, his contributions to the American musical are beyond beautiful and profound. He made his Broadway debut, writing both words and music, to the hilarious song "The Boston Beguine,"...

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Today is Sheldon Harnick's 94th birthday. One of the theatre's most outstanding lyricists, his contributions to the American musical are beyond beautiful and profound. He made his Broadway debut, writing 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). For Harnick, the song didn't bring him "A Star is Born" moment, but it did made people aware that his was a fresh talent to be reckoned with. So he plugged along, finally reaching a bit of fame and fortune, when in 1959, he won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Fiorello! In the decades that followed, he worked tirelessly with a broad spectrum of collaborators on projects that went produced—and unproduced—because that's what he does. Age may have slowed him down a bit, though not his desire, passion, nor his elegant style.

 

Sheldon Harnick, who turns ninety-four today. 

 

Receptions to his shows have run the gamut. Fiddler on the Roof  is possibly the world's most beloved musical, while Rex, 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, now revered and considered a classic, ran just nine months back in 1963. And though he may only have eight Broadway book musicals to his credit, they won Tony Awards for seven of the actors who created roles in their original productions. 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. 

 

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 for anyone familiar with the work of both men, as they bare striking resemblances in their delightful word play. 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 about the boxing world, which reached Broadway in 1958. But The Body Beautiful did not capture the imagination of audiences (or the critics), and folded quickly (for the full story on The Body Beautiful, see my January 23, 2018 column at https://medium.com/@ronfassler/the-body-beautiful-f88bd76422a2).

 

As it turned out, 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 Fiorello! team: (l to r) George Abbott, Jerome Weidman, Robert Griffith,

Harold Prince, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (1959).

 

The break-up of Bock & Harnick has been written about extensively (and if you care to read more about it, I do cover it extensively in the article linked above). Sadly, it was forty long years that the former partners stayed un-partnered, lasting until Bock's death 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 appealing. Even when writing for the characters of Adam and Eve (and you don't get more human than the original humans), Harnick allows for sentimentality, while at the same time, uses a caustic wit to maximum effectiveness. For example, in The Apple Tree's "What Makes Me Love Him," Harnick gets to Eve's later in life infatuation with her beloved 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. As stated earlier, these are the gifts that keep on giving. Happy Birthday, Sheldon!

 

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

 

 

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