A Sheldon Harnick musical that isn’t Fiddler on the Roof—sounds crazy, no? It’s not, of course. In the lyricist’s illustrious career, you might say that well over a dozen of his shows worthy of notice do not contain Tevye the Dairyman. And this is the year we celebrate his incredible oeuvre.
At the Tony Awards on June 12 (during yontif, ugh), Harnick, who just this week received a special Drama Desk Award, will receive a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Holiday conflict for observant fans aside, the timing is perfect: Not only is Fiddler back on Broadway and up for three Tony Awards, but a revival of She Loves Me (written with Fiddler composer, the late Jerry Bock), is up for a whopping eight Tonys. Not bad for a show usually stuck under the shadow of the roof. If She Loves Me beats Fiddler for Best Revival, it would be cause for celebration because Harnick will be evidently honored as more than a one-hit wonder. Yes, Fiddler may be Harnick’s finest work, in the sense that it’s arguably his most consistent (some of his other shows fluctuate more in quality from song to song), but many people don’t realize just how prolific he’s been. The man has a Pulitzer, for God’s sake—for the LaGuardia bio-musical Fiorello!
What makes Harnick’s work so compelling? Simply put, he’s a natural. He makes lyric-writing seem effortless, in that “classic” Broadway, larger-than-life way. Harnick’s more deeply emotional lyrics, and even his lighter ones, never come across as embarrassing as they might from a less skilled peer; he’s unafraid of corniness, attacking every scenario with his full range of skill. He has the ability (well, most of the time) to pull back at the last minute from lines that in the hands of a lesser writer would be cringe-worthy.
Take “Friends,” from The Apple Tree, in which Eve, as the first woman, must deal with amorous feelings with no precedent:
What is the source of this congestion / That I must learn to rise above / Is there a name for this condition? / Yes there’s a name / And it is Hell!
Harnick is more focused on sincerity than wit for the sake of being witty, but that isn’t to say that he hasn’t written extremely clever, technically impressive songs. He has the distinction of being the writer of my favorite non-Sondheim musical theater lyric of all time, from his (very Jewish) musical about the Rothschild banking family, The Rothschilds (recently renamed Rothschild and Sons):
Twinkling high in the fiscal sky is a newly risen star / There’s another firm in the firmament / Rothschild and Sons!
I could write a entire essay analyzing those lines. There’s the captivating imagery, the boundless joy (enhanced by Bock’s wonderful melody), and the intricate, delicious firm/firmament word play.
This floating, playfulness of words, reminiscent of the likes of the great Yip Harburg, brings a gumption to his characters that feels so purely Broadway. Take the opening number from She Loves Me, in which the employees of a parfumerie face the prospect of a day working indoors despite beautiful weather, and toy with the idea of losing their jobs to have a picnic:
If it costs that much to get suntanned / I’ll stay untanned / Pale, but solvent.
(If I could get a tattoo, I would consider “Pale but solvent.”)
The longings of the parfumerie characters, like Tevye, are marked with a resigned humor that makes them easy to root for, no matter if the stakes are enjoying a beautiful day; or in Tevye’s case, fighting poverty.
There’s something classical about Harnick’s work. He started writing in the late 1940s, and while his writing improved for years afterward (Fiorello!, despite its accolades, is not his best), it never lost its core style. By honoring Harnick this Sunday night, we are honoring the last of the greats. Of course, there are other elderly living lyricists (Mr. Sondheim, of course, Martin Charnin, Jerry Herman, for example; may they all live to 120!), but none of them, perhaps with the exception of Herman, conjure up images of Broadway’s Golden Age quite like Sheldon.
So, bravo, Mr. Harnick. And mazel tov on a Lifetime Achievement Award well earned.