LONDON –Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick has written the words to some of the best-known shows in Broadway musical history, including “Fiorello!” (1959), “She Loves Me” (1963) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964).
But, admits Harnick, neither he nor his writing partner, the composer Jerry Bock, ever expected that “Fiddler” would become such an international phenomenon, with productions still being performed all over the world some 50 years later. It earned the pair two Tony Awards in 1965, and in 1971 it was adapted into an Oscar winning film starring Chaim Topol.
At almost 94, the New York based lyricist is still working. He is in London for the UK premiere of “Rothschild & Sons” — a lesser-known musical based on Harnick and Bock’s 1970 show, “The Rothschilds.”
He comes across as easygoing and entertaining; over a glass of water in the central London hotel where he is staying with his wife, Margery, he talks about his long and illustrious career with modesty and candor.
“The Rothschilds” was inspired by Frederic Morton’s best selling book about the banking dynasty and this current rewritten, retitled version first appeared off-Broadway in 2015. It tells the story of Mayer Rothschild and his five sons and charts how they managed to rise out of poverty from the Jewish ghetto of 18th century Frankfurt to become a powerful family across Europe.
Harnick recently wrote a couple of songs for this new production.
“I decided that I’d take a crack at writing the music myself [too] and I’m rather happy with the way it came out,” he says with a smile.
The original show marked the final collaboration between Harnick and Bock. After almost 13 years of working together, and just six years after “Fiddler,” their fruitful writing partnership ended. It was partly over disagreements concerning “The Rothschilds.”
“Jerry became extraordinarily friendly with our director [Derek Goldby] and the rest of us felt that he was not the right director for the show,” says Harnick.
“And we kind of drifted apart at that point. I must also say that I knew, going in, that Jerry himself was a first-rate lyricist. About the time we broke up he was, I think, longing to write his own lyrics, which he did,” he says.
They reunited many years later, shortly before Bock’s death in 2010, to write a new song for “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was, he says, a strange experience.
“We felt a little uncomfortable with each other but warmed up very quickly. I thought that we were going to revert to the old style and that we’d start writing together again but he didn’t want to. He wanted to write his own work,” Harnick says.
Born in 1924, Harnick grew up in Chicago, in a non-Jewish neighborhood where he recalls experiencing anti-Semitism.
“There was an Italian boy in the street across from me and every time he caught me alone, he beat me up. My parents were constantly complaining to his parents and so finally he stopped but it was my introduction to a kind of anti-Semitism because while he was beating me up he said, ‘Christ killer.’”
Although there were few Jews in the neighborhood, he says they managed to raise enough funds to buy an abandoned church and turn it into a synagogue. Their rabbi was a source of inspiration for the young Harnick.
“I loved him and for a while I thought, this is what I want to do. I want to be a rabbi like him,” he says.
But Harnick was “not a bad fiddler” and he then planned to be a violinist. “I thought if I can be in the second violin section of a second-rate symphony someplace, I will be in heaven,” he explains, smiling again.
After his three-year army service, he went on to study music at Northwestern University, although, ultimately, he did not think that he was good enough to become a professional violinist.
Harnick was also a poet and he explains that when he was in the army he wrote songs for the girlfriends of his fellow soldiers. He says he specifically chose Northwestern because of its lavish college review, known as the Women’s Athletic Association Men’s Union (WAAMU) and in his first year there, he contributed one song.
But, he says, “By the time I’d graduated, I’d written half the show.”
In the audience was Dave Garroway, a well-known Chicago disc jockey, who advised Harnick that if he wanted to have a career in musical theater, he would have to go to New York.
Initially, Harnick found himself writing new lyrics for failing shows. “My involvement was purely technical. The director would tell me what he wanted and I’d try and realize whatever he needed.”
But it was while he working on the musical version of “Shangri-La” in the mid-1950s that he was introduced to Jerry Bock and, “It turned out that we hit it off, right away.”
The two men developed a particular method of working together that Harnick had never used with anyone else.
“Once we knew what the story was, Jerry would go into his studio and start to write music. And then at a certain point, he would give me a tape and there might have been eight to 12 numbers on it. If two of them caught my attention, that was a lot. But it was a wonderful way to get started because I was so enamored of those two songs that I couldn’t wait to start writing words for them.”
Experience taught them that a good show depended on the importance of a good story. “My first [book] musical with Jerry Bock was ‘The Body Beautiful’ (1958),” says Harnick.
“It was not a strong book and because of it, the show was a flop. It ran for about five or six weeks and it was a learning experience. I hadn’t studied it enough to know what the traps were, where it was weak and where it needed to be strengthened.
“I think I learned quickly and my involvement since then has been total. And by total I mean that I study the book and talk to the book writer about where I think it needs to be improved, argue with my composer where I think he’s made mistakes or praise him a lot where he hasn’t,” he says.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is ranked as one of the most successful stage musicals ever written. Harnick believes that its enduring success is largely due to its character, Tevye (created by Sholem Aleichem in his book, “Tevye the Milkman”).
“He is one of those central, towering, everyman figures, who I think just about everybody manages to identify with. He represents fatherhood and family,” Harnick says.
That universal subject of family has meant that, regardless of background, audiences seem to connect with the story, despite it being set in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement in the early 1900s, he says.
“My wife and I have a friend who is a well-known singing performer in the US, Florence Henderson. When she saw [a revival of it] in New York,” he recalls, “She came running up the aisle and said, ‘Sheldon, this show is about my Irish grandmother!”’
“Fiddler on the Roof” was also a triumph, adds Harnick, because of its director, Jerome Robbins. “He was terrific, both as a choreographer, as a director and in casting.”
He placed high demands on Bock and Harnick, making them do several rewrites but, “It wound up being a superb book [by Joseph Stein] and a superb score and that was the result of Robbins nagging at us, saying this song isn’t good enough, redo it, redo it. So we did.”
Over the years, Harnick has seen numerous versions of “Fiddler” but says that perhaps the most bizarre was a performance in Japanese that he attended in Tokyo at the end of last year.
“It was wonderful because the Japanese production company had requested copies of the original sets and costumes and they duplicated them,” he explains. “The cast had their eyes taped so they looked Western and not particularly Japanese. The leads had done a lot of television and were wonderful performers — [the whole show] was terrific.”
Harnick describes musicals as all-purpose entertainment.
“A successful musical is both emotional, and sometimes, just exciting — rhythmically, harmonically,” he says. “It reaches places in our psyche which dialogue doesn’t always reach so that if good lyrics are set well to music they can make the lyrics even more important and more impactful. It’s quadruple value: music, lyrics and book and dancing.”
But, he continues, musical theater has changed since he started out. He attributes this to the influence of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“Many more many more young composers are tending to write more music, they are kind of pop operas. When I [began] on the New York stage, a musical was half dialogue, half songs and now it tends to be more music, if not all music altogether,” he says.
In 2016, Harnick was given a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. And he’s still working.
What still drives him?
“I enjoy writing lyrics,” he explains. “I enjoy finding a rhyme that I don’t think anyone has used before. I enjoy the form and the thrill of hearing what a composer may do to music, including my own. It’s very exciting.”
I enjoy finding a rhyme that I don’t think anyone has used before
Harnick is about to start writing the text for an operetta based on a French play, “A World Where Boredom Reigns.”
“Despite the title, it’s not a boring play at all,” he says with another smile. “I did a translation of ‘The Merry Widow’ and I think that this play can result in that kind of an operetta. There’s no schedule on it. I just hope I live long enough to finish it.”
“Rothschild & Sons” runs at London’s Park Theatre through February 17.