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JOSEPH N. BELL

Sheldon Harnick Sings a Song of Perseverance

December 09, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

More than 30 years ago, I went to Philadelphia to talk with the editors of the Saturday Evening Post, for whom I was then working out of Chicago. At loose ends one evening, I checked the theater guide and found that a musical called "The Body Beautiful" was playing en route to a New York opening. So I went.

There were probably not more than a hundred people in the cavernous theater, and we were all beckoned down to orchestra center before the show started--the only time that has ever happened to me in the theater. The reason for the sparse crowd was quickly evident. It wasn't a very good show (it lasted only a few weeks in New York). But I found the music, and especially the lyrics, charming and checked my program to discover that the show was the first collaboration of a young team named Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

So two years later when I visited New York and found Bock and Harnick's second show, "Fiorello," playing on Broadway, I went. And was blown away. It has remained over the years one of my favorite musicals, and one of its numbers, "Little Tin Box," ranks with the best I've ever seen. I've felt a strong affinity with Bock and Harnick ever since, especially after my youngest daughter wanted "Sunrise, Sunset" from their "Fiddler on the Roof" sung at her wedding.

So when Sheldon Harnick turned up suddenly at the Laguna Beach Moulton Playhouse as the librettist of a new musical--based on the old Frank Capra movie "It's a Wonderful Life"--I wanted very much to meet him. And one of the perks of a gig like this column is that such things can be brought to pass.

I had lunch last week with Harnick and his lovely wife, Margie, and talked show business for 2 1/2 glorious hours. When we first connected on the phone, he told me he was surprised that anyone who had seen "Body Beautiful" would still want to talk with him. That comment catches the flavor of Harnick, an amiable, rather self-effacing man of 65 who has ridden the Broadway roller coaster probably as equably as anyone ever to make it big in that stressful business.

Harnick and Bock did seven Broadway shows together (I saw six of them): three hits, ("Fiddler," "Fiorello" and "The Rothschilds"), one flop ("Body Beautiful"), two moderate successes ("Tenderloin" and "The Apple Tree") and one apparent failure that has since become almost a cult show and is being revived all over the place ("She Loves Me"). Their last collaboration was "The Rothschilds," almost 20 years ago. The question has chewed at me all of those years: Why would a team as successful as the composer and lyricist of "Fiddler on the Roof" stop writing together--and thus deprive me of their music?

Harnick said wistfully: "It's hard for me to understand, too."

He toyed with his fork a few seconds, then decided to address the question. He said that the trouble started during the out-of-town tryouts of "The Rothschilds." "I felt the director didn't have a handle on the show and wanted to replace him, and Jerry thought he was wonderful." The producer agreed with Harnick, and the director was fired.

"Jerry got very angry and said later both he and the director were the victims of a conspiracy. But he never said that to me. We never had a confrontation about it, and we should have. We just drifted apart."

There was polite talk about continuing to write together while writing with other people, too. Harnick did a show with Michelle LeGrand and one with Richard Rodgers, "but Jerry worked and worked and never got anything on. Jerry is a very private man. Our relationship is affable on the surface, but I don't know what he's doing. Whenever I approach him, he always just tells me he's very busy.

"The only time we got back together was for a revival of 'Fiorello' a few years ago. We worked closely and really recovered a lot of the feeling. I believe if we'd had a new project at that time, we would have written together again. But we didn't, and when I approached him later with ideas--including 'It's a Wonderful Life'--he was too busy. What he was really saying was: 'I'm not ready to write with you yet.' "

The composer Harnick chose for "Wonderful Life" was Joe Reposo, with whom he had written several specialty numbers, including the text for a cantata with the Boston Symphony. And this time there was real tragedy. Soon after the score was finished, Reposo--only 52--died. "No one knew he had cancer," said Harnick, "and we were all in shock. When he found out, he tried to do a lifetime of things in a few months. He was desperately afraid people would feel sorry for him."

Harnick says he has done enough composing that he feels he can handle any small changes required in the score of "It's a Wonderful Life." He says that the show was turned down in New York but he hopes to get a production of it in the East after Laguna Beach that will lead eventually to Broadway, where he hasn't had a show since he did "Rex" with Richard Rodgers in 1976.

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