“Things will go well for you if you keep twanging that lyre,” eminent lyricist EY Yip Harburg told Sheldon Harnick. The year was 1950. Harnick had come to New York to pursue his dreams as a songwriter. One night, he was in the audience at a revue featuring the young man’s material. They connected, the veteran becoming Harnick’s “great friend and kind of mentor.” It was Harburg’s Finian’s Rainbow, we’re told, that inspired tonight’s honoree to pursue musical theater.
Good musical theater lyricists create in service of a story. Every song illuminates and/or moves the plot reflecting a specific character, era, situation, emotion/thought. Songs are not redundant to dialogue, though they might elaborate.
Great musical theater lyricists make these musicalized jig saw puzzles seem authentic. They’re imaginative and fastidious. Sheldon Harnick has excelled for seven decades, imbuing work with his own personal humanity/ethical compass, perception, heart, wit, and intellect. A hard act to follow.
Twenty-two artists celebrate Harnick this evening on the occasion of his receiving The American Songbook Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Admiration and affection is palpable in the SRO theater.
ASA Executive Director Marilyn Lester and Carolyn Montgomery, its Director of Education and Outreach, welcome us. Lester notes ASA represents Cabaret Scenes Magazine, The Margaret Whiting Award, The Pomeranz Performance Award and Educational outreach.
Montgomery tells the supportive audience that ASA’s outreach has now begun to serve all five boroughs, bringing musical exposure to underprivileged New York schools. “Every child that gets the musical call should at least have the opportunity to answer and have a little encouragement along the way,” she passionately declares.
Host Klea Blackhurst lets fly a muscular version of “Boston Beguine” (New Faces of 1952, words and music Sheldon Harnick), replete with a few tango steps, some gleeful hip action, and a dash of schmaltz: “We went to the Casbah, that’s an Irish bar there/The underground hideout of the D.A.R. there…” Anyone unfamiliar with the celebrant’s revue material would find a deep dive into it a genuine lark.
“Hello, Sheldon. You have to excuse me, I haven’t been this excited since my Bar Mitzvah,” begins featured musician Danny Bacher. The reed player’s own arrangement of “Sabbath Prayer” (Fiddler on the Roof) is immensely evocative. Most of us hear the lyrics in our heads as he plays. To have weighed in with lyrics as pristine and powerful as its melody is an accomplishment. (Bacher is also a vocalist, just not this evening,)
Brad Oscar performs “Blonde Blues,” the first song Harnick wrote with longtime collaborator Jerry Bock. “I see a blonde/It’s like a magic wand…I’m depraved…” Aptly querulous, Oscar mines every bit of drollery. (The Body Beautiful 1958) Change is decanted with Liz Callaway’s “When Did I Fall in Love?” Credible, furrowed brow surprise blooms with the aid of Alex Rybeck’s tender piano accompaniment. (Fiorello 1959)
Jeff Harnar then joins Rybeck with a tandem “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box,” some of the cleverest, most specific, relevant lyrics Harnick’s concocted. You really should listen to the percolating back and forth of its card players before a chorus of: “Politics and poker/Politics and Poker/ Playing for a pot that’s mediocre/Politics and Poker/Running neck and neck/If politics seems more predictable/That’s because/Usually/You can stack the deck…” Skillfully woven together, the songs cast Harnar as a series of unrepentant defendants with Rybeck questioning, both of them having an infectiously good time. (Fiorello)
Years after he wasn’t cast in Harnick’s Dragons, Ed Dixon claimed the opportunity with a York Theater production…and tonight. The epitome of innuendo, his phrasing is rife with sangfroid. “Lust” sonorously drops an octave. One expects balletic fingers to elicit flame. Across the floor, Harnick grins widely. “Dragons, everybody has’m/Hiding in the deepest, darkest chasm/Of everybody’s soul…” (2003 music and lyrics, Sheldon Harnick)
Cabaret treasure Sidney Myer delivers a song I can’t imagine another performer even attempting. His disarming “Here in Eden” arrives utterly innocent, without artifice. When Myer sings, “each wondrous object is beautiful and striking” we feel his awe (and that of the lyricist) “How’d I come?/ Where’m I from?/What’s my ultimate aim?/I don’t know, even so, I’m glad I came…” (The Apple Tree) Harnick holds hands with wife, writer/photographer Margery Grey Harnick. (A real love story.)
“In My Own Lifetime” is as honest and clarion a lyric as you’ll hear in musical theater and perhaps the heart of Sheldon Harnick. Robert Cuccioli’s passionate, hushed version emerges with hands tightly clasped. “I want to know without a doubt/That no one can lock us in/Or lock us out…I want to know we haven’t built on sand…” (The Rothchilds 1970)
Hands down the pinnacle of an evening filled with high points is Steve Skybell’s Yiddish rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” = “Ven Ikh Bin Rothschild.” The artist currently plays Tevye in Off Broadway’s marvelous, sub-titled, Yiddish version. To say he’s riveting would minimize hypnotic effect. Covering the entire staging area, Skybell persuasively inhabits every nuanced thought and feeling. The audience cheers. Go. (Fiddler on the Roof)
ASA Board Member (and vocalist) Craig Pomeranz reads a congratulatory message from Mayor Bill DeBlasio followed by presentation of the ASA Lifetime Achievement Award by Deborah Grace Winer. “I’m so proud to be his friend,” she begins beaming. “Sheldon captures what it is to be human and he does it rhyming…I don’t think there’s a more principled or funnier person around today…non judgmental, intellectually curious…What defines a Sheldon Harnick lyric is empathy. I think I speak for everyone, when I say we’re the ones who are honored.”
“Things have gone well for me,” Sheldon Harnick says referring to Harburg’s prediction with proverbial understatement. “That’s why I’m standing here tonight.”
Also featuring Kissy Simmons – “Gorgeous” (The Apple Tree 1966); Adam Heller – “When Messiah Comes” (cut from Fiddler on the Roof 1964); Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, and Alexandra Silber – “Matchmaker” (Fiddler on the Roof), Ms. Silber -“Dear Sweet Sewing Machine” (cut from Fiddler on the Roof); Alan Schmuckler’s seriously rejiggered “Now I Have Everything” (Fiddler on the Roof); Rhyn McLemore Saver and Jeffrey Saver “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You” (A Wonderful Life 1986, music-Joe Raposo); Judy Kuhn with an engaging “Vanilla Ice Cream,” a master class in switchbacks. (She Loves Me 1963)
Sheldon Harnick has garnered a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, two New York Critics Circle Awards, three gold and one platinum record, as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the The American Theatre Wing’s Tonys, The Drama League, and The Outer Critics Circle. He’s currently working on an opera.
All music Jerry Bock unless otherwise noted.
All (excellent) piano accompaniment by Music Director Eugene Gwozdz unless otherwise noted.
Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy
ASA: American Song Association presents
To Life! Celebrating Sheldon Harnick
Music Director/Piano- Eugene Gwozdz
Featured Player (Reeds) – Danny Bacher
Bass-Tom Hubbard, Drums-Mark McLean
September 16, 2019
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center