“Ask Me Where I’m Going” A Conversation with Sheldon Harnick

In 2017, I was exploring the idea of doing a book of interviews with theatre composers and lyricists. Working chronologically and having already interviewed Stephen Sondheim in depth several years earlier for The Dramatist, I began with other living greats of that generation. I ultimately abandoned the project to write a different book, The Reason to Sing about acting while singing (published by Routledge in 2021), and to work on a musical. But one of those early interviews was with Sheldon Harnick. I had known Sheldon since the late 1970s when he became a great supporter of my work and a friend. Below is the interview we did on August 22, 2017.

Dark blue and cyan painted watercolor portrait of Sheldon Harnick wearing dark framed glasses and a tuxedo with dark bowtie.
Portrait of Sheldon Harnick by A.E. Kieren for The Dramatist. www.aekieren.com

CRAIG CARNELIA: I have read that E.Y. Harburg and Finian’s Rainbow had a great influence on you as a young man. Where were you exactly when you first heard Finian’s Rainbow and how old were you?

SHELDON HARNICK: I went to Northwestern and in my first year there, I had one song in the student show performed by Charlotte Rae. Charlotte and I became dear friends. In our junior year, Charlotte went to New York and when she came back, she had the album of Finian’s. She said, “Sheldon, you of all people have to hear this,” because I didn’t know the show. So, I listened to it and thought, oh God, I just changed my whole career plan. I was studying violin at Northwestern and at that point I thought, I want to be a lyricist.

CRAIG CARNELIA:  What was it that got you? Was it a particular song, was it the style? What was it about Harburg’s work or his work with Burton Lane that – 

SHELDON HARNICK: What got me about Harburg’s work was the humor, the joy of it. Just to listen to it made me smile and the serious work too. He found a way to say serious things but in such a way that makes you listen, and I thought, what a career that would be, to try and follow in his footsteps. So, I just changed my whole idea of a career. Charlotte, after she graduated Northwestern, went to New York. I was in touch with her and when I decided to be a lyricist, I had to go to New York. It’s funny because if I were growing up today, I could stay in Chicago and be a lyricist but in that day—this was 1950—you had to come to New York. Charlotte was working at the Village Vanguard. Through a friend, she had gotten in touch with Yip Harburg and he was coming down to see her. So, if I wanted to meet him, I was to go down there that night. I did and I met him, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I said, “Can I play for you? I’d like you to hear my songs.” He said certainly. So, he invited me to his apartment. I went and used Charlotte’s pianist because I’m not a pianist and, oh, when I first came to New York, the first professional songwriter I saw was Harburg’s partner on the depression song [“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”].

CRAIG CARNELIA: What is his name? I know the name...

SHELDON HARNICK: You’ll think of it. I played for him, and he said, “You write good ballads and that’s what all producers want, so keep writing those ballads.” And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good advice.’


SHELDON HARNICK: Jay Gorney. When I played for Yip, I told him what Gorney had said. He said, “No no no, what producers want in a theatre lyricist is humorous songs and character songs.” He said, “It’s nice if you can write a good ballad, that never hurts, but really,” he said, “concentrate on the character songs and the comedy songs.” So that was quite a difference.

And he did something—the older I get and the deeper into show business, the more I realize how kind and how generous—about three days after I had played for him, I got a greeting card from him in the mail. On the cover was a woman playing the harp with her bare feet. It was amusing. But the message was, “Dear Sheldon, things will go well for you if you keep wanging that lyre.” Signed, Yip. And I treasured that, as you can imagine.


SHELDON HARNICK: When he died, I was very proud and pleased that I was asked to sing one of his serious ballads at his memorial service.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I knew Burton Lane very well, and I sang at his memorial, and it was, as you say, a great honor.

I saw you at the 92nd Street Y in the very first season of Lyrics and Lyricists on Valentine’s Day, 1970. I remember that in your introductory remarks you said that starting out you had felt uniquely qualified to be a lyricist because there were so many great lyricists whose names started with “Har”; Harbach, Hart, Harburg, and Harmerstein. I remember so much about that event. I was twenty and you spoke of Harburg and the seriousness and the wit and then you sang “In My Own Lifetime” from Rothschilds as evidence of how you can be writing a show that is entertaining and also has something important to say. When I was preparing for this interview, I went through all of your material, listening to everything I could get my hands on and studying your songbook. There’s a song in there that was cut from The Rothschilds called “Just A Map”. And it seemed to me that that song not only did that—was serious and had resonance way beyond The Rothschilds—but it actually spoke to what was happening in our own country at the time in 1970. I wondered why you cut it.

SHELDON HARNICK: I’m very proud of that song but in the various productions of The Rothschilds, we found that it just didn’t work in context. When it was done at the York in a reading about two years ago, we were able to use it and I was very pleased because I love that song. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: I’m going to go all the way back to the beginning now. When looking at the musicals you’ve written, it seemed to me that Jerry Bock didn’t really find his voice until Fiorello, so I’m going to start with Fiorello. Because in The Body Beautiful, to me, I could hear your voice, but I couldn’t hear Bock and Harnick yet. 

SHELDON HARNICK: Oh, that’s interesting. I miss him. I miss him a lot. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: He died, what? Four, five years ago?

SHELDON HARNICK: It could be that long, yeah. Could be. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: There are so many great songs in Fiorello, and it seems to have been one of those experiences where the whole team, (you, Jerry, George Abbot, Jerome Weidman, and Hal Prince) just clicked. What’s it like on a show like Fiorello, on a show like Fiddler, where you have all the right people and everybody’s doing the same show? What does that feel like?

SHELDON HARNICK: Well, coming off of The Body Beautiful, which didn’t work, and I was still learning a lot, especially learning about what makes a good book. I didn’t recognize all of the flaws in The Body Beautiful but it was a wonderful learning experience and happily, the failure of The Body Beautiful didn’t keep me from being hired for Fiorello.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Yes, happily. 

SHELDON HARNICK: Thanks to Hal Prince. As I recall, Hal had made up his own kind of competition. He gave about four songwriting teams the assignment to do several songs for Fiorello. We got scripts and were told where the songs went, what he wanted, and then we came in separately and auditioned. So, Jerry and I came in and we didn’t get the job that day but shortly after that, I found out that we had gotten the job and I was thrilled. Especially because like Harburg, what I really wanted to do was find shows that could be amusing and witty but at the same time said something I thought was important to be said.

I knew very little about LaGuardia. I knew he’d been the mayor of New York and I’d seen pictures of him going to fires with his fire chief hat on, things like that. Otherwise, I knew nothing about him. So, Jerry and I went, I think, to the Brooklyn Museum where we listened to speeches that he’d made. I was thrilled to find that he was a phrase maker and he loved colorful language. For a lyricist, of course, that’s such a gift. So, we started to work on it.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I hadn’t known that the song “A Little Tin Box” was written out of town, in Philadelphia. I’m always impressed when such a major song is written in that situation. I was also interested to learn that because you needed to move quickly on it you used a tune that Jerry had written for another song that was cut. 

SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah, it was one of the songs, as a matter of fact, that we had auditioned for the show with. The original lyric had something to do… oh, I remember… one of the events in [Fiorello] is that he enlists in the New American Air Force during World War I. I wanted to write a song that reflected that, so I did a song about birds. It was all about flight and birds and it didn’t work.
When we auditioned the song, Hal Prince at that time had a partner, Bobby Griffith. I sang this song and then, “Sheldon…” Bobby looked at me and he smiled, and he said, “You know, Oscar Hammerstein used to have a term for what was wrong with a song like this.” He said, “It suffers from research poisoning.” He said, “I listen to the song, and I can see you consulting your thesaurus about this bird and that bird and it’s just transparent.”

So, we didn’t use the song but while we were out of town, I remember Jerry had gone to a movie and I thought, I have an idea for “A Little Tin Box” and it would be useful if I had a form I could write to. And then I remembered that song about birds and the thing about it was that it had a lot of notes, and I needed a lot of notes so I used that and – 

CRAIG CARNELIA: So, it had the same structure of the verses?

SHELDON HARNICK: Same structure.

CRAIG CARNELIA: And then kind of a lilting, la-di-da chorus.

SHELDON HARNICK: And for some reason, the song—well, on the road, you tend to write faster. So, I finished it, and I met Jerry as he was coming out of the movie and I said, “We wrote a song tonight.” And he said, “How’s my music?” And I said, “I think you’ll like it.” And we went back to his hotel room and played it, and he loved it. So, we auditioned it for Griffith and Prince the next day and to our astonishment, they said “Yeah, okay, we’ll use it.” But there was no enthusiasm for it. I don’t even remember them smiling when we auditioned it for them, but they said “Yeah, we’ll use it.” And I think they were as surprised as anybody when it stopped the show. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: It’s a great moment. It’s as good a moment in that spot in a show as I know, to get an audience that enlivened close to the end. And the line, “up your honor, bit by bit,” was that a lyric, or – 

SHELDON HARNICK: That was an accident but once we did it, we screamed with laughter and said, “Should we leave it in?” And we thought, yes, we’ve got to.

CRAIG CARNELIA: So, in essence, it was a piece of vocal arranging that actually worked out to be a great joke. Then you went back and added the same “echo” pattern in the second verse to set up the device.

SHELDON HARNICK: Yes, but it was a pure accident. A God given accident. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: When I listened to Tenderloin, I hadn’t known the show. It is a great score, isn’t it?

SHELDON HARNICK: It’s a lovely score, yeah.

CRAIG CARNELIA: That overture is among the best I’ve ever heard. And there are – 

SHELDON HARNICK: I think that was Irwin Kostal. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: It was. There were so many great songs in Tenderloin. “Little Old New York,” “Artificial Flowers,” “Picture of Happiness,” “How the Money Changes Hands,” “My Miss Mary.”

SHELDON HARNICK: And you missed the most important thing of all about that show, that’s where I met my wife. Margie was in that show.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I didn’t know that. Was she still in the chorus in those days?

SHELDON HARNICK: When she auditioned, yeah, she was in the chorus, but George Abbott was in love with her talent, and he kept finding little things for her to do. Of the girls, the ladies of the evening, he gave her special bits of dialogue and because she sang so well, when there were solos, we immediately would go to her. And then shortly before Tenderloin closed, Abbott took her out of the show and put her into Fiorello, so she went right into Fiorello.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Oh, how nice. It’s always great for an actor when they can go from show to show. And so rare.


CRAIG CARNELIA: But I just love that score, I think it’s one of your best.

SHELDON HARNICK: I think it’s a wonderful score too. I wish that the book was better for that show.

CRAIG CARNELIA: What was it? Was it the story? The way the story was told? What was wrong?

SHELDON HARNICK: I’m not sure. It was based on a novel, and we stuck pretty close to what was in the novel, and it may be that the novel was not as good as we thought it was. That the story basically was not as strong as we thought it was.

CRAIG CARNELIA: You may have been seduced by the topic.

SHELDON HARNICK: By the topic and by the period because it’s such a political period.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Let’s talk about She Loves Me. Did you know when you began—did you and Jerry know—how musical it was going to be?

SHELDON HARNICK: No. Larry Kasha invited us to his office, and he told us about the project. Both Jerry and I had seen the film Shop Around the Corner and loved it, so we were thrilled. We said, “Who’s going to do the book?” And he said, “Well, I hope you’ll accept this idea because he’s a guy who’s never done a musical book before, but he has a play on Broadway. It’s his first produced play, his name is Joe Masteroff.” I think the play was called The Cold Wind and The Warm. He said, “Go see it.” So, we went to see it and thought Kasha is right, this is the guy to do the book. So, we talked about, we said “When you’re doing the book, just keep your mind open to spots that might be songs instead of dialogue. That’s as much help as we can give you.” And it turned out, not only in that show but in the subsequent shows that he wrote, Joe had a knack for musical writing, and knew intuitively where the songs were to come. So, the whole thing was a joy to write and again, it was Hal Prince. I don’t think Hal had a producing partner.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Griffith died in 1961, I believe.

SHELDON HARNICK: Oh, did he? So, it was just Hal, but Hal also directed it, and he was a wonderful director. I know that the cast loved working with him because he was stimulating, and he made them laugh and he trusted them.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I know he was very proud of that show and so sorry that it didn’t run longer than it did.

SHELDON HARNICK: We were heartsick. We all loved it. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: It’s a beauty.

SHELDON HARNICK: And we couldn’t imagine why audiences were not buying it. After about four or five months, business noticeably fell off and we closed I think after eight and a half or nine and a half months. So it wasn’t that long a run, and we were heartsick. About a year went by with no productions and then there was a production I think in Connecticut—I’m not remembering where— a successful production. Then, little by little through the years, there were more and more productions. What was very rewarding was Jerry Bock, Joe Masteroff, and I would invariably get a letter from the cast saying, “We don’t know why this didn’t run longer on Broadway, but our audiences love it.” And for a while, no matter where it was done, Alaska, wherever, I would go see it because I just love the show. Through the years, it’s been very interesting to see how it’s become a standard show.

CRAIG CARNELIA: It really has.

SHELDON HARNICK: It wasn’t originally, but by now it’s a standard show. Margie and I went to London a year ago, two years ago to see the production there and it was gorgeous, we just loved it.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Well, the two Roundabout revivals have been extraordinary for the show. They seem to have established She Loves Me as the classic it deserves to be. 

SHELDON HARNICK: And this last production for me was terrific because the stage door of the theatre was across the street from the stage door where Fiddler was playing.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Oh, isn’t that wonderful? To just walk out of one and into another and know that you have made that happen. That was a hell of a season when you had the two revivals. Did that feel good? 

SHELDON HARNICK: It felt wonderful and when I would be visiting Fiddler, as I was leaving, I would say, “Ask me where I’m going.” It was across the street. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: So, when in your process did you find out that She Loves Me was going to be so musical? 

SHELDON HARNICK: When we really got into it, I think. I don’t remember whether Jerry and I realized it at the same time or whether I realized it first, but the more I got into the book, the more I kept saying, “Oh my God, this could be a song, this could be a song.” But we had to be careful because we were afraid that we would drown the audience in music. When we went on the road for our pre-Broadway tryout, my memory is that we cut a lot because there was just much too much music. In an Andrew Lloyd Weber show, there aren’t that many songs but each one is developed extensively so that there’s a great deal of music, but you don’t have too many themes. That’s what we were afraid of, that there would be too many themes for the audience to digest. So, we tried to extend the numbers and make them complex so that there wouldn’t be too many of them, but yes, we did want to make the show as musical as possible. I remember one of the wonderful things. We went to Barbara Cook one morning and played her “Ice Cream.” She said, “Let’s put it in tonight.” And I said, “Barbara, you won’t have time to learn the song.” She said, “Look, I’m writing a letter, a lot of the lyric is right in front of me. I can do that. Can Don Walker do the orchestration that quickly?” He did and she put it in that night and stopped the show with it, it was just extraordinary.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Something that I was so impressed by when I saw this last revival is that “Ice Cream” goes right to “She Loves Me.” You have these two astounding songs one after the other and they are companion pieces for the two people (each one in private) realizing they are now a couple. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing.

SHELDON HARNICK: The second act score, I look at it and think, oh boy, I was good. Because then there’s “Trip to The Library,” there’s “Grand Knowing You,” it was just one song after another. And Jack Cassidy—I can’t think of any actor who is missed more than he is. He brought a quality to the stage that was just irreplaceable. As a matter of fact, I owe Jack my collaboration with Jerry Bock.


SHELDON HARNICK: Jerry had a lyricist and I think they got the job we all wanted which was to do the first act of the Sammy Davis musical, Mr. Wonderful. But his partner froze on the road, so they had to call in another lyricist. At the end of that experience, even though that show was a hit, they broke up as a team. Around the same time, I was called in to add lyrics to Shangri La. Jack Cassidy was in that show and Jack came to me and said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine, he’s writing but I think he’s going to break up with his lyricist, I’d like him to meet you.” So, Jack introduced us, and we got along terrifically right from the very beginning.

CRAIG CARNELIA: You’ve said that you didn’t find your lyrical voice in a love song until you wrote the title song for She Loves Me, that your love songs before then hadn’t been representative of what you actually had to say about love. Do you remember saying that?

SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah, I think that’s true. Love songs are the hardest thing for me to write, to just put that part of myself that would create a love song, make that available to me and put it into the song. So, it was hard but for one reason or another, eventually I learned how to do it or learned, that’s not the way to put it. Eventually, I became comfortable doing it.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Why do you think it was hard for you? 

SHELDON HARNICK: For the same reason that in life I found it difficult to relate to women, I think. I could relate to women by making jokes and making them laugh but a serious relationship, my first marriage broke up. My wife actually had gone to Europe with I think there was a production of Oklahoma that went to Europe, so she toured with it and while she was gone, I realized the marriage was not working. When she came back, it was over. I was just not comfortable. Which gives me an opportunity to bless therapy because I went into therapy, and it freed me and allowed me to love. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: Yes, bless therapy. When I read about you finding your lyrical voice in a love song for the first time, I went back and looked at some love songs you’d written before that and I found two noted ones, meaning ones the world had heard a lot of. There had been some gorgeous songs that were on the fringe of being a love song like “My Gentle Young Johnny” which is a total success. 

SHELDON HARNICK: The reason that “My Gentle Young Johnny” has such a good lyric is that I listened to that music that Jerry wrote, and thought, where did that come from? 

CRAIG CARNELIA: The ache in that tune is gorgeous, isn’t it?

SHELDON HARNICK: Couldn’t wait to do the lyric for it. You know that feeling? 

CRAIG CARNELIA: Oh, I do. Every once in a while, Marvin Hamlisch would hand me something and it would be such a pleasure writing the lyric for it that I would actually make it take a couple of days longer just because it felt good.

SHELDON HARNICK: I understand. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: But I looked back and what I found were two songs, there’s one in The Body Beautiful, “All These and More,” which is very songwriter-y. It’s the way people wrote songs, you know?

SHELDON HARNICK: That’s a good way to put it, songwriter-y. I don’t know that adjective, yeah.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I think I may have just made it up. But the other one is a very successful and famous song that still is heard today, “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello. When I studied it in preparation for today, I found a line that is completely your voice, “When did it start, this change of heart?” And then I found one, “Where was the blinding flash? Where was the crashing chord?” which seems not to be authentically you. Is that what you meant about not yet finding your lyrical voice in a love song? 


CRAIG CARNELIA: So, it’s as if when we haven’t yet accessed a part of ourselves, we may still have the craft... 

SHELDON HARNICK: And the poetic imagination. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: But what you’re saying about the song “She Loves Me” is that you found a way to let your wit work for you, to actually have it help you express how in love with her you are and how genuinely happy. In “All These and More,” the peppy tempo and the poetic imagery are working hard to convince us of those things, but in “She Loves Me” they’re true.  

SHELDON HARNICK: I remember when I wrote that lyric, I thought, my God, that’s really me. That’s the way I feel about myself and it’s in the song now.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Let’s look at Fiddler. I have a quote from you. “I was so filled with ideas and thoughts and feelings that I frequently had the lovely experience of being given a melody and then having the words crystallize on it.”

SHELDON HARNICK: I had been reading stories by Sholom Aleichem and when I read the Tevye stories, I thought, I think there’s a musical in this, and I sent them to Jerry. He responded as I did, and we thought, who would be the right person to do the book? Joe Stein. So – and Joe Stein of course had read the Sholom Aleichem stories in Yiddish when he was a young man, so he was thrilled. But because it was a Jewish show, we were worried about it and worried about the audience while at the same time, we were very excited about it. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: You mean worried about the show having a wide enough audience? 

SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah. A broad enough audience. But once we started to work on it, it just reminded me so constantly of my experience growing up in Chicago and going to our local synagogue. When I started going there, we didn’t have an actual synagogue, it was a hall above a secretarial school that they had rented. That was our synagogue. That’s where I was bar mitzvahed. And it was remarkable because they were not wealthy people who constituted our synagogue, but they scraped enough money together to buy an abandoned church that was in the neighborhood and that became the synagogue which I attended for a while before I kind of drifted away. But working on Fiddler just reminded me of the people I had met, the crush I had had. There was a girl that went to the Hebrew school who had wonderful auburn curly locks and I just loved her; I couldn’t wait to go to Hebrew school to see her. We were like ten or eleven years old. Everything came back to me. It was just a joy and Jerry Bock kept feeding me these wonderful tunes, one after the other. Somewhere in some book or another, I have a list of which came first, the music or the lyrics in all the songs we wrote. But Jerry was calling on his own Jewish Hungarian background and just writing and writing and writing. It was such a fulfilling and enriching experience.

CRAIG CARNELIA: So, in terms of your process with Jerry, sometimes it was music first, sometimes it was lyric first?

SHELDON HARNICK: It was almost always music first. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: The idea first and then the music or just the music? 

SHELDON HARNICK: No, Jerry used to go into his studio and, when he knew what the book was, he’d look through it and find…then he would send me a tape. And on the tape, there might be a dozen tunes and each one would start with, “Shel, I think this is for the butcher in such and such a scene, this I think is for that scene. And this is for something else.” I would listen, and think, no, it’s not, this has got to be for someplace else. But he would always preface each one and then of course do it with just didle didle deedle didle dum, no lyrics. 

CRAIG CARNELIA:  A device you then used to great effect in “If I Were a Rich Man.”

SHELDON HARNICK: Oh, yes. And by the time I finished any tape, Jerry was very generous, and this is not to denigrate Jerry in any way, but on any tape of maybe a dozen tunes, if there were two that I really loved, that was plenty. It was a wonderful way to start because of those two tunes, I was so enthusiastic about them, I couldn’t wait to start setting lyrics to them. And he had given me maybe three or four of those tapes, so that we were able to accumulate maybe six or eight songs before I even started to write some of the others, lyrics first. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: When I look at the Fiddler score, every song does what it’s there to do. It’s so impressive. One of my very favorites is “Do You Love Me?” I remember hearing at the 92nd Street Y 50 years ago what your process had been on that. That you had written what seemed like a conversation and you handed it to Jerry and said, “Do what you have to do.” But then he was able to musicalize it exactly as you wrote it.

SHELDON HARNICK: I thought I was going to have to rewrite it because I couldn’t see it as a form. I could but I thought it looks like a scene, not a song, and the fact that he found a way to make it into a song I thought was remarkable.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I remember you saying that it was your parents.


CRAIG CARNELIA: That they probably never said “I love you.” 

SHELDON HARNICK: Now that I look back, I can’t remember ever thinking, asking myself whether my parents were in love. That was a given. I thought, they’re married, so married people have to be in love. And although there were a lot of arguments, especially during the ‘30s, during the Depression there were a lot of fights. In fact, some fights, my brother would go hide under his bed, he couldn’t bear it. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: Tell me about “Tevye’s Dream.” Whose idea was that? It is so crazy. 

SHELDON HARNICK: “Tevye’s Dream.” When I read the Tevye stories and I knew that Jerry and I wanted to adapt them, we were thrilled to find the dream. It’s in the stories.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Is it? And Tevye does it to manipulate Golde into thinking that she’s the one who’s having the idea? 

SHELDON HARNICK: Exactly. Yeah. We had no idea what Jerome Robbins would do with it. Of all the Fiddler productions I’ve seen around the world, “Tevye’s Dream” is always the most interesting thing because directors just love it. They love to find ways to realize every bit of it and to add to it if possible. But it was Sholom Aleichem’s idea.

CRAIG CARNELIA: It’s so theatrical. It’s surprising that it came from literature because it’s a great musical theatre idea. 

SHELDON HARNICK: Well, he was a musical theatre man. 


SHELDON HARNICK: He was a theatre man, anyway. Not successful, not successful enough, but a theatre man.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Tell me about The Apple Tree. The first act of Apple Tree is my personal favorite of anything you guys wrote. 


CRAIG CARNELIA: The Diary of Adam and Eve.

SHELDON HARNICK: It may be of mine too. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: I got to act in it in college, I played Adam. And just playing that role taught me a lot about lyric writing. There are so many things I love about your work but the greatest thing I’ve learned from you is about the weight of syllables, your syllables always have exactly the right weight. It’s as if they sit all by themselves on the music in exactly the right way.

SHELDON HARNICK: That’s lovely to hear. But that would be because I’m also a very good musician. And so in putting lyrics to music, the lyric, the word, the syllable has to fill out the note correctly and it would bother me if it didn’t. So that must be the reason for your reaction to that.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I’m always surprised when lyricists aren’t musical people, when they don’t play an instrument or sing because writing lyrics has always seemed to me to have so much to do with being able to make that music yourself. You, for instance, you’re a great singer. Of all the songwriters, you’re up there with Johnny Mercer, being able to perform your own stuff so brilliantly. 

SHELDON HARNICK: Thank you, I love to sing.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Are you still studying? I know you did. 

SHELDON HARNICK: As a matter of fact, my singing teacher died about two months ago so I’m still vocalizing every day, but I don’t have lessons anymore. I was with her for, I don’t know, twenty years. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: I know the history of The Apple Tree, that it was always three one acts based on short stories, but originally the stories were by Bruce J. Friedman, one by Hawthorn, and one by Mark Twain, The Diary of Adam and Eve. But when Mike Nichols came in to direct, you dropped two of the stories and replaced them with Jules Feiffer’s Passionella, and Frank Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger.

SHELDON HARNICK: I think The Lady or the Tiger was our idea. But Passionella, Nichols had already done a version of. He had directed it for a brief run I think one summer with not a full score but a few songs by Sondheim.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Oh yes, I’ve heard that.

SHELDON HARNICK: So, he had done it, he knew about it and when Jerry and I read it, we just loved it. But we debated. Even when we were out of town, we debated on whether or not to drop The Lady or the Tiger.

CRAIG CARNELIA: And just have the two stories?

SHELDON HARNICK: Yes. I still don’t know whether that would have been a better idea.

CRAIG CARNELIA: But the common theme you had with The Lady or the Tiger and Adam and Eve was the battle of the sexes and you lost that link with Passionella, and that would seem to have been a big loss when looking to make three one acts cohesive.

SHELDON HARNICK: That’s right. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: It leaves you trying to find glue in repeated references like “a house painted brown” or “sons of old Adam,” which are fun, but which may not have enough fiber to justify why these three stories are together.

SHELDON HARNICK: You’re absolutely right. We were actually uncertain about the whole idea. I remember how it started. I called Jerry one day. “How are you? What are you doing?” And he said, “Well, I’ve been reading a lot of short stories. You know, I think we should see whether we could make a musical out of adapting several short stories.” I thought, what an interesting idea, so we did it.

CRAIG CARNELIA: It is interesting. As a writer, I’ve always been attracted to things that are fragmented, but audiences seem to be resistant to starting over.

SHELDON HARNICK: It’s probably why revues are so hard to do. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: Well, they’re only as good as the moment you’re seeing. 

SHELDON HARNICK: Every time it ends, the curtain comes down, now it’s a new show.

CRAIG CARNELIA: How did The Rothschilds come about?

SHELDON HARNICK: I don’t remember who suggested it. I remember Fred Morton had written a successful book, The Rothschilds. The idea might have come from Hilly Elkins, the producer, who got the book. But when I read the book, I just found it so rich. I thought, oh yes, this is very definitely a musical. And Jerry responded the same way I did. There’s something else connected with it which I’m blocking on, but it was a good experience and especially because it was a serious show and as I say, I was always looking for work where I could be both serious and at the same time write lyrics that would have humor, where the word selection would be interesting and the opportunity for some poetic thoughts. The Rothschilds had all of that, so, it was great fun to write. And I had never worked with Hal Linden. I had seen him. Margie was in Anything Goes off-Broadway and I went down to see it and Hal Linden came on and within five minutes, I thought, oh, he’s wonderful. I don’t know who he is but he’s great. When we got to work with him in The Rothschilds, it was a thrill. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: You told me once privately about the incident that occurred on Rothschilds that either showed you that something was wrong in your relationship with Jerry or that caused it to go wrong. Do you remember what it was?


CRAIG CARNELIA: You had a protocol where when you’re writing together, you show each other the work before you show it to the director, even when that’s inconvenient, even when you’re rushing, you show it to your collaborator, you talk about it, and then you show it to the director. I remember you told me that you gave Jerry a lyric and the director came to you the next day and said, “I like your new song.” And you hadn’t heard it. What was the song?

SHELDON HARNICK: It’s too long ago, I can’t remember. I’m trying to remember even – our first director was the Englishman who got fired and then we had Michael Kidd who was wonderful. Derek Colby, that was our first director, and I don’t remember which of those two people had told me about hearing our new song. And I was just annoyed because Jerry and I didn’t work that way, but I don’t think that I read into it any more than annoyance. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: So, why do you think you didn’t work together after that? 

SHELDON HARNICK: Well, I know that all along, Jerry – the first work of Jerry’s I heard was songs where he wrote his own lyrics.


SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah. And after we broke up, I knew all along that Jerry wanted to write lyrics. I think the year he died or the year before he died, he was part of two or three people who collaborated on a lyric that won either an Emmy Award or a Grammy Award. He was just thrilled with that, but he wanted to write lyrics. And we still got along as friends.

I’m trying to remember why our relationship broke up. One of the reasons, we had this British director, this young man who was not as capable as our producer had thought he was, Derek Colby. He and Jerry became very, very close friends on The Rothschilds, they spent an awful lot of time together. When it was decided that Derek had to go, that he was not experienced enough to take charge of the show and guide us in the direction it had to go to be successful, he was fired. Jerry was furious. He was furious with all of us. And I think that was the reason for the breakup.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I know that you and Jerry wrote a song together after that for the Fiddler film. Did that seem to suggest that maybe you’d be working together again?

SHELDON HARNICK: Yes, I thought so. In fact, I told that to our publisher, that I thought, “Jerry and I are writing together again,” but Jerry wasn’t interested. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: Tell me about Dragons. That seems to have been a labor of love for a long time.

SHELDON HARNICK: That’s exactly what it is. The play it’s based on was written by a man named Yevgeny Schwartz who had suffered through the siege of Leningrad, really horrendous suffering. And after the war, as he wrote in the forward, he began to think, “After all of that suffering, why should we continue to suffer under Stalin?” So, he decided to write an anti-Stalinist play. The first act was really more or less about the Tsars and was wonderful, but the second act, which was about Stalin, just fell apart. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: The play was allegorical, wasn’t it?

SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah, it was an allegory. The villain of the piece is the mayor of this small town in the Middle Ages where there are still dragons and the mayor winds up taking over the town and becoming Stalin. So, I thought I would love to work on this, but I can see we’re going to have to rethink the second act and I’m not a playwright. So, I asked Joe Stein, who read the play and said, “Why don’t you do it?” And I thought, oh my God. But I do love the first act, so let me see what I can do. I started to work on the second act, but I had to be a playwright, and that’s why it’s taken so many years for it to get on. In fact, about seven or eight years ago, I abandoned it. I thought, I can’t do this; I can’t write this second act. And then about two or three years ago, Jim Morgan at the York wanted to do a series of a lot of my different things, and I thought, well, what about Dragons? So, I read it and when I read it after having abandoned it, I thought, oh, now I know how to finish it. So, I finished it and when I saw it, I was really pleased with it and as a matter of fact, I’m in the process of making a demo and I’m going to see whether I can get it on.

CRAIG CARNELIA: What was it like to do your own music after all those years? I know you had done your own music for your great revue songs before you got together with Jerry Bock, but now you’re writing a full musical? What is that like?

SHELDON HARNICK: I started and was just scared to death, but I enjoyed it, it was fun. I have no piano technique so I had to buy a piano that I could use with earphones, otherwise I knew I would drive Margie crazy by playing things over and over and over again. When I think back on it, it was so stimulating, it was such fun. Although I was constantly worried and constantly pleased, if that makes any sense.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Of course, it makes sense. I’m never pleased and worried in the same moment, but I am alternately pleased and worried in everything I write.

SHELDON HARNICK: Yes, alternately.
CRAIG CARNELIA: It’s A Wonderful Life. What a great show idea and what a natural for you. And your composer, Joe Raposo, did such a good job.

SHELDON HARNICK: Well, when I met Joe, as a matter of fact, I had gone I think it was to Boston to see a production of She Loves Me and Joe Raposo was the orchestra. It was just Joe and a drum. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Joe’s work as a pianist, but he was an extraordinary pianist. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: I’m not, I just knew him from his famous Sesame Street work.

SHELDON HARNICK: He had studied in Paris with a famous French pedagogue and lived in her home and studied with her.


SHELDON HARNICK: Nadia Boulange. And then she was furious with him because he wanted to write musicals, so he left her. Anyway, when I met him, we got along beautifully right from the beginning. I love to work with fine pianists and Joe was just remarkable. And then when I found out what a splendid composer he was, I’m not sure where the idea to do Wonderful Life came from, whether it was my idea or what, but we started to work on it. Joe’s setting of my lyrics, the one problem with it, Joe tended to do too much. Because he was such a schooled composer, it was as though he was constantly looking to extend things so I would have to suggest, “How about if we cut this? How would that strike you?” That was the one problem with that score. Then I remember when he got cancer and the end was in sight, I copied out the whole score. He just wasn’t capable of it. It was very painful, going to visit him in the hospital.

CRAIG CARNELIA: He died young, didn’t he? 

SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah. I think he was maybe in his fifties. He was a big bear of a man [who] loved to laugh and had a lovely sense of humor. He was so energetic and filled with ideas. He was wonderful to work with. It was a great loss. 

CRAIG CARNELIA: I just have a couple of more questions for you. What was it like, being part of—or rather, did you know you were part of a great new generation of writers with Sondheim, Cy Coleman, Jerry Herman, Strouse and Adams, Jones and Schmidt, and a couple of years later, Kander and Ebb? Did you know you were part of something? 

SHELDON HARNICK: I never thought of it that way. I think maybe without even thinking about it, I preferred to think of it as being part of a field that went from Gilbert to all the others.

CRAIG CARNELIA: So, a continuum, not a generation.

SHELDON HARNICK: That’s exactly the right word. It was a continuum, that I was part of a continuum and hoped that I could make a place for myself in that continuum. I remember when I first came to New York, my brother called one day. “Would you like to see a backers audition?” And I knew nothing about anything, I’d never seen a backers’ audition, so I went to see a show and I had never heard of the composer/lyricist. At the end, I went to my brother and said, “I think I should go back to Chicago. If the unknowns in New York write like this guy writes, then I won’t have a chance here.” He said, “Well, let me introduce you to him.” He said “Sheldon, I’d like you to meet Steve Sondheim.” 

CRAIG CARNELIA: Was it Saturday Night?

SHELDON HARNICK: Yeah, it was Saturday Night.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Well, there are a couple of songs in there that could make anybody feel “less than.” You said you hoped to be part of that continuum. Do you think you have been?

SHELDON HARNICK: Oh yeah, oh yeah. And it fills me with pride. But I was aware also of the guys I considered my contemporaries like Strouse and Adams, Sondheim – but more along the lines of a continuum, with Frank Loesser… so many wonderful lyricists… Yip, of course.

CRAIG CARNELIA: For me, I knew when I heard – I was maybe eight years old, I was in the kitchen and I heard “Standing on The Corner” coming out of the radio and I thought, I don’t know what this is but boy, I want to be a part of this. I had no idea what it was, I just fell in love with songs when I heard that. 

SHELDON HARNICK: That’s wonderful.

CRAIG CARNELIA: Loesser was extraordinary, wasn’t he?

SHELDON HARNICK: So, you decided young to be a songwriter.

CRAIG CARNELIA: I don’t think I even knew what that was yet, but I knew I loved songs and I knew I loved to sing them, and six years later, I started to write them. 

So, tell me if you can, what’s the best thing that ever happened?




CRAIG CARNELIA: What’s the second-best thing?


CRAIG CARNELIA: Isn’t that great? So, happiness at home has always been –

SHELDON HARNICK: Probably the best thing. The second-best thing was meeting Jerry Bock and the worst thing that happened was when Jerry decided to go his own way. 

I’m trying to remember an anecdote he told me which was very funny – if I think of it, I’ll –

CRAIG CARNELIA: You will, it’s right there. 

SHELDON HARNICK: It’s practically there. He went somewhere…Iceland, that’s where he went. Iceland used to honor a composer every year and they honored Jerry one year. He went to Iceland, and he came back, and I said, “How was it?” He said, “It was great. Their symphony and chorus played our songs. They changed one of your lyrics, though.” I said, “They did?” He said, “Yeah, they sang ‘Sunrise, Sunrise.’” That’s Jerry.

Craig Carnelia
Craig Carnelia

 is a composer/lyricist. Broadway - Music and Lyrics: Working; Is There Life After High School? Lyrics: Sweet Smell of Success; Imaginary Friends. Off-Broadway - 3 Postcards (Playwrights Horizons). Regional - Poster Boy (Williamstown); Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief (Goodspeed). Longtime Council member of the Dramatists Guild of America.