Sheldon Harnick, 'Fiddler on the Roof' Lyricist, Turns 90 Today

By Jon Sobel on Apr 30, 2014 03:43 PM EDT

Sheldon Harnick, Tony- and Pulitzer-winning lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and She Loves Me among many other shows, turns 90 years old today. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Fiddler on the Roof. And tomorrow will see the arrival of Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013) a new two-CD set of demos and performances sung by Harnick, many from his own collection. It's a project of Harbinger Records and The Musical Theatre Project.

Regarding the launch of his career, Harnick credits valuable advice from his early idol Yip Harburg and a boost from the young Stephen Sondheim. Back in the early days, upon hearing some songs by the then-unknown Sondheim, Harnick said to himself, "If the unknowns in New York write like this, I might as well go back to Chicago." To make himself feel better he went to see Ankles Away because the title made it sound terrible. Finding the show satisfyingly mediocre, he felt better and realized there could indeed be a place for him in the Big Apple.

Harnick told Fresh Air this week that "Any successful lyricist has to be part playwright." He wrote his most famous lines with composer Jerry Bock. The two had an unusual collaboration style: Bock would write music for particular scenes and characters, and Harnick would put lyrics to it afterward. Then they'd sing it and get a feel for whether it really worked.

The two-CD set features no fewer than eight songs written for Fiddler on the Roof, including Harnick and Bock's original demo for "Sunrise, Sunset." An uptempo number called "Letters from America," written as an energetic Act II opener, became the slowed-down "Anatevka." And something else I never knew: The original opening number was called "We've Never Missed a Sabbath." When director Jerome Robbins determined that the developing show was really about traditions and change, he asked for an opener about that instead, and "Tradition" was the result.

The CDs contain many songs like these--cut from shows, or from shows that weren't lasting successes. Dropped from Tenderloin was a song sung by two virgins called "I Wonder What It's Like" containing lyrics like "I know it isn't right until you're married…Nice girls shouldn't even read about such things." This, it turned out, was a bit too risqué for 1960, although, says Harnick, the female critics didn't seem to have a problem with it.

Harnick cites the blend of his own lack of confidence with Jerry Bock's buoyant optimism as a key to the success of their long-term and supremely successful collaboration. Bock died in 2010. Harnick also collaborated with Joe Raposo, Michel Legrand, and, on one unsuccessful occasion, Richard Rodgers. But it's the team of Harnick and Bock whose unforgettable work "laden with happiness and tears" persists well into a second half-century, and the great wordsmith himself, one of Broadway's finest, is still going strong.

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TagsFiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, musical theater, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins

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