Sheldon Harnick: Musical Theater’s Great Lyricist

From a New York Times story by Jesse Green headlined “The Great Marriage Broker of Musical Theater’s Golden Years”:

The twilight golden years of the Golden Age of musical theater, which archaeologists date from about 1959 to 1981, produced three great lyricists. One, of course, was Stephen Sondheim, setting words to his own music with a neurotic complexity that defined that time and ours. Another was Fred Ebb, the longtime songwriting partner of John Kander, who if poppier in outlook was a genius at prosody, shooting off syllables (“one day it’s kicks, then it’s kicks in the shins”) that never failed to bruise.

Sheldon Harnick, who died on Friday at 99, was the third, though only one of his musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof,” written with the composer Jerry Bock, was widely known outside the world of theater lovers. But within that world, his subtle craft and character insight were universally acknowledged. Sondheim called his lyrics “impeccable.”

As models of humor, elegance and compassion, they could stand to be more widely studied and imitated. That they aren’t is partly the result of the strange bifurcation of Harnick’s career into Bock and post-Bock eras. Though Harnick kept writing well for four decades after the team broke up at the height of its powers in 1970, he never again met with the kind of success that greeted the earlier work. And Bock fell almost completely silent.

What a loss! And yet what a success it had been. By the time of the split, Harnick had written the lyrics not just for the worldwide hit “Fiddler” (1964) but also for two smaller yet equally admired scores: “Fiorello!” (1959) and “She Loves Me” (1963). Another handful of his shows with Bock (“The Apple Tree,” “The Rothschilds,” “Tenderloin”) are just as pleasurable, if less profound.

I use the word “profound” to describe those shows, and Harnick’s best lyrics, not because they offer earth-shattering insights but because they are perfect expressions of ordinary ones. A jaunty waltz like “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” from “Fiddler,” could not, after all, be more conventional in its framing: Two poor young sisters dream of being fixed up with perfect husbands.

But notice how the agenda-like structuring of their wish list, along with the click-lock rhymes, captures in a few lines what “perfect” means to several people involved:

For Papa, make him a scholar
For Mama, make him rich as a king.
For me, well, I wouldn’t holler
If he were as handsome as anything.

By song’s end, though, alerted to the dangers of overreaching, the girls have turned the image inside out:

Maybe I’ve learned:
Playing with matches
A girl can get burned.

What neither the sisters nor the audience yet know, but Harnick suggests, is how broadly the idea applies. While initiating the marriage plot so central to “Fiddler,” the lyric also introduces a warning about a world soon to go up in flames.

Once heard, Harnick’s lyrics seem like the last word on their subjects. In part that’s because of their concision — he typically writes short lines and never too many — and in part because they build an almost impenetrably tight argument through structure and sound. The important words all land on the right beat; the grammar is never distorted to squeeze over a melody. With so little space, every syllable does at least double duty.

Double duty is a nice way of looking as well at his main theme, marriage. (Harnick was briefly married to Elaine May; he wed Margery Gray, who survives him, in 1965.) Like most musicals, his and Bock’s keep circling the subject, but with a slyer view of the rage and redemption that go into it.

That combo is brilliantly expressed in “Fiorello!” — the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City from 1934 through 1945. In “The Very Next Man,” the mayor’s long-suffering secretary, Marie, after years of frustrated love, vows to marry whoever shows up.

Again, an ordinary setup, yet Harnick captures Marie’s compulsive preoccupation in a neat chain of repeated words, a few perfect rhymes (some of them hidden) and a heartbeat of recurring long o’s:

I’m through with moping
Moping from all this pointless hoping
Hoping he’ll notice me and open his heart
Time now to break away and make a new start.

That stanza is actually a rewrite; apparently, in 1959, the original version (“And if he likes me/Who cares how frequently he strikes me?”) was considered acceptable and got a big laugh.

There’s some justice in the rewrite being better crafted than the original; Harnick’s dramatic sweet spot was letting characters tie themselves in knots to convince themselves of ideas they know are not right. Also a Harnick sweet spot: forcefully untying the knots later. So even though Marie insists at the end of “The Very Next Man” that she’s finished with romance forever —

New York papers, take note!
Here’s a statement that you can quote:
Waiting for ships that never come in
A girl is likely to miss the boat.

— she of course does marry La Guardia in the end.

Harnick’s gift for expressing simply the complexity of emotional architecture finds perhaps its greatest expression in “She Loves Me,” a show essentially built on romantic delusion. In the song “I Don’t Know His Name,” Amalia concludes that her anonymous pen pal — even though he is, in fact, a co-worker she hates — must be an extremely kind and cultured man:

When I undertook this correspondence,
Little did I know I’d grow so fond;
Little did I know our views would so correspond.

But as that tight and high-minded stanza gives way to florid fantasizing —

He writes his deepest thoughts to me
On Swift, Vermeer and Debussy.
De Maupassant, Dumas, Dukas, Dufy, Dufay, Defoe.

— we understand she is not yet ready to find love where it really exists. That will come later.

In Sondheim’s lyrics, the double bind of attachment is often a source of agitation; in Ebb’s it is often a pummeling. But in Harnick’s word-world, attachment is a pleasant and relatively livable condition, once you get past the drama.

Near the end of “Fiddler,” when in the song “Do You Love Me?” Tevye asks his wife that question, she replies, barely singing the words, “Do I what?” It’s a laugh line, defanging or absorbing what might otherwise seem sentimental. By the end of the gentle, forgiving and ruminative number, so typical of Harnick’s gentle, forgiving and ruminative art, you come willingly to the couple’s conclusion, sentimental or not:

It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know.

Speak Your Mind