When composer Jule Styne passed away almost 20 years ago at age 88, his widow Margaret wistfully reasoned, “He just ran out of keys.” Lyricist Sheldon Harnick reached the same age April 30, and one can only hope—after watching him, one day last week, aggressively pursue an apathetic taxi up West 44th Street—that he never finds out.
“I’ve never been busier in my life,” the buoyant octogenarian had said just before his cab chase in an interview at Market Diner where he spent most of an hour in the future tense, with only a few forays down a very glamorous memory lane.
This is Mr. Harnick’s 60th year as a Broadway lyricist. Like “Melvin Brooks,” he was one of Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952, sweeping onto the scene with “Boston Beguine” from Off-Broadway and the golden age of New York cabaret. At the outset, he was his own composer, but, on the advice of fellow lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, he chose to spread himself thick. “There are more capable theatre composers than there are theatre lyricists,” Mr. Harburg told him. “You can facilitate your career by working with people besides yourself,” so he availed himself of a few—Richard and Mary Rodgers, Michel Legrand, et al.—before, and since, finding the “Mr. Wonderful” composer, Jerry Bock (1928-2010). They teamed ten times, from The Body Beautiful (1958) to The Rothschilds (1970), making beautiful musicals together.
They did only two musicals for the small screen, and both constitute the Saturday afternoon double-header July 28 at The Paley Center for Media: at 2 p.m., an hour-long 1966 version of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost written expressly for TV, and at 4 p.m., a 1978 BBC adaptation of their 1963 Broadway show, She Loves Me.
“It will be good to see them again,” Mr. Harnick confessed with a cautious air. She Loves Me is decidedly the more anticipated, and he had fond memories of the She (Gemma Craven). “I think it’s an hour and 45 minutes. The BBC cut 40 minutes, but it was so gorgeous I couldn’t even tell where the cuts were. I saw it when it was first broadcast, and they were very pleased with it—enough to repeat it the next year. I thought it was going to be done every year, but our lawyers asked for too much.”
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.”
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.”