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

‘If Debussy Had Been an Architect’

He was a reluctant composer on this one, stepping in when his anointed composer hit a yearlong creative duster. “At that point, I decided to take a crack at it myself. Every time we talked, I’d explain what I wanted, so I think I knew what I wanted.

“When I’m writing lyrics, I hear music. I certainly hear rhythmic patterns, and they generally do arrange themselves into melodies. When working with Jerry, I realized I had to stop doing that. If a melody occurred to me, I had to delete it, because if Jerry wrote something I didn’t like as much as my melody, that made a problem.”

The two did not collaborate the last 40 years of Bock’s life. The last work they did was tinkering with their two Tony-winners and coming up with a new song for each.

“About a week into rehearsal of the last Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof,” said Mr. Harnick, “we had a meeting with David Leveaux, the director, and he said, ‘You’ve investigated the changing of tradition in lots of areas, but not what the changing of tradition is doing to the matchmaker. I’d like you to write a number for her,’ so we did. Called ‘Topsy-Turvy.’ It replaced a number we called ‘the gossip number,’ and now it’s optional: you can do the gossip number or ‘Topsy-Turvy.’”

Their very last work together was a Fiorello! postscript 20 years in the making. “There’s a scene somewhere in the second act where LaGuardia’s wife has died, he’s run for the mayoralty and lost by a lopsided amount. He’s told his staff to go home, and he’s all alone on the stage. It’s the lowest point of his life. We tried to write him a song there, and, no matter what we wrote, it sounded self-pitying. We wound up not writing anything. He does eight bars of ‘The Name’s LaGuardia’ and walks offstage.

“Twenty years ago, when I saw it, I thought, ‘It’s a copout. There should be a song there.’ Jerry kept saying, ‘We don’t need a song. The show won the Pulitzer Prize. It works without the song.’” Mr. Harnick persisted, trying out new material in a California production and two in Chicago. Even Mr. Bock thought it was improved, but he thought the addition was “formless,” and Mr. Harnick grudgingly agreed.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean, so I took part of this long monologue that I had written and I converted it into a song. Then Jerry set it to music. But once he did that, I then realized I had to revise some of the lyrics, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

So when City Center’s Encores! celebrates its 20th season January 30-February 3 with the same show that started the series, it will be a new, improved, more vulnerable Fiorello!

The Paley Center salute to Mr. Harnick started a year ago, when Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom contacted him about doing an appreciation of Hugh Martin’s lyrics for a CD they were planning called “Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures,” spotlighting Martin’s lesser-known, lower-wattage output. The first Mrs. Harnick—Mary Harmon, his college sweetheart at Northwestern—made her Broadway debut in Mr. Martin’s Make a Wish, and the two tunesmiths became lifelong friends.

Next up for the Rudman-Bloom tribute-treatment is Mr. Harnick himself. He’ll be interviewed Friday for his forthcoming CD by Mr. Rudman, who will also lead the Q&A at the Paley event.

The second Mrs. Harnick, a fact long lost in the folds of time, was Elaine May. “It seems impossible,” is how Mr. Harnick answers the incredulous look he gets.

“We should have known. We went together two years, and broke up about six times, but her secretary got married, and I went to the wedding, and everything was romantic, so I proposed—and she accepted. We both knew, quickly, that it had been a mistake. She’s very fond of Margie, by the way. We’ve become friends, which is nice, because I have tremendous regard for Elaine. When we asked her to give us an endorsement for the book, she said, ‘I just don’t do that. I make it a rule. My best friend is Marlo Thomas, and Marlo did a book, and I wouldn’t give her an endorsement. I’d like to, if you can figure out a way that it won’t be a precedent.’ I said, ‘Well, how about saying you were married to me and you ruined my life by leaving me, all within three weeks?’ In effect, that’s just what she wrote.”

editorial@observer.com