By Scott Ross
I’m over a month late in noting that, impossible as it seems, one of my favorite lyricists has become a nonagenarian. So consider this an overdue commemoration or, more simply, my attempt at an appreciation of a man whose work has given countless millions pleasure, whether or not they even know or recognize his name. Now this may be cold comfort, but people who couldn’t conjure the names Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg if their lives depended on it know one of their songs as well as they do “Happy Birthday.” If you know “Over the Rainbow,” you know them. And if you know “Sunrise, Sunset,” you know Sheldon Harnick.
In her superb Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof Alisa Solomon refers to Sheldon Harnick as a “sensitive” lyricist, and I think that’s about as apt a description as any, although it does not take into account his playful wit nor his felicitous way with a rhyme. Those who enjoy rating lyricists may (at their peril) dismiss Harnick as a minor figure. Presumably he is considered “third tier,” a Hell I once saw Harnick’s early influence “Yip” Harburg consigned to in a book review, although I’ve never understood what that even means; any man who could write lyrics for The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow places third on no scale.
Neither does Harnick. Even his hitherto unknown “trunk” songs, those that didn’t make it into his shows, shimmer with keen perceptiveness and his special brand of gentle yet piquant humor. In honor of his 90th birthday, Harbinger Records has added a generous, two-disc sampling of Harnick’s demos and archival recordings to its Songwriter Showcase Series. On Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013, you can savor, along with such familiar, and beloved, gems as “Merry Little Minuet,” “Garbage,” “Worlds Apart” and that non pariel cut-out from Fiddler “When Messiah Comes” such a plethora of Harnickian joy your facial muscles may ache from smiling. That’s when your eyes aren’t misting up from the perfectly pitched emotional impact of songs that never plead, or descend into bathos.
My only complaint, and it’s admittedly a minor one for the completist who no doubt already owns at least one iteration of Harnick’s utterly charming 1971 “Lyrics and Lyricists” concert/lecture, is that the Harbinger disc omits the lyricist’s delicious introductions. (Although he did write his own, charming and informative, liner notes.) This is particularly poignant, for example, when at the 92nd street Y Harnick recognizes within his work the theme of breaking down a wall. Sometimes this is explicit, as in “Worlds Apart,” but more often the metaphor is cloaked, as in Motel Kamzoil’s exuberant “Wonder of Wonders” in Fiddler with its flavorsome Biblical citations. Most writers, good and bad, have themes they address throughout their work, conscious or no. The best ring creative changes on their obsessions, and that applies as much to the great lyricists as to any important prose or dramatic writer. Not only is a good stage lyricist (implicitly and explicitly) a dramatist, he or she must dramatize in rhyme, paying heed not merely to the meter of the music to which lyrics are written but to any number of other, equally valid and necessary, concerns: The shape and body and rhythm and color of the lines, the mindset and point of view of the singer or singers, where inner-rhyme is or is not appropriate to the character and the situation, and a myriad of additional technical and poetic matters over which few librettists (and no poet) need worry and without which a song, and thus a dramatic or comic moment, lives or dies. Nowhere in Sheldon Harnick’s considerable output will you find a false step along these lines.
Although most of his earliest songs were satirical in nature and reactions to or against then-ubiquitous popular forms, suitable to revue, and while he quickly adapted to the more stringent demands of the musical play, Harnick’s acute and idiosyncratic sense of humor has remained a vital part of his output. Think, for instance, of the audacity of risking, as he did in “When Messiah Comes” (1964), the activation of still-fresh thoughts of the Shoah in his audiences:
And I spoke to God and said,
“Would that be fair,
If Messiah came,
And there was no one there?”
Or the hero of She Loves Me, in “Tango Tragique,” attempting to dissuade the heroine not to continue waiting for the mysterious rendezvous he alone knows is actually himself by warning her that her anonymous romantic vis-à-vis could turn out to be a homicidal maniac:
Her left leg, floating in a local brook
They never did find the rest of her,
Or her book…
Yet Harnick can, within moments, turn from the darkly risible to the infinitely touching, as when the same young woman, waiting in a restaurant for the lonely hearts correspondent who has stood her up can sing (without, the lyricist was pleased to note, a trace of self-pity) a verse that could melt the hardest heart:
The perfect café.
Then, as if it isn’t bad enough,
A violin starts to play…
Oh, the perfect placement of that heartbreaking “as if it isn’t bad enough”!
It is generally recognized that She Loves Me contains the finest work, both of Harnick and of his best composer, Jerry Bock (even if it was sadly under-appreciated at the time of its all-too-brief 1963 Broadway run) just as it has become a commonplace to state that the team’s work in Fiddler is merely passable, buoyed along by the overall brilliance of the original production. And this is not simply a case of over-familiarity with a classic show; those remarks were being made 50 years ago(!) as well. I beg to differ. No musical with an indifferent score could scale the artistic heights of a Fiddler, and not even a Jerome Robbins could create high art out of mediocre material. No, Fiddler on the Roof is treasurable as much because of its beautiful, and beautifully integrated, score as it is for Robbins’ overall conception and staging. Or, for that matter, Boris Aronson’s superb, Chagall-inspired sets, or Patricia Zipprodt’s cunningly designed costumes, or even Zero Mostel’s indelible originating performance as Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye. The songs — music and lyrics — not only set the tone and elucidate the almost overwhelming emotions the show generates as it goes along; they also define character as clearly and concisely and exuberantly as Joseph Stein’s book, and provide an almost infinite variety of response, from excitement to laughter to rapturous joy to achingly expressed heartbreak. As Harnick said in 1971, he knew who Sholem Alecihem’s people were, and where their lives and concerns intersected with his. This transcendent commingling may make for more direct emotional connection and less showy lyrical panache, but simplicity of thought and feeling, expressed in heartfelt terms, matters (at least in this case) more than complex rhyme schemes and wittily expressed erudition. If you think writing an immediately graspable lyric for two parents watching their oldest child marry, or for a man writhing in the most acute confusion of love and betrayal, is easy, you try it. Let’s see if what you come up with is better than what Harnick achieved in “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Chavaleh.”
Harnick’s first important Broadway credit was as composer and lyricist of “The Boston Beguine,” featured in the otherwise rather creatively barren New Faces of 1952, where it was performed with comic brio and impeccable musicianship by Alice Ghostley. It was Harnick’s special genius to sense something innately humorous about the beguine itself which, coupled with his hilarious topical verses, made for a deliciously self-conscious parody with a tincture of social disgust:
We went to The Casbah
That’s an Irish bar there;
The underground hideout
Of the D.A.R. there…
Seven years later, at 35, Harnick was the co-recipient of both a Tony and a Pulitzer for Fiorello! This was not his first collaboration with Jerry Bock — the unsuccessful The Body Beautiful a year earlier constituted their debut as a team — but it was the project that cemented their partnership. A George Abbott show in the venerable Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition of the well-made/integrated-musical, its score exhibits Bock’s almost uncanny ability to capture in his modern songs the style and sound of a different era (a quality he shares with the equally adept John Kander) as well as Hanick’s superb gift for felicitous comic and dramatic writing.
Fiorello! lacks a critical eye toward its subject, and it’s telling that the star, Tom Bosley, was nominated, with Howard Da Silva, as “Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical” (Bosely won.) LaGuardia is less compelling a figure than the characters around him, like Da Silva’s Republican ward-heeler Ben, Fiorello’s eventual second wife Marie (Patricia Wilson) and the secondary comic roles (Pat Stanley, Nathaniel Frey.) Where Harnick shines especially is in his wry satirical songs, led by Da Silva. In “Politics and Poker,” Ben and his hack cronies don’t even interrupt their marathon card game as they consider which straw-man might serve as a guaranteed loser. (When Laguardia wins, they’re comically stunned: “The Bum Won.”) And in their gleeful second act commentary on the Walker administration’s public scandals (“Little Tin Box”) Harnick indulges in a savvy, and very funny, nod to W.S. Gilbert. When the hacks re-enact testimony by Walker’s corrupt officials, the lyrics include some riotously effective choral repetitions:
I can see Your Honor doesn’t pull his punches
And it looks a trifle fishy, I’ll admit
But for one whole week I went without my lunches
And it mounted up, Your Honor, bit by bit.
Up Your Honor, bit by bit…
A lovely, “Just a Song at Twilight”-inspired First World War reverie (“‘Til Tomorrow”) and a raucous period campaign number (“Gentleman Jimmy”) exhibit the team’s remarkable ability to refract period melodic and lyric sentiment through the prism of the present. And near the end of the show Marie, disappointed once again by LaGuardia, has an effective, angry comic number (“The Very Next Man”) which, alas, suffers from an appallingly (and, for Harnick, rare) insensitive release:
And if he likes me,
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling,
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.
Bock and Harnick’s follow-up for Abbott, Tenderloin, was also a musical about New York’s past, but a disappointment coming from the team that created Fiorello! Still, the score contains some splendid songs, notably the deliberately sentimental pop-ballad “Artificial Flowers,” another swipe at cronyism (“How the Money Changes Hands”) and a peerlessly funny musical-hall take on a young woman’s falling into prostitution. “The Picture of Happiness” should be offensive, but it’s too giddy and amiable to spark ill will, with a chorus whose reversal makes you grin with happy surprise:
Since that lecherous bounder
Got ’round her and led her astray,
She’s the picture of happiness,
Laughin’ and singin’ all day…
They needn’t have felt too depressed by Tenderloin‘s failure; She Loves Me was next and, despite its heartbreakingly brief run (354 performances) yielded one of the most glorious scores in the history of American musical theatre and, I would argue, the field’s greatest set of songs for a romantic comedy. MGM Records must have understood this when it released a rare, 2-LP Original Cast Album for the show. Like Columbia’s 1957 Candide, it’s largely that recording that kept She Loves Me alive in the hearts of those who loved it, and I don’t think it contains a song, a note or a lyric line that could be improved upon.
Based on the same Miklós László play that also inspired the glorious 1940 Ernst Lubitch/Samson Raphaelson charmer The Shop Around the Corner (and, later, the modern variant You’ve Got Mail) the show details the antagonism of two parfumerie clerks who are, ironically, passionate correspondents in a postal romance. If we are to judge the Fiddler songs against those in She Loves Me, the former does pale, but that is surely no sin; it’s a bit like comparing The Iceman Cometh unfavorably with Long Day’s Journey into Night. In this case, if there is a single reason why the latter trumps the former, it lies in the freedom Bock and Harnick were given by Joe Masteroff’s lovely book to rhapsodize, and illuminate, a superb collection of characters. In Fiddler, the canvas is at once broader and more intimate, the songs illustrating either a community’s focus or the specific emotions of an extended family. With She Loves Me, the creators were presented, aside from the feuding lovers, with no fewer than five important supporting characters, plus a proud maître d’ and a clutch of increasingly frantic holiday shoppers. The opportunities for individual musical elaboration were, therefore, multiplied: Bock and Harnick were free to compose numbers, not merely for the ironic lovers Georg and Amalia, but for the rueful old shop-owner, an avid delivery boy, a narcissistic Lothario, his self-abnegating paramour, and a frightened, equivocating clerk as well. This panoply provides a nearly obscene amount of possibility for richness, and the team delivers on them in spectacular fashion.
There’s a charming, bittersweet, reflective waltz for Mr. Maraczek (“Days Gone By); a cosmic justification of cowardice for Sipos (“Perspective”); an energetic plea for the ambitious young Arpad (“Try Me”); a sardonic, lightly threatening, straw-hat-and-cane farewell for Kodaly (“Grand Knowing You”); and, in addition to a pair of perceptive, self-mocking duets (“Ilona” and “I Don’t Know His Name”), no fewer than two great musical monologues for the hapless Ilona (“I Resolve” and “A Tip to the Library”) that limn the descending and ascending arcs of her romantic aspirations. All that plus a cantata for harried holiday shoppers (“Twelve Days to Christmas”) that is the last word on the madness of the guilt-ridden acquisitiveness of the season, and one hilariously knowing paean to the restaurateur’s pride in everything but the food in his establishment (“A Romantic Atmosphere.”)
And that’s not even mentioning the numbers for Amalia and Georg, each either explicating romantic terrors or celebrating heightened, ecstatic emotion: Georg’s “Tonight at Eight” and Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?” illuminate the shyness and trepidation of epistolary lovers about to meet in the flesh; Amalia’s heart-rending yet emotionally controlled “Dear Friend” and her ambivalent, rapturous “Ice Cream”; Georg’s darkly comic attempt to forestall the girl’s disappointment (the aforementioned “Tango Tragique”) and his exhilarated (and exhilarating) title song; and a finale for both which, for romantic suppleness and tender understatement simply cannot be, and has not been, bettered in the 51 years since She Loves Me debuted.
The sheer variety of the voices on that small stage must also have both constricted and broadened the swath of the team’s options. There was, first, the spectacular range and flexibility of their Amalia in Barbara Cook’s crystalline lyric soprano, surely every Broadway songwriter’s dream voice at the time. Then the less supple but innately musical phrasing of Daniel Massey’s Georg. Next, the big, stunning histrionic sweep of their Kolday, Jack Cassidy. Even those in the cast with more modest abilities, like Barbara Baxley (Ilona) and Nathaniel Frey (Sipos) presented opportunities to express character in surprising and delightful ways, if only as a self-imposed challenge to stretch the voices without breaking them entirely. A cast of more strikingly individual sound would be hard to conjure.
The team’s official successor to Fiddler (as a favor to Hal Prince, they contributed several un-credited songs for the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street) was problematic: Three mini-musicals, adapted from short stories (Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger”) and a comic-strip fable (Jules Feiffer’s “Passionella” which, interestingly, also inspired a version by Harnick’s friend Stephen Sondheim, for The World of Jules Feiffer) that, pieced together and directed by Mike Nichols, did not quite equal one wholly satisfying show. Still, the score is splendid, revealing the lyricist in many moods: Satirical, romantic, self-consciously “epic,” whimsical. And, despite its relative disappointment, it still ran longer than She Loves Me.
Bock and Harnick’s last show together — and Bock’s last work of consequence — was The Rothschilds. It was a modest success (505 performances… note that even the run still managed to eke past that of She Loves Me!) but the score, taken on its own, is as fine as Fiddler‘s and would be a great score in any season. Of particular brilliance are the observational and historical numbers (“Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress,” “Stability”) given to Keene Curtis, who deservedly took a Tony for his several performances within the show. Those songs are as rich, and as pointed, as anything the team ever produced: Angry yet witty, expansive, melodically complex, lyrically vast. And with “In My Own Lifetime,” a yearning anthem performed by Hal Linden as the paterfamilias Meyer, Harnick’s gift for gentle, anxious hope in the face of oppression reaches a kind of apogee, the emotional companion-piece to Fiddler‘s “Anatkevka”:
While I’m still here, I want to know
Beyond a doubt,
That no one can lock us in,
Or lock us out…
I want to know I haven’t built on sand
In my own lifetime.
Sheldon Harnick is very much with us still, crafting new lyrics (and occasionally composing as well), even preforming a bit, his distinctive and remarkably fluid vocal style scarcely dimmed by time. (Listen to his beautiful renditions of “Precious Little,” “The Pears of Anjou” and, especially, the glorious “We’re a Family” on the Harbinger set.) If you want to be charmed, tickled, becalmed and moved in equal measure, you’ve only to turn to his best work which, I suspect, will prove as resilient and enduring as the man who created it. Perhaps even — dare I say it? — eternal.
Lyric copyrights by Sheldon Harnick
All other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross