The 'Fiddler' Lyricist Going Strong at 90
Broadway legend Sheldon Harnick's longevity secret
In 1964, the Beatles invaded America, Ford introduced the Mustang and Fiddler on the Roof starring Zero Mostel took Broadway by storm. Fifty years later, each has endured decades of changing tastes and the fickle American consumer.
No one should be surprised that the the iconic British group and the distinctive convertible have enjoyed such staying power. The boomers were smitten, after all. But a play about a Jewish shtetl (village) in 1905 Russia?
Why did Fiddler take off, becoming the longest-running musical on Broadway for a time, spawning the highest-grossing film of 1971 and thriving with yet another Broadway revival set for 2015?
Sheldon Harnick, the man with the curly silver hair may know best. At the premiere of the 50th anniversary production of Fiddler on the Roof at Washington's Arena Stage, the surviving member of the creative team that gave birth to Fiddler blended into the crowd until the house lights came up and he was introduced to a standing ovation.
(L to R) Artistic Director Molly Smith,Sheldon Harnick and Harnick's wife Margery Gray at the opening night of Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater November 12, 2014. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Legendary lyricist Harnick crafted the words to the songs that audiences from Africa to Australia know so well — If I Were a Rich Man; Matchmaker, Matchmaker; Sunrise, Sunset and the show's opening number, Tradition, all originally written in longhand on legal pads (that Harnick tossed out years ago, much to his regret).
And talk about staying power. Harnick, who turned 90 this year, is busy with a range of projects — though when I met with him, he seemed more excited to talk about Fiddler's longevity than his own.
A Tale With Universal Appeal
"Joe (Stein who wrote the book), Jerry (Bock who wrote the music) and I found universal values in the (Sholem Aleichem) stories. And we tried to put those universal values into our show," Harnick told me. "I knew it paid off weeks after Fiddler's opening when we did a special benefit performance for other working actors who otherwise might not be able to see the show. At the intermission, Florence Henderson came up the aisle and said, 'Sheldon, Sheldon, this is about my Irish grandmother.'"
Originally called Tevye and his Daughters, Fiddler tells the story of a milkman who clings to tradition in the fictional Jewish town of Anatevka. But the outside world encroaches and the daughters rebel against arranged marriages and other sacred customs.
For Harnick, the secret sauce in Fiddler is the "universal problems between parents and children, which happen generation after generation. They're constant. Parents always hope their kids will grow up a certain way, but all too often they go off in their own direction."
That, he says, is why Fiddler appeals to audiences all over the world. Another factor: As the show goes on and gets darker, the Jews are forced out of their village. No matter when the show has been staged, Harnick says, "It reminds audiences of what is happening in the world outside, of the refugee crisis of the moment. Sadly, the show is always current."
Since its Broadway debut, Harnick has seen at least a few performances of Fiddler each of the past 50 years. You do the math. But Harnick watched the inventively-staged Washington production with a look of wonder, as though he was taking in the show for the first time, squeezing his wife's hand when their favorite songs, such as Do You Love Me? were performed. At one point, he says, his wife of nearly 50 years — actress and photographer Margery Gray — turned to Harnick and said, "Sheldon, you're breaking my fingers."
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Harnick’s ‘Aha Moment’ And Lasting Career
The man who gave the world the iconic Fiddler lyrics is himself a fiddler, though a bum shoulder forced him to put down the violin last year.
It was, in fact, a violin teacher who led him to Northwestern University, where he met fellow student Charlotte Rae Lubotsky (who became the television and film actress/comedienne Charlotte Rae). She sang the first song Harnick wrote for a college revue.
She also gave Harnick the cast album of Finian’s Rainbow to listen to, saying “you’re made of the same material." Harnick says he owes his career to Rae because of that gesture.
He was "dazzled" by Finian's lyrics by Yip Harburg. "They were so playful, but said important things," Harnick notes. Hearing them, he says, was the "aha moment" when he knew he would become a lyricist.
Harnick moved to New York from his Chicago roots, winning Tony and Grammy Awards and many other honors along the way, including the American Artist Award presented to Harnick last month at the Arena Stage for his contributions to American theater.
Most coveted, he says is The Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fiorello, which came early in his career and was a surprise. George Abbott, who co-wrote the book for the play about former mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia, suggested everyone donate the $500 that accompanied the Pulitzer to the charity of their choice. "Not me," Harnick said, "I have too many bills to pay."
Harnick stopping to take some notes in a New York subway station.
A Songwriter’s Struggle
Like any writer, a lyricist can struggle with words or have them magically flow from the brain to paper. Harnick says there are songs like Little Tin Box in Fiorello that he wrote overnight, but others like Sunrise, Sunset that took weeks and weeks to get every lyric just right.
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears
For Harnick, that song, was a personal reflection on family. "I was thinking about my daughter and how I was getting older," he says.
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Some songs he wrote for Fiddler and other musicals ended up on the cutting room floor — songs Harnick loved even if they were not right for the shows. But they saw new life in a two-CD set, Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, released this year on his 90th birthday. The set includes rare demos that Harnick performed with Bock, his late collaborator.
Life’s Unbelievable Events
Now that he's reached his tenth decade, Harnick is able to look back at two events that have given his life special meaning.
The first was meeting and marrying his wife, with whom he collaborated this year on a book, The Outdoor Museum: Not Your Usual Images of New York, featuring Harnick's poems and Gray's photographs.
The second was how Fiddler drew so heavily from his life experiences growing up in a non-Jewish neighborhood of Chicago where a number of Jewish men raised enough money to convert what had been part of a secretarial school into a synagogue. "When I started working on Fiddler, I remember seeing these older men, gaunt figures who looked like they could have survived concentration camps, praying with such fervor. So it was very exciting to bring those historical figures in Fiddler to life," Harnick recalls.
Fifty years on since opening night on Broadway, when Harnick thought the show about a milkman and his daughters "might run a year or two if we're lucky," he says, "the success of Fiddler has been the most unbelievable event in my life."
Sheldon Harnick and his wife Margery Gray