It’s not every day that I am presented with the opportunity to connect to Broadway royalty, so when I had the chance to speak with legendary lyricist Sheldon Harnick, I did somersaults and skipped through Times Square singing the well known song “Miracle of Miracles” from his Tony award winning musical Fiddler On the Roof. It confused and confounded tourists and residents alike.
Ok. I’m being slightly hyperbolic. However, this three time Tony award winning master was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his ongoing series at the York Theatre Company, which is celebrating five of his works as part of their Musicals in Mufti line-up. “Mufti” shows are performed minimally in street clothes without being fully staged. Recently, the York produced a world premiere of the revue Sheldon Harnick’s A World to Win and Dragons. This weekend , they will stage Malpractice Makes Perfect (February 14-16th),
followed by his off-Broadway piece Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead (February 21-23rd) and will close the series with a revival of his 1960’s Tenderloin. (March 7-9).
Harnick spoke with me about the series, his experiences with other stage legends, his early days as an aspiring writer, and what advice he could offer to blossoming theater professionals.
RL: How did this Mufti series come into play specifically for your works?
SH: You’d probably have to ask Jim Morgan, who runs the York. All I know is that months and months ago he called me and told me he wanted to do it. What prompted him to do that? I don’t know.
RL: It could be that you are on the heels on your 90th birthday, which is quite exciting.
SH: That’s more than likely. I hadn’t thought of that, but that is more than likely.
RL: Speaking of, you’ll be 90 years old in April and have no signs of slowing down. In fact, from what I understand, you are very hands-on in the process of this mufti series.
SH: That’s right. I’ll be attending as many rehearsals as I can.
RL: So what is your secret to longevity?
SH: I have no secret. I can say that my father looked very young up until the end of his life, so maybe it is something I inherited from him.
RL: Good genes are always key, I suppose
SH: True. Otherwise, I have no secret. When people ask me that, I usually say that I like to walk a lot.
RL: Do you have any brand new projects that you are working on right now?
SH: What I’ve been contemplating lately is a musical about Hawaii. I was reading a book called “Overthrow”, which is about all the countries that our government has helped to overthrow their government. I was impressed by the fact that when we overthrew the Hawaiian government, that our congress apologized to them in the 1920s. I thought that was remarkable. At any rate, I saw a moving film about the subject where the princess at the time was suddenly a princess no longer. So she devoted a large part of her life to trying to get a vote for the Hawaiians. So that material is a possibility because I find the story fascinating.
RL: Would you you write the book, music, and lyrics to this?
SH: I always start out thinking I’ll just do lyrics and sometimes I drift into more than that.
RL: And the upcoming show at the York theatre, Malpractice Makes Perfect, is entirely your show–meaning you did book, music, and lyrics.
SH: True. Although when it started, I had approached several friends with the idea of other people doing book and music and I couldn’t get anybody else interested in it. Since it continued to fascinate me, I thought I’d just take a crack at it myself.
RL: Is this a debut for Malpractice Makes Perfect or has it been done before?
SH: I’ve had several readings. This is another reading. What saddens me is that I was supposed to have a production by the Classic Stage Company last year. They had never done a musical before last year, when they produced Stephen Sondheim’s Passion-which was a beautiful production. But the board of directors at Classic Stage Company discovered how expensive musicals are to produce, and they decided to stick to straight plays. So they ended up canceling my show. Then Jim offered me another reading at the York, and I figured, “Well, let’s do that.” So this will be not a full production with sets or costumes, but rather a regular mufti production.
RL: I understand in the recent production you did in this Mufti Series, Dragons, that you actually went on for a sick actor at the last minute?
SH: Yes. That was a week ago Saturday. Bill Youmans, who was playing the role of the mayor, was running a high fever, so they set up a chair and music stand for me at which I sat and I read his lines and sang the songs. The audience seemed to love it.
RL: That must have been quite a treat for them, I’m sure!
SH: It was a treat for me too! I enjoyed it.
RL: The final show that you’ll be doing in this series, Tenderloin, was written by your long time collaborator, Jerry Bock, with whom you had written Fiorello, Fiddler On the Roof, She Loves Me, and others. Talk to me a bit about the collaboration you had with him.
SH: Well, it was a wonderful collaboration from the time I met Jerry. We got along very well in every way. The last project we did together was The Rothschilds but then Jerry decided after that project that he wanted to do his own lyrics because he had started as a songwriter and lyricist. He had worked with many other collaborators but had always wanted to get back to his own lyrics–so that’s what he did the last couple years of his life. And in fact, it paid off for him. The year he died, he was part of a collaboration that wrote a song for television that got him an emmy award. It was for a children’s show and I think the title of the song was “A Fiddler Crab Am I” It had the word “fiddler” in it which I found amusing.
RL: It all comes full circle I guess. So you got your start in the industry in the late fifties, is that correct?
SH: Well, I came to New York from Chicago in 1950 and it took me awhile…until 1957 I think, before Fiorello hit and that is what made me solvent, but up until then it was touch and go,
RL: I ran across something called Songs to Ford-ify Your Future that you had done early on.
SH: (Laughs) That was an industrial show that Jerry Bock and I did for the Ford tractor company.
RL: How did that project materialize?
SH: I had done a number of industrials for an advertising firm and when I started doing them, I didn’t know that I was breaking the law. They told me to just pick whatever songs you like and whatever melodies you like and just write lyrics for them. So that’s what I was doing . That is what most of the industrials were doing. And then, there was an industrial show, where one of the performers in it had been in The Music Man and he knew Meredith Wilson (the composer of the show). In that particular industrial show, they had used one of the songs from The Music Man, so this performer wrote to Wilson and he said, “You’ll be amused, I’m sure, to find that we have used one of your melodies in this industrial show and they have written new lyrics for it.” Well, Meredith Wilson was not amused. In fact, he sued. Since then, most industrials have had to write new music. At any rate, I had been doing just anybody’s music, but when the Ford tractor show came along, they decided they wanted an original score, so Jerry and I were hired to do that . It was the only industrial show I had done that was recorded. The Ford tractor company made a recording of it for their sales people and I received a copy of it as well.
RL: That is such a unique thing. We don’t really see Industrial shows any more, which is kind of sad.
SH: Yes. There was a big article about it in the New York Times last Sunday by William Grimes. And there’s a new book out about the topic of industrial musicals. I was on Terry Gross’ program on NPR recently to discuss it.
RL: What a cool experience to have done those prior to the days of- as you say- your “solvency.”
SH: Right. the industrials allowed me to pay a lot of bills and they were wonderful because they used so many professionals in terms of performers and orchestrators and conductors. I met a lot of people that way.
RL: You have most certainly rubbed elbows with some luminaries in the theater world, specifically Zero Mostel and Bea Arthur on Fiddler on the Roof. Can you talk a little bit about what your experience was like with each of them?
SH: Well, Bea was a friend. For some reason, Zero never became a friend. I had tried to buy one of his paintings because I liked his work and he kept putting me off and making snide remarks. So I didn’t really rub elbows with him and I’m not sure why but there was definitely a distance between us.
RL: With Bea Arthur….how do you go about writing songs for someone who isn’t exactly a trained singer but able to make them sing lyrics which are accessible to the general public?
SH: Jerry and I never did that. We wrote for the character and we wrote whatever we thought was musically necessary and then, when we cast we’d get somebody who was able to sing the song–whatever the demands of the song were-we got a performer who could handle it. As it happens, Bea Arthur was quite a capable singer, so we really didn’t have to worry about that. When she auditioned for Fiddler, she must have auditioned about six times because every time we (Jerry Bock, Joe Stein, Jerry Robbins and myself) saw her we’d say, “My God! She is such a strong performer, but there’s nothing old country about her. She seems like contemporary New York and doesn’t seem right for the show.” After the fifth or sixth audition, Jerry Robbins said, “Look. We haven’t seen anybody who is stronger than Bea Arthur. Whether she is right or wrong for the role, she is wonderful. Let’s hire her.” And so we did. And I must say, she was an extraordinarily strong performer.
RL: What about your collaboration with George Abbott and Jerome Weidman on Tenderloin?
SH: Jerome Weidman was an adorable man…very good natured, high-spirited, had endless anecdotes and was great fun to talk to. He was such a great storyteller, which is why I think he was such a good novelist. George Abbott on the other hand, was kind of aristocratic, but an extremely decent man and wonderful to work with. He was so professional and had such knowledge of the theater. I remember for Fiorello, there was one song we had written, which Abbott didn’t think would work so he didn’t want to use it. Jerry Bock and I were very disappointed that he wasn’t going to use the song. It was called “The Bum Won”. What surprised me is that we got to New Haven and after we had opened, George Abbott said to Jerry Bock and me, “We are going to try your song, but I don’t think it will work, so I’m not going to spend Hal Prince’s money by having it orchestrated. But we will rehearse it and put it on stage just accompanied by piano, bass, and drums and we’ll see what happens.” So I stood next to Abbott at the back of the theatre in New Haven, and I thought to myself, “Oh dear! He’s right! It doesn’t work.” But to my surprise, Abbott turned to me and he said, “Sheldon, this song is going to work. The reason it doesn’t work now is…and he gave me the reasons and then instructions on how to re-write the song, so that it would work.” And he was right. Jerry and I re-wrote the song and it became part of the show. His knowledge was just astonishing.
RL: You talked about New Haven. A lot of times, Broadway shows used to get worked that way, both there and in Boston. How has that process changed over the years when today’s shows are just mounted immediately on Broadway. Do you think it has compromised the integrity?
SH: I don’t know about that , but it has made it a lot more dangerous. When we used to go to Boston or New Haven, you could improve the show. Now, it more of a gamble if you open directly in NewYork, no matter how long the preview period is, People see it and word of mouth can be bad. That will have to be overcome. I remember that’s what happened with A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. I’m not sure that they had an out of town tryout and when they were previewing in New York, they hadn’t fixed the show yet. Word got out that the show was not good. But thank God by the time the show opened they had fixed it. At any rate, without an out of town tryout, it is more of a gamble. Personally, I loved going out of town where you had the opportunity to look at the show every night and see what wasn’t working and then try to fix it.
RL: Years later, when you look at your own works and projects, do you ever sit back and look at lyrics you have written and say, “I should have used a different word or phrase there or changed this or that” or are you completely satisfied with the finished product?
SH: Two of the shows in this mufti series, Dragons and Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead were both shows that I have constantly gone back to and said, “This can be improved”, and I’ve kept working on them. With Dragons, it all paid off on the reading we had which was very successful. When we get to Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, we’ll see whether all the work I’ve done on that, subsequent to its’ run Off Broadway in 1960 has paid off. With shows like Fiddler, Fiorello, and She Loves Me I think that I finally got it right and there is nothing I’d want to change about those.
RL: Are there shows that you’ve seen that have made you wish you had written them yourself?
SH: Yes. Most of the Sondheim shows! I look at them and I marvel at his talent- especially Sweeney Todd. I think that is just a masterpiece and in fact, I wrote him a fan letter about it.
RL: Is there anyone working in the industry now that you’d like to work or collaborate with?
SH: I often thought it would be fun to work with Alan Menken, who is extremely talented. And there is a younger composer, Tom Kitt, who I think is just wonderful. He has a new show coming Those are two names that come to mind
RL: When you look at the landscape of Broadway today, what is your opinion of the “Movies turned musicals” phenomenon that has been dominant over the last few years?
SH: I have no problem with that. Musical theater has always looked for things to adapt whether they are plays or books or movies, so I have no problem with it. If it is a good story and the adaptation is done well then that is a plus. In fact, I turn to movies myself to see what can be adapted
RL: Do you have any advice for lyricists or people working in the field today?
SH: The advice I usually give to young writers is to read widely and be aware of what’s happening in the world around you. You never know what the demands are going to be on the musical for which you’re writing. To have the widest flow of information to you is extremely useful. Every young writer should have as broad an education as possible
For tickets and information on Musicals in Mufti: Celebrating Sheldon Harnick visit http://www.yorktheatre.org/current-series.html, visit the box office at 619 Lexington Avenue (on the corner of 54th street), or call: (212) 935-5820