An Evening with Sheldon Harnick By Peter Filichia
Time to say “The best laid plans …”
Last Monday, I did a one-on-one interview with Sheldon Harnick at a benefit for The Workshop Theatre, that West 36th Street bastion of new plays.
This was on Oct. 17 – one day before the 50th anniversary of the opening of The Apple Tree, the penultimate Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical.
(If you care to use the billing that’s now on the street sign on West 53rd and Broadway that commemorates the pair — Harnick and Bock — that’s fine with me! Sheldon is known far and wide as being one of Broadway’s Nicest Guys.)
I had planned to start the interview with “Sheldon, can you believe that tomorrow marks a half-century ago that The Apple Tree opened on Broadway?”
It should be cause for celebration with parties all around town, but not nearly enough people know about The Apple Tree. It suffered the same fate as Lerner, Loewe and Hart’s Camelot and Michael Bennett’s Ballroom: your next show after a My Fair Lady or A Chorus Line will have audiences and critics expecting even more this time around.
For with The Apple Tree, Bock and Harnick were following no less than Fiddler on the Roof. What’s more, while they didn’t have Fiddler’s esteemed Jerome Robbins to stage this one, they could boast they had who was then the hottest director in show business, a title he rarely lost during the next forty-eight years until his death: Mike Nichols.
It’s an evening of three one-act musicals, although The Apple Tree actually takes its title from only the first story about Adam, Eve and a Snake. “The Lady and the Tiger,” which used to be a favorite of grammar-school teachers everywhere, is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story; “Passionella” is a Cinderella take-off spoof of a chimney-sweep who dreams of being a movie-star and sees her dream come true – but only during the hours when most people are asleep and dreaming.
It’s got one of the best Harnick and Bock scores, but of course each of the seven Harnick and Bock scores is one of their best scores. I’ll even include The Body Beautiful, which lasted only sixty performances. “It was about boxing,” Harnick said, “and maybe the three little Jewish guys who wrote it (along with librettist Joseph Stein) weren’t the ideal people to write it.”
Anyway, I was all set to start by celebrating The Apple Tree, but Emily Zacharias, one of Workshop’s co-founders, introduced Sheldon by stressing that he’d won a Pulitzer Prize. And that got me thinking about a new introduction. After all, in 1960, the Pulitzers, with a full forty-two years under their belt, had only given Pulitzers to two lyricists, both of them legends in their own time: Ira Gershwin for Of Thee I Sing and Oscar Hammerstein II for South Pacific.
“And here with us tonight,” I crowed to the crowd, “we have the third jewel of the triple crown: Sheldon Harnick.”
After a good solid dose of appreciative applause, I asked if his Pulitzer for Fiorello! was the prize of which he was the most proud – “or is it one your son made from popsicle sticks when he was seven that said ‘World’s Greatest Dad’?” I joked.
And was I (and the audience) ever surprised when he said that while his son Matthew never made a popsicle stick trophy, his wife Marjorie Gray did indeed in his honor. (By the way, you can hear Gray and her distinctive voice as Bonnie on the 1962 revival cast album of Anything Goes.)
The two met during Tenderloin, Bock and Harnick’s 1960 musical that contained an art-song waltz called “Artificial Flowers.” A penniless girl tries to sell these flowers to passers-by, and dies in the process. Many in the audience were surprised to hear the song’s origin, for they only knew Bobby Darin’s hit record in which he swung the melody and added lyrics. (Believe me, Harnick did not write “those dumb, dumb flowers.”)
Despite the bastardization, Harnick said he enjoyed Darin’s rendition, and was thrilled that it appeared in Beyond the Sea, the 2004 Darin biopic. “When I saw the film and Kevin Spacey started singing it, I thought we’d hear maybe four to eight bars – but he did the whole song. Some time later I saw him at a party and told him how grateful I was that he did.”
Harnick said that he started seriously thinking about lyrics when he was given the original cast album of Finian’s Rainbow, for, like all of us, he became entranced by E.Y. Harburg’s wordplay. While at Northwestern, Harnick started writing for the school’s famous Waa-Mu shows, and made a fan of Dave Garroway, who’d soon be the first Today Show host. He suggested that Harnick should head to New York after he was graduated, and Harnick took the advice and took the chance to look up Harburg, who became an unofficial mentor.
At that time, Harnick, who’d studied music through his violin-playing, was writing his own melodies as well as lyrics. “Boston Beguine” poked fun at The Hub for its all-too-strait-laced values. It wound up in New Faces of ’52, one of the occasional series of revues produced by Leonard Sillman, for whom Harnick had kind words.
(Frankly, I was delighted that Harnick mentioned him, for it allowed me to get in one of my favorite jokes: “What Broadway producer had the most plastic surgery? Leonard Sillman. He had seven new faces.” My, how the audience groaned – but Harnick laughed heartily. As I said: one of Broadway’s Nicest Guys.)
“Boston Beguine” was written for Harnick’s Northwestern classmate Charlotte Rae Lubotsky, who soon let her first two names suffice. Rae was supposed to do New Faces of ’52, but didn’t, and that’s how newcomer Alice Ghostley got her signature song. Harnick also wrote “The Shape of Things” for Rae; it’s a madrigal but sung by a contemporary woman who has no bones about burying her husband after she’d murdered him for many an infidelity. Harnick credits her with getting it to The Kingston Trio, who not only recorded it, but his “Merry Little Minuet,” too, which deals with nuclear weapons. (Alas, it’s always been timely.)
Harburg admired them all, but did gently suggest that Harnick might be wise to search for a composer. The 1956 disaster Shangri-la, (based on Lost Horizon but not with the same score as the 1973 film disaster) was responsible for giving us Harnick and Bock; its star Jack Cassidy introduced them on opening night. The team returned the favor seven years later by writing the nefarious Kodaly for Cassidy in She Loves Me; it won him a Tony.
Also winning Tonys were Hal Linden and Keene Curtis for The Rothschilds. “Hal would be a household name in a few years because of Barney Miller,” Harnick said. “But back in 1970, I had to fight for him, because the producers wanted a star.”
And a star Linden yet wasn’t. In his first six Broadway musicals from Bells Are Ringing in 1956 through The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n in 1968, Linden served as an understudy in five of them. “But,” said Harnick, “the memory was still fresh in my mind when he played Billy Crocker in that Anything Goes that Margie did.”
Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova won Tonys, too, for Fiddler. Harnick recalled that the former irritated the latter with his improvisational shenanigans: But she wasn’t the only one. “Zero once took a wet rag, went to the edge of the stage and wrung it out into the orchestra pit – right onto the bassoonist and his instrument, which was a pretty expensive one.”
Harnick said that his favorite Tevye was Herschel Bernardi, the third to play the role on Broadway, and he was delighted to attend a performance of the current Fiddler revival where he saw Bernardi’s son Michael play Tevye “very well.”
Those aren’t the only performance Tonys that came from Harnick and Bock. Tom Bosley, “Mr. C” to many from Happy Days, won as Fiorello, and let’s not forget Barbara Harris, winning for playing three roles in The Apple Tree.
Except that I did forget to bring up The Apple Tree – the only Harnick and Bock show I missed in the 22-minute interview. We had to get off because the true entertainment of the evening was about to commence: four Harnick hits. Tovah Feldshuh did a hilarious “Isms,” a song from the revue Vintage ’60; through “If I Were a Rich Man” shows that Michael McCormick didn’t leave his Tevye in St. Louis at the Muny where he did Fiddler; Sally Mayes proved that she could still bring home She Loves Me’s “A Trip to the Library” although twenty-four years have passed since she opened the first Broadway revival; and Robert Cuccioli did a dynamic “In My Own Lifetime” from The Rothschilds, which he’d performed to perfection last fall when it was revised as Rothschilds & Sons.
But nothing from The Apple Tree! Lucky for us that we do have that terrific original cast album that preserves Harris’ performance (as well as co-star Alan Alda’s) and, of course, the varied and intriguing score from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.