Broadway Lyricist Sheldon Harnick Has a New Gig: Poems to Accompany His Wife’s New York Photographs

‘If Debussy Had Been an Architect’

The Canterville Ghost was one of the original television musicals commissioned for the prestigious if not overly popular series “ABC Stage 67.” It landed in late 1966 amid Richard Adler’s Olympus 7-000, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s On the Flip Side and, the undisputed pick of the litter, Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose. Burt Shevelove, of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum fame, produced the show and wrote the book, retaining the original turn-of-the-century setting. (MGM moved it up to World War II when it was done in ’44 with Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien.)

“My memory of The Canterville Ghost is that Jerry and I did a good score, but we walked away from it,” recalled Mr. Harnick. “We thought, ‘It’s in capable hands. We don’t have to be associated with it,’ and we should have been because they cast non-singers—too many non-singers.” That didn’t include title player Michael Redgrave or Herman’s Hermits import Peter Noone. Tippy Walker, right out of The World of Henry Orient, got Mr. Harnick’s favorite song. “It was called ‘I’m Worried,’ a list of all the things she’s worried about, and the last line was ‘Sometimes, I worry that I worry too much.’ Jerry wrote a lovely, very English, modal-type song for the ghost.”

In the lobby of The Paley Center, available for instant autographing, will be his latest collaboration—The Outdoor Museum (Not Your Usual Images of New York), just published by Beaufort Books. He provided 11 poems that parade as introductions to 11 different slices of NYC life, all photographed by his actress wife, Margery Gray.

“Margie is constantly surprising,” he said, 47 years after first laying eyes on her in the chorus of his Tenderloin, a single mom and singular dancer-comedienne. “George Abbott just fell in love with her. When a principal left Fiorello!, he put Margie into it.

“Every once in a while, after we got married, she’d say, ‘Oh, I miss being on stage—but not that much.’ For a while, it was enough when we did benefits and Rainbow & Stars together. Now she is strictly a photographer. That’s her world right now. She hasn’t vocalized for a long time.”

She had studied painting at the Art Students League, he said, and had always taken photographs. Five years ago, the couple’s daughter gave her a digital camera for Christmas. “She fell in love with it and just kept taking more and more pictures, eventually graduating to Nikon top-of-the-line.”

A good three years elapsed before Mr. Harnick realized that either a profession or a possession had overtaken her. “She showed me several hundred pictures she’d taken, and I was just knocked out,” he admitted. He fell under their spell, and wanted to add his words to her “music.”

“There are some photographs you wouldn’t necessarily know were taken in New York, and I thought, ‘If I could write a poem, I can set up the fact that these are New York photographs.’ Also, Margie loves reflections. When I looked at those reflections of buildings in other buildings, I thought, ‘These are impressionistic. Omigod! That would be an interesting poem: If Debussy had been an architect.’”

For a good half of his career, Mr. Harnick thought of himself as a lyricist, not a poet. “I was ignorant of poetry, so I decided to get acquainted with the world’s poems and, about 30 years ago, started to read six pages of poetry every morning. I’ve tried to alternate a contemporary poet with a classical poet—starting, of course, with my namesake, Shelley. Over the years, because I’ve read so much poetry, I thought that it would be fun to use different types in this book—haiku, sonnet, free verse …”

The poet in spite of himself has just set to words—and music—The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and is in talks with Classic Stage Company about a production here next season. “Now I have a reason to live,” he quipped. “I couldn’t think of a better title than Molière’s. The one title I did think of—‘Medicine Man’—means something else.”