Appreciation: Sheldon Harnick, prolific lyricist behind ‘Fiddler’ and different beloved musicals


In 2016, when the prolific, award-winning Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick was 92, I requested him if he knew the key to his longevity. “No,” replied the person who introduced us the lyrics to such beloved musicals as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Fiorello!” and “She Loves Me.” “However I’m grateful for it.”

Whereas many people assumed he simply would possibly reside without end, Harnick died Friday morning at age 99 of pure causes, reported his publicist Sean Katz, at his longtime condo on New York’s Higher West Facet.

Harnick lengthy lived on Central Park West, the place his sunlit lounge hosted a number of work by his spouse of 58 years, artist and photographer Margery Grey Harnick, in addition to attractive views.

I first spoke with Harnick after I wrote an article for The Instances about “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2002, however I obtained to know him finest after I wrote a guide in regards to the present in 2014. He was heat, welcoming, very amusing and his reminiscence was razor sharp.

The kid of oldsters born in Japanese Europe, Harnick grew up on the northwest aspect of Chicago, taking part in the violin and considering he would develop into a violinist. However after going to Northwestern College, the place he significantly studied violin, he was additionally significantly drawn to writing for the varsity’s lavish pupil revues, and “by the point I graduated, I knew my coronary heart was with the theater, not the violin.”

Truly, he most likely knew it even earlier than school. His mom “celebrated each event with a poem,” he as soon as informed me. And fairly quickly, he too was writing poems, then track lyrics, sketches and parodies in highschool and school. Later, within the Military, he would write songs and sketches to entertain the troops.

Harnick’s first present with Joseph Stein and Jerry Bock was 1958’s “The Physique Stunning,” which ran simply six weeks on Broadway — Harnick favored to quip that it might have run seven weeks however there was a blizzard—however its rating impressed producer/director Harold Prince. It not directly led to 1959’s “Fiorello!”, the musical story of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, which Prince co-produced with a rating by Bock and Harnick and a guide by writers Jerome Weidman and George Abbott; it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Bock and Harnick wrote seven Broadway scores collectively, together with “She Loves Me” in 1963 and “The Apple Tree” in 1966.

Whereas almost all of Harnick and Bock’s exhibits have performed properly through the years, their greatest hit was “Fiddler.” It opened on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1964. Whereas its first evaluate, from famous critic Walter Kerr, wasn’t excellent, it hardly mattered. The following day, there have been strains across the block, and almost eight years and three,300 performances later, it grew to become the longest-running present on Broadway on the time. It gained 9 Tony Awards, together with finest musical, and was nonetheless on Broadway when United Artists launched Norman Jewison’s movie of the identical title in 1971. There have been stage productions everywhere in the world, in addition to in 1000’s of faculties, neighborhood facilities and regional theaters.

Harnick was additionally very organized, fortunate for me. He saved all of the lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof” in a thick pale-blue three-ring binder, and after going off to a different room to get it throughout our interview, he began calling out titles for songs going again to 1961, and laughing aloud at a few of them.

Think about “Fiddler’s” first track, initially known as “We’ve By no means Missed a Sabbath But.” Its first opening strains have been about preparing for the Sabbath — cleansing the home, plucking the rooster for supper and such. It will definitely grew to become “Custom,” one among musical theater’s best-known songs.

Harnick, Bock and Stein had written almost a whole present earlier than assembly with director Jerome Robbins, Harnick as soon as informed me, and Robbins saved asking them what the present was about. “We’d say it’s about this dairy man and his daughters,” Harnick informed me, till lastly Harnick mentioned, “It’s about custom.” Robbins replied, “That’s it. Write that.”

In order that they did. Different songs, too, got here and went. There was a discarded track written for the butcher, and one other, additionally discarded, for Motel the tailor, known as “Pricey Candy Stitching Machine,” which featured the tailor’s promise to like, honor and hold polished his new stitching machine.

Harnick would write lyrics on lodge stationery, scraps of paper and easily in his head. One time he was concentrating so laborious on placing lyrics to a melody that Bock had written, he stepped proper in entrance of a truck. “The motive force slammed on the brakes and honked his horn,”Harnick informed me. “I regarded up, startled after which saved proper on strolling, engaged on the track. Jerry informed me to be extra cautious.”

Barbara Isenberg is a former Instances employees author and the writer of “Custom! The Extremely Inconceivable, In the end Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ the World’s Most Beloved Musical.”


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