Sheldon Harnick, Famed ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Lyricist, Dies at 99

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Sheldon Harnick, the nimble lyricist who partnered with composer Jerry Bock to create the songs for some of Broadway’s greatest musicals, including Fiddler on the RoofFiorello! and She Loves Me, has died Friday. He was 99.

Harnick died of natural causes at his apartment overlooking Central Park on the Upper West Side, spokesperson Sean Katz told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Harnick, who credited actress Charlotte Rae for inspiring him to become a Broadway lyricist, had an uncanny knack of making it sound as if the singer were having a conversation with the audience. His lyrics for such tunes as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “She Loves Me” and “Little Tin Box” were simple and straightforward yet deeply moving at the same time.

“A theater lyricist is a playwright who writes short plays in verse that have to be set to music,” Harnick said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The important thing is that no matter how clever you are or how complicated the song is, you have to write something that is immediately comprehensible to an audience. They have to hear it and understand it as it is sung. You also have to write for character and for situation. Characters can’t sound like when they speak, they’re one person, and when they sing, they’re somebody else.”

Fiddler on the Roof, with a book by Joseph Stein, debuted in September 1964 at the Imperial Theatre in New York. Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, it tells the engaging story of Tevye, a poor milkman in 1905 struggling to keep hold of his Jewish traditions amid the impending danger brought about by Russian occupation.

In a 2014 interview with the Hartford Courant, Harnick revealed that it took several years for all the elements of the show to come together. With a preliminary score and book in place, the team was able to entice Hal Prince to sign on as producer and Jerome Robbins to come aboard as director and choreographer.

All agreed that the key to making Fiddler on the Roof work was finding the right man to play Tevye.

“We approached Danny Kaye, but his wife turned us down, saying he was too young to have marriage-age daughters,” Harnick said, adding that Danny Thomas and Tom Bosley, who had played the title role in Fiorello!, also were considered. “Jerry [Bock] and I wanted Howard Da Silva [who was in Fiorello! as well].

But [Robbins] said Tevye was a figure who is larger than life and Howard is wonderful but he’s life-sized — and that’s why we should go to Zero [Mostel].”

Robbins’ instincts proved correct. Mostel commanded the stage as the boisterous but sympathetic Tevye, trying to hold his family and his traditions together as his world falls apart. Other familiar faces in the opening-night cast included Bea Arthur, Bert Convy and Austin Pendleton. (Bette Midler later came aboard to play Tevye’s daughter, Tzeitel.)

Between 40 and 50 songs were considered before producers settled on the 18 that were used. Classics such as “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man” were written by Harnick and Bock along the way.

Some thought the show’s heavy Jewish influence might be a turnoff for audiences. Any fear of that was quickly allayed by Mostel’s performance and by the Harnick & Bock tunes. Fiddler on the Roof was one of the most successful musicals in history, becoming the first on Broadway to surpass 3,000 performances. It collected nine Tony Awards, with Bock & Harnick winning for best musical as well as for best composer and lyricist.

“After the show was a success, to my surprise, people would say, ‘Oh, you guys were so brave [because of the Jewish subject matter],'” Harnick said. “We never felt brave. We thought here are some gorgeous human, rich, funny stories, and they should make a good musical.”

A favorite of high school and community theater productions everywhere, Fiddler on the Roof has been revived on Broadway five times, and notable actors who have portrayed Tevye include Leonard Nimoy, Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein.

“His lyrics were clear and purposeful and never lapsed into cliche,” Fierstein wrote in a statement. “You’d never catch him relying on easy rhymes or ‘lists’ to fill a musical phrase. He always sought and told the truth for the character and so made acting his songs a joy. A JOY! A JOY!!!! I can’t say that loudly enough. And this atheist will pronounce it … a blessing!”

Fiorello!, featuring a book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, who also directed, was based on the rise of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s. A reformed Republican, he became a hero in the Big Apple when he took on the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine and won.

The musical opened in November 1959 and became a smash hit, running for 795 performances and turning Bosley into a star. The Harnick & Bock tunes “Politics and Poker,” “I Love a Cop” and “Little Tin Box” are considered classics.

“There are three ways in which Fiorello! is the ideal monument to our beloved Little Flower: it is exciting, it is enjoyable, and it is decent,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in his New York Times review. “Jerry Bock has set it to a bouncy score that has a satiric line as well as a wonderful waltz of the period … As the writer of lyrics, Sheldon Harnick is in an unfailingly humorous frame of mind.”

Fiorello! was named best musical at the 1960 Tonys, sharing the honor with The Sound of Music. Bosley won best featured actor in a musical, Abbott won for his direction and the production received the Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of only nine musicals to get that award.

In a 2015 profile of Harnick for The New York Times, Roundabout Theater Company artistic director Todd Haimes said of the lyricist’s work: “Everything is just perfect. The rhymes don’t feel forced, it’s emotional, it’s funny, and it moves the story forward in an organic way.”

Sheldon Mayer Harnick was born in Chicago on April 30, 1924. His father, Harry, was a dentist. Writing always seemed to be a part of family life; his mother, Ester, came up doggerel for weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs, and his sister, Gloria, penned poetry. Harnick had a penchant for humorous verse, and his work appeared in his grammar school and high school newspapers.

Harnick was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and spent three years in uniform. He never saw combat but liked to note that he was wounded by a bayonet. He’d then add that it happened while he was trying to open a can of peanuts.

After the war, Harnick enrolled at Northwestern University School of Music, where he studied violin. He also wrote comedy songs, including one for a fellow student, Rae, who was looking for material to perform.

In return for writing “I’ve Got Those Gotta-Go-Home-Alone-Tonight Blues” for Rae, she presented Harnick with a cast recording of Finian’s Rainbow. It was her way of encouraging him to pursue a career on Broadway.

“It dazzled me and I knew he was made of the same stuff, so I gave him the album,” Rae said in the New York Times piece. “I kept telling him he’s got to come to New York, because I’ve seen a lot of musicals — and his material is better than most of them.”

Harnick moved to New York in 1950 and found success writing comical songs for revues on and off Broadway. One song, “Boston Beguine,” sung by Alice Ghostley in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952, became a showstopper. That Broadway revue, which ran for 365 performances, also featured Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence, while Mel Brooks (billed as Melvin Brooks) provided sketches.

With Broadway revues becoming scarce amid the rising popularity of television, Harnick turned his attention to writing books for musicals. One assignment led to an introduction to Bock in 1956, and they decided to join forces.

Their first effort, for 1958’s The Body Beautiful, didn’t garner much attention and closed after 60 performances. A year later, Fiorello! debuted, and it changed everything for them.

She Loves Me, based on a 1937 play by Miklos Laszlo, is the story of two Budapest shop employees who don’t get along at work but are in fact unknowing pen pals. (Other adaptations include the movies The Shop Around the CornerIn the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail.)

She Loves Me opened on Broadway in April 1963 and ran for more than 300 performances. For the song “I Don’t Know His Name,” Harnick wrote, “When I undertook this correspondence, little did I know I’d grow so fond; little did I know our views would so correspond.”

Harnick and Bock also worked on 1960’s Tenderloin, 1966’s The Apple Tree and 1970’s The Rothchilds and contributed songs to 1962’s Never Too Late, 1965’s Baker Street and 1979’s The Madwoman of Central Park West.

Soon after The Rothschilds made it to Broadway, Harnick and Bock had a falling-out and went their separate ways. Harnick then collaborated with Richard Rodgers on the 1976 musical Rex. (Bock died in 2010.)

Harnick’s brief involvement in the movies included penning the lyrics for the theme song to The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and the songs “I Must Be Doing Something Right” and the title tune for Blame It on Rio (1984).

In 2004, Gwen Stefani released “Rich Girl,” featuring Eve, which included a reggae-style riff on “If I Were a Rich Man.” (Bock and Harnick are listed among the songwriters on that.)

He enjoyed seeing Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me receive Tony nominations for best revival of a musical in 2016. The Color Purple won, but Harnick was honored with a lifetime achievement award during that Tony ceremony.

Survivors include his wife, actress Margery Gray, whom he married in 1965 (she was in Tenderloin and Fiorello! before they were wed); children Matthew and Beth; and grandchildren Vaughn, Melody, Heather and Ashley.

Harnick also was married to Mary Boatner, who attended Northwestern with him, from 1950-57 and to comedy legend Elaine May from 1962-63.

Jackie Strause contributed to this report.

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