Sheldon Harnick spoke about She Loves Me with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
Ted Sod: Tell us how you and composer Jerry Bock began writing together. Your first show was entitled The Body Beautiful, correct?
Sheldon Harnick: Yes. I started by writing for revues but as television became popular, television started to do what revues did -- only better -- so revues began to die. I had a reputation of being fast and good, so producers would call and ask me to help out on a show which was in trouble on the road. One such troubled show was a musical version of Shangri-La, but it turned out no one could help them. One of the cast members in that show was a superb actor named Jack Cassidy. Jack was a very close friend of Jerry Bock. Bock and his lyricist Larry Holofcener wrote Mr. Wonderful for Sammy Davis Jr. Although the show was successful, Jerry and Larry split -- I’m not sure what caused it -- but Jerry was now looking for another lyricist, so Jack Cassidy introduced me to him. From the time we first met, we got along famously. And Jerry’s publisher, Tommy Valando, worked an authentic miracle -- he persuaded a producing team to hire Jerry and me to do a Broadway musical, even though we had yet to write a song together. The show was The Body Beautiful. Stephen Sondheim came to one of our previews and he called his friend Harold Prince and said, “Hal, you’ve got to see this show. There’s a team that I think you should hear.” So Hal was at The Body Beautiful on opening night. Opening nights in New York are always successful, no matter how bad the show is. The audience screams, laughs, cheers and applauds because they have a relative onstage or they have money in the show. It’s deceptive because you think, we have a smash hit and then the reviews come out. We had a party at Sardi’s and when the first bad review came out, I think it was The New York Times, about half the people at our table got up and left. Then the next paper came out, The Herald Tribune, and it was also bad and the other half got up and left. So Jerry, his wife and I are sitting alone at this long table and this gentleman approaches us and says, “My name is Harold Prince. I wanted to tell you that I had problems with the show, but I really like your score. I’m hoping within a year we’ll be working together.” And he was true to his word, because within a year Jerry and I had been signed to Fiorello!
TS: And Fiorello! won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s very unusual for a musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. Did Prince produce that?
SH: Yes, Prince and his partner Bobby Griffith. There’s one story, which I love: Jerry Bock and I went over to Hal’s apartment to audition some songs. We played four songs for Harold and Bobby. One of the songs was entitled “Till Tomorrow.” There was a scene in the show where Fiorello was about to go overseas to join the air force during World War I and there was a big party for him. We had written a song that the woman he loved was to sing at this party, it was like an Irving Berlin waltz. When I finished the song, looking directly and Hal and grinning, Hal said, “Oh, come on. This is a put on. That’s not a real song, you’re making fun of it.” I said, “No, I’m not!” Then a big argument started between Hal and Bobby Griffith. Bobby said “Hal, I’m older than you. I was around during World War I, I know these types of songs, this is exactly like those Irving Berlin songs.” And Hal says, “No, this is a satire.” They’re fighting back and forth, when there’s a knock at the door. Hal says, “Don’t say anything, it’s our choreographer Pete Gennaro.” So Pete came in and Hal said, “Okay, sing ‘Till Tomorrow’.” So I sang “Till Tomorrow”, never once looking at Pete, and when I finished Pete said, “Oh! It’s 1917, it’s Irving Berlin!” Hal looked at me and said, “Okay, kid, you got the job.”
TS: Tell us about Tenderloin, which is the show that came next.
SH: There’s not much to say about Tenderloin. It was a mistake. It was a show about a crusading minister who wanted to clean up the area of New York that was known as the Tenderloin. Unfortunately, the scenes in the Tenderloin were colorful and musicalized and the scenes in the minister’s church were staid and rather boring. Even so, we ran about six months. It helped that Hal and Bobby Griffith marketed the show so carefully that the backers got about 90% of their money back. There was one song in it called “Artificial Flowers” that Bobby Darin recorded. And when Kevin Spacey made a movie about the life of Bobby Darin, he recorded the song too.
Scott Ellis: I’m just coming out to say something…
TS: This is Scott Ellis, the director.
SE: I just wanted to say that my career started at the Roundabout, with the first production of She Loves Me I directed, 23 years ago. I was asked to revisit it, and I really didn’t want to because I thought, that was successful, why would I want to do that again? And then I did a reading at our benefit, and I fell in love all over again with She Loves Me. But I wouldn’t have this opportunity without this man, Joe, and Jerry. I’ve had this career because they trusted me when I was this kid saying “I want to do She Loves Me” and they said yes to me. I just wanted to say that in public, I owe everything to this guy right here.
TS: So, as I understand it, there was a producer named Lawrence Kasha who had the idea to musicalize The Shop Around the Corner. Is that true?
SH: Yes, that was Larry Kasha’s idea. Jerry Bock and I said, “Who will do the book?” and he said, “Joe Masteroff.” Joe, as it happened, had a play on with Julie Harris called The Warm Peninsula. Jerry and I had seen it and loved it, so we said, “That’s great!” We were very pleased that Joe Masteroff was our book writer.
TS: I’d like to talk about the amazing work Joe must have done on the libretto, because I just watched the movie again and all of you filled in so many gaps from the movie. For example, Ilona becomes a whole new person from who she is in the film.
SH: What Joe has done never ceases to amaze me. He looked at the movie once and never looked at it again. Then he went off and wrote his own version and just played with the characters. Joe is very musical, so the script he gave me was constantly inviting lyrics. I won’t embarrass myself by telling you the places where I stole what he wrote and incorporated it into the lyrics. As you may or may not know, Joe also wrote the book for Cabaret, which was just in this theatre. He’s a wonderful writer. He’s now 96 years old, but he’s been to some of the rehearsals and will hopefully be here on opening night.
TS: Let’s talk about process. You said at one point that you worked with Jerry Bock in a way that you worked with no other collaborator.
SH: The way we worked was this -- once we knew what the project was -- in this case it was an adaptation of the film The Shop Around the Corner, I went home to my studio and began to think of song ideas. And Jerry, who was living in New Rochelle, went to his studio in his basement and began to think of musical ideas. When he had a musical notion fleshed out and thought, Okay that’s as much as I want to do with it now, he would record it. Eventually, he would send me a tape. And on that tape there would be anywhere from 8 to 12 songs, and he would preface each one by saying, “I think this one is for Amalia” or “This one is for Georg.” The most exciting songs were the ones where he would say , “Sheldon, I don’t know what the hell this is, but I like it.” He was very generous because on any tape of 15 songs, there might only be one or two that coincided with ideas that I had or that I really loved and couldn’t wait to put lyrics to. That’s the way we always started. I think I got about half the score written before I would come up with an idea or feel like I didn’t want to be constrained by music. This was the third show we’d written, so I knew that when I gave Jerry a lyric, he would set it superbly. And he would quite often surprise me, because I would write what I thought was a march and it would come back as a romantic waltz, and it was better like that. I’ve never worked that way with anybody else.
TS: Is it true that when you finished a song, you played it with Jerry’s wife first?
SH: We did. When we were almost finished, I would go to New Rochelle and we would work on the songs, maybe one or two words needed to be replaced. And when we had the song the way we wanted it, we would audition it for Jerry’s wife, Patty. We called her and she would come downstairs and we would do the song for her. Almost invariably she would like what we’d written. I remember one time she didn’t. We played it and there was this embarrassing silence after the end. I don’t remember what she said but it was something along the lines of, “I think that could be better.” And Jerry screamed at her, “What the hell do you know?!”
TS: You tell a story about how you almost got hit by a truck while you were writing some of the lyrics.
SH: I find that walking helps. Walking and swimming are very useful to writing lyrics. I don’t know what it is, but I would much rather walk than sit in a chair with my rhyming dictionary or thesaurus next to me. I think I was working on “Tonight at Eight.” The first time I heard it, I couldn’t wait to be able to put lyrics to it. So I’m walking in the street and not watching traffic and as I’m crossing the street, I hear this horn blasting. I turned and there’s this truck that’s about two inches away from me. The driver is cursing me and I said, “It’s okay, I think I got the lyrics.”
TS: You mentioned in the playgoer’s guide interview that the hardest part of finding lyrics for this show was when the customers come in and are ordering different products…
SH: It’s funny that you say that because during previews I heard the introduction to the number “Good-bye Georg”, after Georg quits and he’s leaving and the clerks are singing to him. And that’s counterpointed with what the shoppers are singing, and I was surprised to hear that the shoppers sang two lines and then repeated those two lines. I thought, I don’t like that. I think I better replace them. I found it very difficult because I think I’ve used most of the beauty equipment in the other lyrics! I had to go look at the top of the bureau where my wife keeps her perfumes and beauty implements to see what she uses, thinking I could maybe I can use some of that. I came in yesterday and gave the shoppers the new lines. They were thrilled. They said, “Oh, my gosh! The first time in fifty years, there’s new lyrics in the show!” And then I was absolutely horrified to find that before the clerks begin to sing “Good-bye Georg” the shoppers sing a third repeat of the lyrics -- so now I’ve got to do it again. I’ve got the first one, but I’m having trouble with the rest. If you come and see the show again, you will hear those new lyrics.
TS: One song that I just adore is “Vanilla Ice Cream.” I’m curious about how that came about because in the movie George goes to visit Amalia, but he doesn’t bring any ice cream.
SH: I just remember that it was written on our Broadway try out. Joe Masteroff had invented this charming idea of Georg bringing Amalia vanilla ice cream. When I watched the scene in rehearsal, I began to think that it would be wonderful to have a song there, but I didn’t know what it was. By the way, this isn’t done much anymore but the idea of going to New Haven or Philadelphia or Boston for a pre-Broadway try out was wonderful. It was a laboratory. The writers would watch the show every night and think, “What does it need? What else could we do with it?” Looking at it out of town, I suddenly thought I knew what the song should be, and simply started with the notion that he’d brought her vanilla ice cream. I wrote the song, and I gave it to Jerry Bock. Jerry set it very fast, and then we showed it Barbara Cook who said, “You know something? She’s writing a letter, so I don’t have to memorize the lyrics, I can read it. It’s a very simple tune, you’ve played it once and I’ve practically got it. I can put it in tonight, if Don Walker can do an orchestration quickly.” We auditioned the song for her in the morning, she put it in that evening and stopped the show with it.
TS: The other thing that I find really wonderful about the history of this show is the fact this was really Harold Prince’s first musical as a director.
SH: There was a show composed by John Kander and the Goldmans – this is before Kander started working with Fred Ebb -- called A Family Affair. It starred Shelley Berman and it was in trouble. They called in Harold Prince. We had seen it before Hal was called in and we saw it after he worked on it. It was night and day. The show had built in problems, so it was really impossible to fix. But what Hal did was astonishing. When we talked to Larry Kasha about directors for the original production of She Loves Me, the director that Jerry and I wanted was Gower Champion. Larry Kasha called him and Gower said, “I would love to do it, but I have other commitments and I can’t.” So Jerry and I said, “Let’s take a chance on Hal Prince. We saw what he did with A Family Affair, and it was really wonderful. ” We called up Hal and he was thrilled; he was dying to direct a Broadway musical from scratch. The next day Gower calls up and says “I’m free. I can do it.” We thought, Dare we? But no, we committed to Hal, and it would be wrong to take that away from him. And we were never sorry that we went with him, because in rehearsals he was exhilarating. Hal had this wonderful sense of theatre, wonderful sense of humor and he did a superb job on the show.
TS: The reviews of the original production all talk about his taste.
SH: The reviews were very good and what was heartbreaking is that when the reviews came out, I thought, Oh good, we’ll be here for at least the next two years! After about seven months, business began to fall off and to this day, we don’t know what the audiences found missing in the show. What was true was that it was a time when musicals were spectacles. The same year that She Loves Me opened, Hello, Dolly! and Oliver! opened. Apparently, that’s what people expected and we didn’t give it to them. The headline for the review of the show in Time Magazine was “The Quiet One.” We ran about seven or eight months, I think the entire production capitalization was lost and we were heartsick. I was so heartsick that I didn’t go to the Grammy awards and I later found out that the show won the Grammy and I hadn’t been there to celebrate. There were no regional productions and then about a year later we had a production in Bucks County and the cast wrote Jerry, Joe and me a letter. They said, “Our audiences love it, we don’t know why it didn’t work on Broadway!” Then a couple of months later, there was another production. There weren’t many, but we kept getting these letters. So, little by little, it became a cult show. And then what changed the history of She Loves Me was when Todd Haimes produced it in 1993. Scott Ellis directed it and it was received so lovingly by the critics. The following year we had sixty productions!
TS: It was Todd’s first musical at Roundabout. He says that he was so naïve about musicals at the time.
SH: Well, we’re awfully glad that he chose it. I spoke to him today, he’s very happy with this production, and so am I. I think the cast is superb and the set is magical. One thing that Scott Ellis wanted, which I objected strenuously to, was new orchestrations. I said, “Why? The Don Walker orchestrations are wonderful!” He said, “I know they are, but I’ve got to do something to make it interesting for myself.” So he hired Larry Hochman and when I heard the orchestra I thought, My god, they’re just as good as Don Walker’s. They’re wonderful.
TS: And usually nowadays they have to do new orchestrations because the orchestras are smaller than they were.
SH: Yes. I’m sure you know the name Jonathan Tunick. He’s one of the best the orchestrators in the business. A couple of years ago, we met Jonathan, who was glum, and we said, “Jonathan, what’s the matter?” He said, “I’m spending the second half of my life making reductions of all the orchestrations I did at the first half of my life.”
TS: This story has had so many different iterations. It started as a play called Parfumerie, then it became the Ernst Lubitsch movie The Shop Around the Corner, then it became In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson -- a movie musical -- and finally Nora Ephron made the film You’ve Got Mail. It’s a story that people obviously relate to. Do you have a sense of why that is?
SH: I don’t know why other people relate to it, but I know why I relate to it. I identify totally with both Georg and Amalia, because while I’m not particularly a shy person now, for years I was very shy -- especially in romantic situations. I identify with all of Georg’s worries and I identify with all of Amalia’s fears. For instance, one of the pieces of music on the tapes Jerry gave me was the song that Amalia sings at the end of Act I, “Dear Friend.” When I heard the wistful waltz, I just couldn’t wait to put words in Amalia’s mouth that came out of my soul, out of fear and longing.
TS: Now it’s your turn to ask questions.
Audience Member #1: You described your writing partnership with Bock, but you also described working alone. How did that work? Would you write lyrics for specific characters, or were you just writing lyrics that you thought needed to be in the show?
SH: I think it was a combination of the two. If I got the music first, I would respond to the music. And if there wasn’t music, I was responding to the needs of the play. I think it was a combination of that and my own sense of identification with all the characters.
AM#1: Also, I love the song in the beginning with all the different customers. How did you come up with that?
SH: That song, “Sounds While Selling,” was an idea of Jerry Bock’s. He was driving somewhere and listening to the radio, and he kept pressing the button and changing the station and he thought “that would be fun if the clerks were helping customers, and it kept changing.” So that was Jerry’s idea and it was a lot of fun to write.
Audience Member #2: There have been many revivals of your show, but there was one that was aired on PBS in 1978 that I loved.
SH: That’s actually a British version of it. They trimmed it so instead of it being a two and half hour musical, it runs about forty-five minutes. They butchered it so smoothly that I didn’t even miss any lyrics. I think they did a wonderful job.
TS: The whole thing is on YouTube now. That TV version was around the same time there was a revival with Madeline Kahn and Barry Bostwick -- correct?
SH: Right. I was worried about Madeline because she could be very funny, but she could also be undisciplined. I think she loved playing Amalia and she was quite disciplined and gave a beautiful performance.
Audience Member #3: You talked about the genesis of “Vanilla Ice Cream,” but I wanted to ask about the precursor to that “Where’s My Other Shoe?” How did you come up with the idea for that? And how did Barbara Cook feel about singing while slung over someone’s shoulder?
SH: As a matter of fact Jerry said, “I don’t know if this is a song, but it’s something that I haven’t been able to use.” And when I heard it I thought, Oh, my God, that would be wonderful for when she’s looking for her other shoe! It’ll be difficult to sing, I’m sure, but I’ll let Hal Prince worry about that since he’s the director. So I wrote the lyrics. I was frankly astonished by how Scott Ellis and Warren Carlyle made the song so active. She’s running around and jumping up and down on the bed. I thought surely she would be out of breath. But Barbara Cook managed to do it and Laura Benanti manages to do it wonderfully. The fact that Zachary picks her up and she continues to sing still astonishes me. It was fun to write, it’s always fun and challenging when it’s a song that goes rapidly and has a lot of notes. It’s always easier on the lyricist because you can use a lot of words and using a lot of words is easier than using a few words because when you’re using fewer words, they really have to be choice.
TS: We should probably mention that when the original production was done, Julie Andrews was being considered for Amalia, but she asked you to wait six months and Hal said that he’d rather go with Barbara. Is that how it happened?
SH: My memory is that we went immediately to Barbara Cook. At one point there was going to be a movie with Andrews, I believe. We had a choreographer and they showed me a mock-up of this set in Budapest and I was thrilled. Just before I flew back to New York, I asked if there was any possibility that it might be canceled and they said no. I got on the plane, flew back to New York, got off the plane and picked up a Times and turned to the Arts and Leisure section. It said that a man named Kirk Kerkorian had just taken over MGM and was pruning a lot of the projects. I looked through the list and there was She Loves Me.
Audience Member #4: How did you ultimately choose Hungary as the setting? Also how did you decide to include a Bolero?
SH: The reason that it’s set in Hungary is because the author is Hungarian. The original production was in Hungarian.
TS: Yes. Miklós László wrote the play, Parfumerie, which is what the film is based on.
SH: The bolero part was one of Jerry Bock’s surprises. Jerry Bock had a lovely sense of humor, and when I gave him the lyric for “A Trip to the Library.” I was surprised that it started with a bolero. And yet it makes sense. I’ll tell you one of Jerry’s jokes. A few years ago, he went to Iceland. I don’t know if the government of Iceland still does this but they used to honor a composer every year. And one year they honored Jerry Bock, so he went to Iceland. When he got back I asked him how it was and he said, “It was thrilling. Their symphony orchestra performed a lot of our songs from Fiddler. But they changed one of your lyrics.” I said, “They did?” He said, “Yeah. It was “Sunrise, Sunrise”.”
Audience Member #5: I hope you don’t mind me asking this, but you’ve had such an amazing career. Would you’d like to reflect on the highs and lows of your career in this business?
SH: To be in theatre is to experience highs and lows, no matter who you are or what you do. One has to love what one is doing. I love the experience of writing lyrics and setting lyrics to music. I love to be able to sing a song, to hear other people sing a song that I wrote. So when I experience a flop like The Body Beautiful, which was a disaster, or Tenderloin, which closed after six months, it’s very difficult. As a matter of fact there are people who cannot take it. Years ago I met a struggling song writer and he finally got a musical on and it was flop and he killed himself. It can be terribly depressing. One has to have an inner strength and good wife, which I have.
TS: I’m hoping we can end with you talking about the opera you’re working on.
SH: Yes, some years ago I was collaborating with a west coast composer named Henry Mollicone. He had been commissioned by the Kansas City Lyric to do an opera to celebrate their 75th Anniversary. He had an idea for an opera that he wanted to do about Native American themes. So we wrote an opera called Coyote Tales. About a year and a half ago, Henry called me and said he had been called by Texas State University. They told him, “If you can come up with an idea about some celebrated Texas woman, who might be the basis for an opera, we’ll commission you.” Henry said, “How about Lady Bird?” and they said, “Great!” I knew almost nothing about Lady Bird, so I learned a lot about her and I found that she was a remarkable woman. Intelligent, principled -- just a terrific lady. So we started to work on it and I was ready to write a synopsis when Henry called and said, “Stop working on it. The school doesn’t have any money, we’re going to get screwed.” So I stopped working on it. He called about three months later and said, “We can go back to work on it. The school now has the money, but only enough for a one-act opera.” I said, “Good. We’ll call it ‘Lady’.” Anyway, we’re going to premiere at Texas State University this April. I went down for a reading of it and the voices in their opera program are wonderful.
TS: Our time is up -- let’s thank Sheldon Harnick for joining us today.
SH: One last thing. Thank you for coming today and remember, Fiddler on the Roof is playing a few blocks away.