Broadway has been good to Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick. His elegant home on New York’s Upper West Side has a gorgeous view of Central Park. In his living room, with its colorful paintings by his wife, Margery Gray Harnick, he is in great spirits talking about the honors coming his way and his plans for the future.
On his 92nd birthday in April, Harnick was in Austin, Texas, for the premiere of “Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land,” the opera he wrote with composer Henry Mollicone. He couldn’t linger, however, because he had to get back home for a Broadway street naming in his honor and to acknowledge all the congratulations for his upcoming Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theater.
With composer Jerry Bock, who died in 2010, Harnick turned out musical scores for Broadway shows that included Pulitzer winner “Fiorello!” in 1959, “The Apple Tree” in 1966 and “The Rothschilds” in 1970. Their two best known shows, “She Loves Me” in 1963 and “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964, are among the four contenders this year for the musical revival Tony Award. We talked with Harnick about his shows including “She Loves Me,” which alone received eight nominations.
How do you feel about this incredible year you’re having in the theater?
At 92, I’m immensely gratified to have these two shows running and in such beautiful productions. The only sad part is that Jerry Bock isn’t around to enjoy it with me.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is always playing somewhere — a local high school, a theater in Japan. Now it’s having its fifth Broadway revival. Did you ever expect its worldwide success and longevity?
No. We hoped it would run a year or two. Although we worked hard to bring out universal values, we also worried that it could be limited to Jewish audiences. That it ran on Broadway for eight years was far beyond anything we ever expected.
“She Loves Me” is among the most-honored musicals this season. Do you have any idea why the show wasn’t a big hit the first time around?
That was a mystery and a heartbreaking one. When the show opened on Broadway in 1963, it got pretty good reviews, but it closed after less than nine months and lost its entire investment. We had many postmortems, and none of us could figure out what was wrong. The big change came when Scott Ellis, who directed the current Broadway revival for the Roundabout Theatre Co., directed it for them in 1993. The reviews were love letters, and the following year, we had 60 productions. It became a show that was regularly produced.
You planned to be a violinist and studied music at Northwestern University. How did you wind up a lyricist?
Everything changed when my friend Charlotte Rae loaned me her record of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” Yip Harburg was an influence even before I met him. I loved his lyrics. Later on, when I would listen to Steve Sondheim’s work, it made me work as hard as I could on my own. I found in Steve’s work such immaculate craftsmanship.
Which other theatrical artists have caught your attention?
Andrew Lloyd Webber was influential in the kind of pop operas he was writing; when I started, musicals were scenes and songs, and nobody was writing musicals where everything was set to music. Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s “Ragtime” was a wonderful show. Lin-Manuel Miranda is an actor, book writer, lyricist and composer, and I really admire what he did with “Hamilton.” I once wrote a rap lyric to introduce him, which he told me he framed and hung over his piano.
A theater lyricist is a playwright who writes short plays in verse that have to be set to music. The important thing is that no matter how clever you are or how complicated the song is, you have to write something that is immediately comprehensible to an audience. They have to hear it and understand it as it is sung. You also have to write for character and for situation. Characters can’t sound like when they speak, they’re one person, and when they sing, they’re somebody else.
Where do the lyrics come from? In “Fiddler on the Roof,” for instance, what inspired “Sunrise, Sunset”?
“Sunrise, Sunset” was written to music Jerry Bock sent me. The Russian melody, which rose and fell, rose and fell, suggested the phrase “sunrise, sunset” to me. “Do You Love Me” began with my hearing a rehearsal scene between Tevye and Golde where he asked, “Do you love me?” and she answered with, “Do I what?” I thought those could be the first lines of a very amusing song.
Are there certain things you usually look for in choosing shows to work on?
The story has to interest me as a story. I have to feel something for the characters and feel I can express what they’re going through. I’ve turned down shows where I enjoyed reading the book but felt I couldn’t write for those characters. They were strangers to me.
What are you thinking about doing next?
We had a short run last fall of a “Rothschilds” spinoff called “Rothschild & Sons,” and the producer is trying to get an extended run off-Broadway. I think it would be fun to do an operetta, and there’s a French play I’d love to adapt. I’ve also revised two of my musicals that have never been done in New York, including “Dragons,” which is based on a Russian play, and on which I did everything — book, lyrics and music.
Do you know the secret of your longevity?
No, but I’m grateful for it. My sister is 94, and aside from her needing to use a walker, her mind is just as active as it’s always been. She lives in a residential home, and she’s in charge of the limerick contests.
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For the Record
9:10 p.m.: A photo caption was corrected to say Ben Rappaport is a cast member of “Fiddler on the Roof,” not “She Loves Me.”
This article originally published at 3 a.m.