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.”