Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who, with composer Jerry Bock, forged one of Broadway's most successful Broadway composing teams, responsible for such classics as Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, has passed away. He was 99. The news was confirmed via Harnick's longtime publicist Sean Katz.
"His lyrics were clear and purposeful and never lapsed into cliche," said Tony-winning actor and writer Harvey Fierstein in a statement. "You'd never catch him relying on easy rhymes or 'lists' to fill a musical phrase. He always sought and told the truth for the character and so made acting his songs a joy. A JOY! A JOY!!!! I can't say that loudly enough. And this atheist will pronounce it... a blessing!"
Fierstein played Tevye in Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof in a 2004 Broadway revival, the last to be signed off on by the complete writing team. "Jerry Bock's music. Joe Stein's book. Sheldon Harnick's lyrics. Perfection," continued Fierstein. "Nothing compares to the feelings I got singing one of their songs. I grew with each stanza; my heart was released with every thought.
"Sheldon embraced me just as he embraced his audience with tender inspiration. I loved every visit I had with him and his devoted wife, Margie, backstage during my year of Fiddler on Broadway and then again when I replaced Topol in the road company.
"I'm sitting here typing, crying, smiling and wishing to see one more holiday card from him in my mail box. Oh, Sheldon... Ninety-nine years of you were not enough.
Thank you, Sheldon. Thank you."
If Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock had done nothing else than musicalize the tales of Yiddish writer Sholom Alechim into the bittersweet tale of the joys and trials of family and tradition called Fiddler on the Roof, their place in musical theatre history would be secure. First on Broadway in 1964, it ran for six years and returned to Broadway on average once a decade. It is a rare day when a production of the funny, folksy, and melancholy work can not be seen in some regional, commercial, or community theatre somewhere in the United States, or around the world for that matter. Its score, which includes “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” and Miracle of Miracles,” was long-ago woven into the national cultural fabric. “Sunrise, Sunset” is still performed at many weddings each year.
The worldwide success of Fiddler somewhat overshadowed Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock’s achievement with She Loves Me, which debuted on Broadway the year before they unveiled the tale of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters. Still, some musical scholars regard the show—an endearing, chamber musical of the oft-told The Shop Around the Corner tale, in which love is blind, unexpected and arrives as dislike-in-disguise—to be the team’s most pristine, delicate, and pure creation.
Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock were nominated for Tony Awards for Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, as well as Fiorello!, a musical about New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia; The Apple Tree, a triptych of short musicals about the complicated relationship between man and woman; and The Rothschilds, about the famed Jewish family of financiers. They won for Fiorello! and Fiddler. Other works included Portofino and Tenderloin.
Mr. Harnick’s lyrics were characterized by their prosaic, humanity-rich quality. He favored story and character over cleverness. Always there was craft. Mr. Harnick’s verses could effortlessly express the hopes and fears of the characters without crossing over into sentimentality. This last aspect, however, was derived from exposure to Mr. Bock, according to the lyricist. “One of the things I need in a collaborator is a sense of optimism,” said Mr. Harnick, who had the bookish, bespectacled look of an accountant, “because I tend to approach things skeptically and pessimistically. Jerry Bock is a bubbling, ebullient personality.”
Both writers were known for drawing their work organically from the subject matter at hand. Fiddler dealt in minor keys and instrumentation associated with klezmer music and Jewish prayer. The Rothchilds’s score echoes the classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which the story is set.
Following The Rothschilds, Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick went their separate ways. The two were silent on the breakup for decades. Later, however, Mr. Harnick revealed they had had a falling out over the replacement of Rothschilds director Derek Golby by Michael Kidd. Furthermore, Mr. Bock decided then to fulfill a long-held ambition to write his own lyrics. In the years that followed, Mr. Harnick would, conversely, try his hand at composing. However, neither man ever again experienced the success they had enjoyed as a team. By the 1990s, the two writers had become friendly again, working together on the many major revivals of their work. Mr. Bock passed away in 2010.
Sheldon Mayer Harnick was born April 30, 1924, in Chicago. He graduated from Northwestern University’s School of Music in 1949. He began his career writing words and music to comic songs in musical revues. One of these, "The Merry Minuet," was popularized by the Kingston Trio. His songs were first heard on Broadway in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952, a famous edition of the series that starred Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde. The revues Two’s Company (“A Man’s Home”) and The Littlest Revue followed.
Shortly after, Mr. Harnick met Mr. Bock. They collaborated with bookwriter Joseph Stein on 1958’s The Body Beautiful. It ran only 60 performances. “I thought I’d never work again,” Mr. Harnick remembered thinking at the time. “I thought I’d had my shot and that was it.” But the score caught the attention of director George Abbott and producer Hal Prince, who hired the team to compose what became Fiorello!. It starred Tom Bosley as the powerhouse mayor, ran for 796 performances, and won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In a poignant moment, Fiorello! tied with The Sound of Music for Best Musical at the Tony Awards, marking the transition from the Rodgers and Hammerstein era to the new, genre-shifting 1960s.
Mr. Harnick, Mr. Bock and Mr. Stein collectively hatched the idea of creating a show around the work of Sholom Aleichem. Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock suggested the Aleichem novel A Wandering Star, and Mr. Stein countered with the stories of Tevye and his daughters. The collaborators, unsure as to the commercial validity of their project, did not approach a producer until they had finished the work. Hal Prince eventually produced, recruiting director Jerome Robbins and actor Zero Mostel, who would create an immortal portrayal of Tevye. Out of town tryouts were rocky, but the show landed on Broadway as a solid and unexpected hit. Though a seemingly alien picture of shtetl life in 19th-century Russia, Fiddler nonetheless spoke to audiences as a familiar expression of the bittersweet nature of family and community, and how both change with the passing generations.
Mr. Harnick was frequently awarded throughout his career. Both he and Mr. Bock received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre, and took home three competitive Tony Awards together. Mr. Harnick was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, received lifetime achievement awards from both the Drama League and the Tony Awards in 2016, and achieved an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University in 2018.
He remained creatively active until the end of his life, providing new lyrics for the 2016 revival of She Loves Me, and tinkering with a musical adaptation of the Soviet play The Dragon by Evgeny Schwartz as recently as 2020.
Mr. Harnick was briefly married married to Elaine May in the early 1960s, with the pair divorcing after a little over a year. They remained close friends for the rest of Mr. Harnick's life. He later married the actress Margery Gray, with the pair remaining together until Mr. Harnick's death. The couple were married for 58 years. He is survived by Gray and their children, Beth and Matthew. Details for a celebration of life will be announced in the coming weeks.