Sheldon Harnick: Last Man Standing

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Lyricist extraordinaire, Sheldon Harnick, had his first song on Broadway in “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952,” the year Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.  His breakout hit from that production, “The Boston Beguine,” introduced a new writer of tremendous intelligence, fantastic wit and deft wordplay.  The show also introduced such future luminaries as Alice Ghostly, Ronny Graham, Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde, and afforded Eartha Kitt her first opportunity to take center stage.  This past season New York was treated to new productions of his musicals “The Rothchilds” (retitled “Rothchild & Sons”), “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler On the Roof,” which is still running.  A new production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiorello!” just opened off-Broadway.  To say he has kept busy during the ensuing 64 years since his debut is an understatement.  

Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick

Mr. Harnick has written or contributed to a total of 14 Broadway shows.  Along the way, in addition to his aforementioned Pulitzer, he has collected three Tony Awards from eight nominations, in addition to his well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Tony awarded earlier this year.  At the ripe age of 92, and looking a good 20 years younger, he is the last man standing from what is known as The Golden Age of the American Musical.  (His longtime collaborator, composer Jerry Bock, with whom he wrote 10 musicals, passed away in 2010.)  The other composers with whom he has collaborated, each of whom he acknowledged in his humble acceptance speech for his Lifetime Tony, include David Baker, Arnold Black, Cy Coleman, Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, Joe Raposo, Mary Rodgers and Richard Rodgers.  But this column will not be a biography of the theatrical legend, who began as a violinist and was also a composer and librettist.  I’ll leave all of that to Google and Wikipedia.  Mine is a more personal story.

I first met Sheldon in 1990 when I was working for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.  He had written the book and lyrics for a musical based upon the classic holiday film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with music by Mr. Raposo, of “Sesame Street” fame.  (Sheldon had also written some additional music for the show following Mr. Raposo’s passing the previous year.)  He was hoping we might be interested in licensing the performance rights to the musical.  He already had a relationship with the office, having written shows with our founding father, Richard Rodgers (“Rex,” 1976), and with his daughter, one of my then-current bosses, Mary (“Pinocchio” for the Bil Baird Marionettes, the celebrated troupe featured in the film “The Sound of Music,” and a song for the seminal Marlo Thomas recording, book and television special, “Free to Be You and Me”).  

How this icon had found himself in my lowly office, I wasn’t sure.  Certainly he could have called Mary and just said, “I want the office to represent this show.”  Perhaps he did and Mary sent him to me.  Sadly, she is no longer here to jar my memory.  I won’t say that I was daunted at the thought of meeting Sheldon but I do recall taking a very deep breath when the receptionist rang to announce his arrival.  She had already proffered him a cup of coffee when I arrived to greet him.  With a smile the size of all outdoors and a handshake I can still feel the warmth of on my palm, he said how nice it was to meet me.  His utter sincerity gave me no reason to doubt him.  He treated me as a professional peer from the moment I laid eyes on him.  (All of the greats don’t, believe me.)

We sat and discussed his musical which, of course, I thought was a wonderful idea and, I felt, was a money title that theater companies and schools alike would jump at.  When we were done with business, Sheldon said, “So tell me about yourself...  Where are you from?...  How did you land at R&H?...  What are you working on?”  At the time, I was writing a stage adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s movie musical, “State Fair.”  He seemed – no, was – genuinely interested in how it was going.  How I would handle the conundrum of the hog; how did I plan to beef up the score as the film had only six songs; what were my dreams for the musical?  When he left the office I felt, not only as if I’d been in the presence of greatness, but like I’d made a new friend.  When “State Fair” opened on Broadway, I received an astounding wooden trough of glorious tulips from Sheldon and his darling wife, Margery, with a heartfelt note welcoming me to the street.  What a guy.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of directing a production of Sheldon’s musical, “A Wonderful Life” (he had dropped the “It’s” from the title to differentiate it from the film).  Of course it took me back to that day when I first met the gentle titan.  To quote one of Sheldon’s lyrics from the show:

“My dreams have been simple dreams.
I’m one of those lucky souls
Whose gifts, such as they are,
Match their goals.
Long ago I knew
You’d never find me in “Who’s Who.”
Still, I’m one of the lucky ones,
One of the favored few.”

You bet!