I was sorry to see that lyricist Sheldon Harnick passed away today at the age of 99, but what a life. Though he’s best known for writing the lyrics of the Tony Award-winning musical Fiddler on the Roof with his longtime collaborator Jerry Bock, he also won a Pulitzer Prize for another Tony Award Best Musical, Fiorello! As well as such shows as the often-revived She Loves Me, and The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds, Tenderloin, and more. But he also wrote lyrics with Richard Rodgers for the musical Rex, the libretto for several operas, including Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines and Love in Two Countries. And musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Michel Legrand, and It’s a Wonderful Life with Joe Raposo (who wrote many songs for Sesame Street, such as "Bein' Green" and "Sing.") And his own musical, for which he wrote the music, as well, Dragons.
There's a wonderful, detailed remembrance of Harnick in the New York Times, which you can read here.
As readers of these pages know, I crossed paths with Sheldon Harnick a bit – a few times in person, though mostly as an email buddy. Happily, I had the presence of mind to save all those emails, in which he told many fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, most memorably about how a movie version of She Loves Me almost came to be that would have reteamed Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews, but got scuttled at the last minute.
Every time my paths crossed with him, he was always a joy. A gentleman, unpretentious, thoughtful, open, insightful and honest.
The first time was when I was at Northwestern University, and he returned to campus as Grand Marshal for Homecoming. I had a radio show on the school station, WNUR, so I got to do an interview with him, along with a reporter from the school paper, and I edited my material down toa a radio documentary.
When I came to Los Angeles for grad school, I brought the tape of the documentary with me, figuring that maybe I’d come across someone in Hollywood who knew Harnick, and would help me get a copy of it to him. It took about 20 years, but eventually after bringing up my quest one day to my friend Treva Silverman, she said, “Ahhh, dear Sheldon…” And I finally reached my goal.
Excited, I mentioned to my mother that I at last had found someone who knew Sheldon Harnick. “Oh,” she said, “you mean Aunt Joan?” Say what??!! It turned out that my Aunt Joan grew up with Harnick in Chicago, were very close, and even went to Northwestern together. In fact, a famous family story (which I had never before heard) was that when he had made his decision to move to New York to try and have a life there, my aunt later went home and explained his plans to her mother, and my aunt's mother -- as most mothers, especially then, concerned about the very risky world of show business -- wondered to her, "How will he ever earn a living??"
I wrote to him, sent along the radio documentary after all those years, finally, and also mentioned who my aunt was, When he handwrote a letter back, the very first line was, "Joan Sered! Oh, my God!" (That was her maiden name.)
We didn't stay in communication, but years later, thanks to a Huffington Post article I wrote about Fiorello! (“The Greatest Musical You’ve Never Heard Of”), we did get back in touch and became email buddies of a sort. And a few years later after that, met up back in Glencoe where I grew up and where the wonderful 100-seat Writers Theatre was putting on a production of his show She Loves Me. (Side note: it starred Jessie Mueller, who went on to win the Tony Award, playing Carole King in the musical Beautiful a few years ago, and recently, the musical Waitress.) And I coordinated schedules so that my Aunt Joan could come to the same performance, where she and Sheldon had a chance to meet up again and have a joy visit for the first time in several decades.
We exchanged email opinions after the show and agreed that the first act was ragged, but that the second act was absolutely wonderful. And the explanation I suggested, and he thought likely, was that in the first act, with him sitting in the fourth row of the tiny theater, the cast was terrified – but by the second act, everyone settled down and put on the performance they were capable of.
Another fond memory is that when Harnick was working on his own musical, Dragons, he premiered it at the Music School of his alma mater, Northwestern. And my mother drove to see it. Knowing how much I admired his work, she got him to autograph the program to me. This was even before I'd tracked down his address and sent him the radio documentary. I still have the program.
Harnick actually began as a musician, playing the violin. Eventually though he shifted to writing lyrics. And he always gave credit to the actress Charlotte Rae for getting him to go to New York and try the theater. Both were students at Northwestern at the time – in fact, Charlotte Rae and my Aunt Joan were in the same sorority. And one day, Rae gave Harnick the cast album of a new Broadway musical, Finian’s Rainbow. Harnick has said how it enthralled him, that you could be entertaining and still write something meaningful. Later, the lyricist of that show, E.Y. (Yip) Harburg – who wrote the songs to The Wizard of Oz – became Harnick’s mentor. And Charlotte Rae later starred on Broadway in the musical of Li’l Abner as ‘Mammy Yokum’ and later came to fame as the housemother ‘Mrs. Garrett,’ on the TV series, Facts of Life.
Harnick also told a great story as a young man new to New York about being invited to attend a backers' audition for a new, hopeful musical, the first backers' audition he had ever seen. He said that the score was so brilliant, it almost sent him back home to Chicago. "If the unknown songwriters are this good," he said that he was thinking at the time, "then what chance do I have?" He reluctantly met that other young songwriter. It was Stephen Sondheim. He soon learned that, no, all unknown songwriters were not that good. The two became lifelong friends.
Here's a wonderful, hour-long interview with Sheldon Harnick at the Kennedy Center seven years ago when he was 90, and you'll see he's vibrant and entertaining. Know too that this isn't just an interview, but includes several of his songs from wonderful performers.
In fact, when Harnick was 94, he showed up at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York to help promote an all-Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof -- directed by Joel Grey -- and sang absolutely wonderfully one of his classics, "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof with Judy Blazer. He was always one of the best interpreters of his own songs.
Harnick and I kept writing periodically, up until a few years ago. I’d check in on this birthday and send good wishes, but the last few years I stopped hearing back, which suggested to me that he wasn’t as vibrant as he’d been for so long. But what an impressive life and legacy to have left behind.
Back when I met Sheldon Harnick for the first time and then did my college radio documentary from the interview we'd done, he talked about one of his favorite of his lesser-known songs, "In My Own Lifetime," from The Rothschilds, which starred Hal Linden who won the Tony Award as Best Actor. For the lyric, Harnick writes poetically and richly with the simplicity of almost everyday language, which is his hallmark. I ended the documentary with this song, and I immediately preceded it with a clip from my interview with Sheldon talking about all his work. It was a passage that ended with him discussing how he'd like people to listen to his songs and then say -- "Yeah. Yeah, that's true."
I think the best way to end things is not only with that same song -- but this time, with Sheldon Harnick's own interpretation of it. The song ends at the 2:27 mark, the applause lasts for 50 seconds.
It will all last much longer. In large part because people will listen to his songs and then say -- "Yeah. Yeah, that's true."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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