Filichia Features: Sheldon Harnick’s Harbinger Binge

Filichia Features: Sheldon Harnick’s Harbinger Binge

The most enduring song from Fiddler On The Roof is, of course, "Sunrise, Sunset." Since late 1964, has there ever been a wedding reception, bar or bat mitzvah where it hasn't been played?

Its theme is how "swiftly go the days." Indeed they do, Sheldon Harnick agrees. The lyricist of the Tony-winning classic "can't believe" that 50 years have suddenly passed -- "although I of course know they have."

To celebrate the anniversary -- and a brilliant career -- Harbinger Records has released a two-CD set that spans Harnick's lyrics (and his occasional melody) for theater songs dating back to 1949. Yes, "Sunrise, Sunset" is included, but the vast majority are obscurities that Harnick himself sang as “demos” (for “demonstration records”) as they’re called in the trade. They were songs that would ultimately be dropped from Fiddler, The Apple Tree, She Loves Me, Tenderloin, The Rothschilds and Fiorello! -- musicals that Harnick wrote with composer Jerry Bock, his most famous collaborator.

Tenderloin and Fiorello! were both co-produced by Harold Prince and co-written by George Abbott and Jerome Weidman. For a party celebrating Abbott’s 75th birthday, Bock and Harnick wrote one of their most delightful songs: "Mr. A." It stresses that no one at the time dared disrespect the legend by calling him “George.” After all, while Fiorello! was Bock and Harnick’s second show (after the unsuccessful The Body Beautiful), it was Abbott's 90th.

Abbott's once-sterling reputation as “Mr. Broadway” has endured much criticism in the last few decades; he's now often considered to be a man who could keep a show moving at a quick pace but was good for little else. Harnick agrees with the first part of the opinion but not the second.

"During one rehearsal of Fiorello!," he says, "Tom Bosley (who played New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia) came out with an ad-lib that cracked up everyone -- including Abbott. And as soon as we all recovered from laughing so hard -- and while I was remembering the maxim 'Comedy is gold' -- Abbott said, 'But, Tom, would Fiorello actually say that?' And the smile disappeared from Tom's face when he said 'No, I guess not.' And the line, hilarious as it was, did not go in."

Perhaps the show wouldn't have won a Pulitzer Prize if it had. Fiorello! was the first musical to win both that honor and a Best Musical Tony in the same year.

"When George called me with the news that we had won the Pulitzer,” Harnick remembers, “he suggested that each of us should give our $500 share to charity. I said, 'Uh-uh: I'm going to keep it.'"

Yes, Harnick didn't have all that much money in those days, a situation that would be changed forever by Fiddler. But just in case times ever do get tough, he could always make a living from one wall of his apartment. There hang more than a dozen window cards that represent shows he either wrote or doctored.

In the latter category was Portifino, the 1958 musical that opened on a Friday and closed on Saturday. Walter Kerr's review is still being quoted: "Nor will I sat that Portofino is the worst musical ever produced because I’ve only been seeing musicals since 1919.”

"I demanded not only to be paid on Portofino, but to get credit, too -- and that was a mistake," Harnick rues. "I can still see the picture in the Times that was captioned 'a musical by Richard Ney, Will Irwin, Louis Bellson and Sheldon Harnick.' I realized that some people would surmise that I'd been working on it from the beginning, which would have made me more responsible for its failure. From then on, I was careful not to take credit on the shows I doctored."

Hence, those window cards for Baker Street and Her First Roman – the former a long-run money-loser and the latter an outright flop – have neither 'Sheldon' nor 'Harnick' on them.

When Hal Prince decided to (prematurely) write his memoir in 1974, he started a chapter with “We had such a good time doing Fiorello! we could not bear splitting up – so we did Tenderloin.” The title refers to the part of New York City where in the 1890s vice and corruption ruled, to the dismay of The Reverend Dr. Brock.

“Our audiences were more interested in the scandalous doings in the red-light district than what the goody-goodies were doing,” says Harnick. (You may be, too, when you hear Harbingers’ three cuts for the alleged ne’er-do-wells.) “Since then, Jerome Weidman and Walter Bobbie revised it, and this new version is what we’ve given MTI.”

Another liability back then was that the august Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans, then pushing 60 and seeming old and cranky, was paying Brock. In the 2000 Encores! staging (which yielded a more recommended recording than the original cast album), David Odgen Stiers – albeit being virtually the same age as Evans – was no sober-sides, but seemed substantially younger, attractive and vibrant. Maybe there is something to the theory that in our current era “60 is the new 40.” (Whatever the case, if you’re doing Tenderloin! – cast a young Brock.)

After Abbott had staged their two shows, Bock and Harnick entrusted producer Prince to direct She Loves Me, too. At the time this was risky, for Prince’s Broadway directorial experience had been limited to taking over the staging of A Family Affair when it was in terrible trouble in Philadelphia. No one knew then that Prince would eventually win eight Tonys for directing musicals, but Bock and Harnick must be credited for being the first to believe in Prince’s abilities long before the first day of rehearsal.

She Loves Me was called "most refreshing" (Watts, Post), "a musical everyone can fall in love with" (Nadel, World Telegram & Sun), "disarmingly appealing" (Coleman, Mirror), "a tasty surprise" (Taubman, Times), "here to stay" (McClain, Journal American" and "so deft, so light and so right that it makes all the other shows look like clodhoppers" (Chapman, Daily News). Granted, Walter Kerr wasn't impressed -- "a little shopworn around the corner," he wrote, alluding to the original play's movie version The Shop around the Corner. But time has proved that She Loves Me is a masterpiece, even if it’s never been a big moneymaker. "It's caviar," Harnick says. Even the four dropped songs heard on the Harbinger disc prove its worth. “Tell Me I Look Nice” is known to be one of Sondheim’s favorite songs, so how bad could it be?

Prince would produce Fiddler On The Roof but stepped aside as director in favor of the notoriously temperamental Jerome Robbins. Says Harnick, “My friend Sondra Lee had worked with him (on High Button Shoes and Peter Pan), and she warned us: ‘A week before the first performance, he'll become difficult and defensive because he's suddenly worried about everyone's reaction. But you can defuse it by humor,' she said. Sure enough, just before we were to open in Detroit, Robbins was acting impossibly. So I took Sondra's advice and made a little joke – which did not go over at all. So I stayed away from him from then on."

Presumably that separation ended as September 22 turned to the 23rd when Robbins, Harnick and everyone else on Fiddler was rejoicing after reading the New York critics rave. But as the first seven cuts of the second Harbinger disc prove, during the two years of writing the show, the team dropped many songs.

Two of them are “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,” when Motel and Tzeitel kvell over this technological marvel, and “When Messiah Comes,” a whimsical song that followed an Anatevkan’s observation that that this would be a good time for the Messiah to make His presence known. Says Harnick, “They were our two biggest hits at backers’ auditions.”

So why didn’t they make the cut and instead get cut? “Jerome Robbins put his finger on ‘Sewing Machine,’” says Harnick. “Motel and Tzeitel’s story had been resolved at the end of Act One, and now the audience didn’t want to hear them in another song. They were instead interested in what would happen to Hodel,” who would marry the revolutionary.

The other song begins “When Messiah comes, He will say to us, ‘I apologize that I took so long. But I had a lot of trouble finding you; over here a few, and over there a few.’” Harnick smiles as he shakes his head and says, “We were idiots! It’s a tragic moment. People are being thrown out of their homes and we’re writing a comedy song?”

Still, it’s a delicious one, as you can hear here in a rendition delivered by Harnick himself at the 92nd Street Y in 1971. But if you’re presenting any of Harnick’s shows, you’d be well-advised to hear these songs, replaced though they may have been, for they will give you more insight into the characters.

Robbins was originally set to stage Bock and Harnick's The Apple Tree, too, but opted to spend most of the rest of his life in ballet. Still, the writers had to be assuaged by his replacement: the (then) young Turk and (still) sought-after Mike Nichols.

It's a trio of one-act musicals. Producer Stuart Ostrow thought that such a structure would circumvent second-act trouble. "And while that is true," says Harnick, "it's almost like a revue, where you're starting from scratch before each new song. Even if the last piece scored, it doesn't mean the next one will."

Luckily for The Apple Tree, each successive story becomes progressively funnier. What's more, it's an ideal vehicle to show the versatility of your best actor and best actress. No other musical allows two performers to respectively play Adam and Eve, a soldier and a princess, all before he tackles a rock star and she becomes a chimney-sweep-turned-sex-symbol.

Harnick doesn't think that the record-setting success of their previous show -- Fiddler -- made everyone expect too much from The Apple Tree, which ran one-seventh as long. "It did definitely impact The Rothschilds, though," he says of the team’s 1970 effort, "because both centered on Jews. So many critics accused us of going to the well again and assuming that we'd automatically make another fortune. Not until the off-Broadway revival 20 years later did many of those same critics see the show on its own terms and admit they were wrong -- that it’s really a very good musical."

Indeed it is. One irony on the Harbinger release is that in "What a Life" -- a Fiddler song that would be replaced by "If I Were a Rich Man" -- Tevye even mentions the Rothschilds in passing.

"Jerry and I liked ‘What a Life’ a lot," Harnick says, returning to Fiddler. "We envisioned that Tevye would indeed bring on a horse but Robbins told us to drop the idea for the obvious reason. And I did remember the night that I saw Three Wishes for Jamie," Harnick says, citing a short-run 1952 musical, "where the horse did exactly what Robbins was fearing."

Perhaps Robbins’ objection was a blessing in disguise. After all, Bock and Harnick may not have written “If I Were a Rich Man” had the director-choreographer not challenged them.

Alas, The Rothschilds was the end of the Bock and Harnick partnership. But that hasn’t stopped Harnick from continuing to write. Harbinger offers nine more songs he’s since written. This is a man who continues to write, be it sunrise or sunset.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at