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The Schmooze

Sheldon Harnick Raises the Curtain on ‘Fiddler’ Memories

'Fiddler' lyricist Sheldon Harnick, R, weighed in in on the latest production. With him in this photo is composer Jerry Bock, L, and The Forward's Masha Leon. Image by Karen Leon

‘Fiddler’ lyricist Sheldon Harnick, R, weighed in in on the latest production. With him in this photo is composer Jerry Bock, L, and The Forward’s Masha Leon.

With “Fiddler On The Roof” back on Broadway with Danny Burstein as Tevye the Milkman, I asked the musical’s 91-year-young lyricist Sheldon Harnick for his review of this production.

“I think this one is outstanding,” he said. “I have mixed feelings about a pantomime theme at the beginning and end — the rest of it may be the best cast we ever had… In the last [2004] production we got faulted because there were so few Jews in principal roles [but] this one happens to have a high percentage of performers who are Jewish — including the lead.”

Harnick — who with composer Jerry Bock was honored by The American Theatre Wing in April 15, 2002, the year they “medaled” Broadway composers and lyricists including Stephen Sondheim, Charles Strouse, Jerry Herman, Marvin Hamlisch and other giants — mused: “What happens at the end …has always been true from the first when we see the exodus and the bundles …it reminds us of something that is happening somewhere in the world …so that exodus is [especially] meaningful.”

Apropos its universality, I agreed and recalled that Theodore Bikel who played Tevye worldwide often said, “In Japan they wondered if the Americans understood so Japanese a story.”

Harnick chuckled when I recalled his comment vis a vis “raising money for the 1964 production. “It was a challenge. Most theater parties are headed by women. Their reaction was ‘The first act ends with a pogrom! The second act with exile!’ This is a musical!?”

In my 1990 interview with Jerry Bock, I asked him what was the genesis of “Fiddler”?

He replied: “Someone asked us to read Sholem Aleichem …I was intrigued by the characters and the writing. So I shared this with Sheldon and we talked to playwright Joe Stein [who wrote the book]. What happened was so fast that I can’t quite remember the sequence. But Joe knew Sholem Aleichem intimately and in Yiddish, so we all read the collection and it absolutely wiped us out …It allowed me to express everything that was inside me from my grandmother. He was the vessel from which I could write music. He allowed me to express myself musically in a way that I had never done before.”

Harnick seemed delighted when I harkened back to the April 17, 2002 “Sheldon Harnick In Concert: An Evening with a Musical Legend” at the Center for Jewish History sponsored by YIVO and the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation. That night, Harnick showcased “lyrics from Jewish sources.” With Folksbiene Yiddish Theater executive director Zalmen Mlotek at the piano, Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for “New Faces 1952,” “Two’s Company,” and “Cyrano — the Musical,” enthralled the audience as he performed songs and a few outtakes from “The Rothschilds” and “Fiddler.”

“Jerry [Bock] and I decided to use Yiddish words that all would understand,” Harnick once said. “One result is the now familiar “L’Chaim: To Life!” At one performance, he recalled, the cast exclaimed, “Mazel Tov!” and Jacqueline Kennedy, who was in the audience, asked her companion ‘What does that mean?’” Harnick described how five rows of people around her whispered, “Congratulations!”


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