Sheldon Harnick Approaching 90: Fiddler Lyricist Recalls a Mentor

By Robert Viagas
26 Oct 2013

"I listened to it again and again, and I knew I wanted to be Yip Harburg," the fanciful lyricist of that show, plus the immortal film of "The Wizard of Oz," including the song "Over the Rainbow."

Several years later, after Harnick and Rae began their careers in New York, Harburg came to see Rae's act at the Village Vanguard nightclub, which included one of Harnick’s songs. It was at this event that Harnick met his idol, who said he liked the younger man’s work and wanted to hear more. Harnick engaged a pianist and went to perform his best material for the great man, who had been writing on Broadway since the 1920s.

"He gave me some wonderful advice," Harnick said. "He told me I should write with different composers, which helped my career enormously. He also said he was going to tell me the secret of writing for Broadway: That I should concentrate on writing character songs songs and comedy songs instead of the ballads — which was the exact opposite of what [his ex-partner] Jay Gorney had told me.

"Afterward he did something so sweet: He sent me a greeting card on which he drew a cartoon of an angel playing a harp with its feet. It said, 'Dear Sheldon, Keep whanging that lyre.'" 



Harnick has followed that advice all his life. He is still hard at work on a variety of musical theatre projects, several of which will be showcased in the winter-spring 2014 Musicals in Mufti series. They will include the following:

A World to Win, a revue of Harnick songs, including some rarely-heard numbers he calls "hidden treasures."

Malpractice Makes Perfect a musical adaptation of Moliere’s comedy The Doctor in Spite of Himself, about a man who impersonates a doctor. The show features music, book and lyrics, all by Harnick.

Dragons, based on an anti-Stalin play from the Soviet era in Russia, a parable about how power corrupts the powerful. Harnick has been working on the musical for the past 30 years and said he has finally solved the second-act problems, "to preserve the humor and charm" of Act II.

Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, Harnick’s first complete musical, which originated at the Alley Theatre in Houston and had a brief run at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1961. With a score by David Baker, the show was rescued from Harnick’s trunk recently by his wife. There have been five rewrites over the years, Harnick said, and the new one incorporates the best aspects of all five.

A new version of Tenderloin, Bock and Harnick’s 1960 musical about a religious crusader in Gilded Age Manhattan. It had a disappointing 216-performance run originally and is rarely revived. Harnick said he liked the drastically condensed libretto used in the 2000 Encores! production done at City Center in New York, and that version, prepared by Walter Bobbie and John Weidman, will be used at the York as well.