jakub | June 28, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Sheldon Harnick: A Blessing on His Head, Mazel Tov


Sheldon Harnick.

The seemingly impossible has happened: Sheldon Harnick has passed away at the tender age of 99. I say impossible because he’s been a constant throughout my life and never seemed to change.

As a young kid, I knew Sheldon as the smiling man in the fisherman’s cap with the frizzy hair and glasses who we’d talk to in the elevator. He and his wife Margie and their kids, Beth and Matthew, lived in 14F; we were 19E. They and my parents (the late Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman) were very friendly. We lived in a building on the Upper West Side rife with artist types: Our next door neighbor was Isaac Stern and his family; Beverly Sills and her family were 3F, Mike Nichols in the Penthouse. I knew Sheldon did what my dad did. 

I was exposed to his work early. When I was 5, my father took me to see Fiddler on the Roof starring Zero Mostel. What I most vividly remember is a shrieking Fruma Sara, 10 feet tall with her ropes of pearls―for years the stuff of my nightmares. 

My mom often performed in nightclubs. One of the songs in her act was “What Makes Me Love Him?” from The Apple Tree, which she had starred in before I was born (she played the matinees Barbara Harris didn’t do). I heard her sing it dozens of times growing up, and it was always my favorite:

What makes me love him?
It’s not his singing
I’ve heard his singing
It sours the milk
And yet
It’s gotten to the point
Where I prefer
That kind of milk

Now I can see the craft: a man who was a master of rhyme, deliberately choosing not to rhyme, conveying with simplicity and beauty the earnestness and purity of the character’s feelings. But as a kid, I just knew it was funny and warm, and I fell in love with the song, and my mother singing it.

I didn’t fully take in Sheldon’s genius until my first year at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, where we studied the libretto and lyrics of Fiddler on the Roof. Sheldon said he thought of himself as a playwright, and it’s easy to see why. The transition between scene and song is seamless. Every lyric is character-driven, and flawlessly fuses all the tools and rules of theatrical lyric writing: perfect prosody, perfect rhymes (often delightful but rarely calling attention to themselves by their cleverness), surprising ways of expressing human emotions. And every word feels utterly true to the characters singing and the world of the show.

To say that Sheldon is the lyricist’s lyricist is to give him short shrift, because of his work’s global popularity and universal appeal―but they are everything I strive for in my own writing.

Sheldon, like Stephen Sondheim, was so generous to younger writers and a mentor to many. When my first Broadway show opened to harsh criticism and shuttered quickly, I received a gift from Sheldon in the form of a letter, telling me how much he and Margie enjoyed my lyrics, recounting the opening of his first book musical The Body Beautiful and its lack of success. He thought that was his big chance and he blew it, and went back to writing industrials. “And yet,” he continued, “so bizarre is this business, a year and a half later, I was a part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiorello.” He exhorted me to start a new project when I was ready, ending: “As far as I’m concerned, the most enjoyable time is when we’re in the throes of creativity, finding satisfaction in the struggle to pin down a thought in a fresh phrase. You’ve been given the gift to do just that. Enjoy it!” I framed the letter, and I’m looking at it as I type this. It has helped me go on many times in the vagaries of this life in the theatre.

Aside from a life of the mind, Sheldon was also, contrary to the stereotype of the nerdy, brainy Jew, an enthusiastic sportsman. In the ’60s and ’70s a gaggle of showbiz Jews descended on the waspy enclave of the Hamptons, where they were excluded from the country clubs and didn’t care―my parents, Betty Comden, Sidney and Gail Lumet, Neil Simon, Gene Saks, Peter Stone, Arthur Laurents, Jerry Robbins, and Sheldon and Marge among them. Sheldon was an avid tennis player and loved swimming in the ocean.

I ran into him in East Hampton a few years ago outside of a supermarket. I was leaving and he was running in. We chitchatted. He mentioned he’d just been playing tennis and asked, “Have you been in the ocean today? The water’s just perfect!” We waxed rhapsodic about it and then waved goodbye. As I walked to my car, I remembered with a start: “Wait. He’s 94.” 

Sheldon was also a proud contributor to his community, serving on the Dramatists Guild Council (where I now serve as president) for 60 years! In fact, the last time I saw him, right before the pandemic, he very gamely agreed to help me out by making a video for the Guild, exhorting theatres and theatremakers to honor the writer’s text and “Don’t Change The Words.” 

I went to 14F in my parent’s old building. Marge was as beautiful as ever, and sweet and protective of Sheldon, who proudly showed me her beautiful books of photography, which had pride of place on their coffee table. Sheldon was frail but cheerful, kind and game. 

The idea of the video was for a writer to recite a mangled version of one of their iconic lyrics―to show what happens when you change the words. He was a little forgetful, but after several attempts I got a video of him saying, with a perfect Jewish sarcastic shrug, “Sunup, Sundown?” The pandemic sidelined the project. But the fact that he was happy to participate was remarkable. 

I spoke to Marge when I was writing this, and she let me know he died in her arms, peacefully, with his family around him. She wanted me to know how wonderful their long relationship was―which she chalked up to humor, and never going to bed mad.

What an extraordinary talent and a life well-lived. He was a wonder of wonders, and one of the last giants in that generation of giants. His lyrics will always be a North Star by which to measure my own work: Is it true, is it fresh, is it delightful, is it illuminating? I’ll miss the man in the fisherman’s cap with the frizzy hair and big smile in 14F.

Amanda Green is a twice Tony-nominated songwriter and the current president of the Dramatists Guild of America.

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