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Sheldon Harnick, Broadway Lyricist, 99

Wed, 06/28/2023 - 18:49

April 30, 1924 - June 23, 2023

Margery Gray Harnick

Sheldon Harnick, whose wildly successful Broadway musical about an insular Jewish village trying to survive in early 20th-century Czarist Russia has delighted audiences in France, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Israel, Germany, Rhodesia, and dozens of other countries where tradition, like the song, runs deep, died on Friday at his Upper West Side apartment. Mr. Harnick, who was 99, and his wife, Margery Gray, were longtime homeowners in East Hampton.

The musical, of course, was “Fiddler on the Roof,” which may well outlive its almost-centenarian lyricist by several centuries. In America, innumerable high school drama clubs, community centers, and regional theaters have staged it. In Japan, where its universal themes — conflict between young and old, the expectations of ancestral custom, the fear of change — have resonated possibly more than anywhere else, it has been performed somewhere every year for the past 55 years.

Surprisingly, “Fiddler,” which opened in 1964 and ran for eight years without a break, was not a hit in its tryouts in Detroit and Washington, D.C. The story goes that Jerome Robbins, its director, disliked the opening number, something about baking challah, and kept asking Mr. Harnick and his partner, the composer Jerry Bock, what the show was really about, until Mr. Harnick blurted out, “It’s about tradition.”

“That’s it,” Mr. Robbins cried. “Write that!”

Mr. Harnick’s Broadway career began with “The Boston Beguine,” a slyly satirical song for a highly buttoned-up era, in a revue called “New Faces of 1952.”

I met him in Bos-ton,

In the native quar-tah

He was from Hah-vahd

Just across the bordah . . .

How could we hope to enjoy

All the pleasures ahead

When the books we should have read

Were all suppressed in Boston!

He went on, in the course of a career that didn’t wind down until about five years ago, to win three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize in Drama (for “Fiorello!,” a riotous musical about corruption during the reign of Mayor “Little Flower” La Guardia of New York City). That show ran for almost two years, with 795 performances. Other successes during the 1960s, though not as long-running, were “She Loves Me,” “The Apple Tree,” and “The Rothschilds.”

The 1960s were a particularly creative decade for Mr. Harnick, who sometimes performed his own songs, then and later, at various venues around town — nightclubs, private parties, and, memorably, at the 92nd Street Y. There, to the cheers and tears of a standing-room-only audience, he accompanied himself on the piano one night singing some of his favorites, including one, often mistakenly attributed to Tom Lehrer, that was written not long after he graduated from Northwestern University (where he majored in violin), called “The Merry Minuet.” 

        

The whole world is festering

With unhappy souls

The French hate the Germans,

The Germans hate the Poles

Italians hate Yugoslavs,

South Africans hate the Dutch

And I don’t like anybody very much.

       

Performing that night at the Y for a maybe 99-percent Jewish audience, he almost blew the rafters off the roof with a song that was cut from “Fiddler” not long before it opened, “When Messiah Comes.”

       

When Messiah comes, he will say to us,

I apologize that I took so long,

But I had a little trouble finding you,

Over here a few and over there a few . . .

 

When Messiah comes, he will say to us

I was worried sick if you’d last or not

And I spoke to God and said, would that be fair

If Messiah came and there was no one there . . .

 

Interviewed by The Star in 2012, Mr. Harnick said that when he and Ms. Gray — a painter, photographer, and actress who met him during tryouts for “Tenderloin” in the late 1950s — were at their much-loved house off Egypt Lane here, they both preferred to work rather than take it easy. “We discovered that if we wanted to, we could become part of the party crowd or we could work, which is what we wanted to do,” he said. “So we never got into the party scene.”

That was not strictly true, if you count the many local benefits at which he entertained over the years. Both he and Ms. Gray lent their talents to Guild Hall in particular, starting in 1971 when Mr. Harnick performed there in a reprise of the show at the Y, again a sellout, and continuing to 2004, when he appeared on the John Drew Theater stage with the cabaret singer KT Sullivan in “His Words Are Music.”

During Guild Hall’s long-running Joys of Summer benefits, a series of elaborate dinner parties held in private houses with celebrity honorees, he was often the star attraction, and would play and sing afterward. At a Guild Hall auction held in 1984, Ms. Gray donated a painting; another prize was “a Sheldon Harnick song to be composed ‘Just for You,’ “ the buyer.

Other good causes that Mr. Harnick supported over the years included the Montauk Village Association, which would advertise him as a “celebrity bartender” at its annual Greenery Scenery fund-raiser; the Hampton Classic Horse Show, where he entertained on a rainy opening day in 1990 with another song that never made it into “Fiddler” — a lament by Tevye about his horse — and an evening at Canio’s Books, again in 1990, when “several lyricists sang songs not usually heard.” Mr. Harnick’s, called “The Shape of Things,” used geometric shapes to describe the relationships of the people in the song — circle, square, and, of course, the romantic triangle.

Sheldon Mayer Harnick was born in Chicago on April 30, 1924, to the former Esther Kanter and Harry Harnick, a dentist. His first marriage was annulled; his second, to the writer and comedian Elaine May, ended in divorce after one year. His third, to Ms. Gray on Oct. 9, 1965, was a very happy one; a close friend, who requested privacy, called it “a real love story.” They were together for 58 years.

Ms. Gray, who, said the friend, held her husband in her arms as he died, survives. He also leaves a daughter, Beth Dorn of Malibu, Calif., a son, Matt Harnick of East Hampton, and four grandchildren, Vaughan, Melody, Heather, and Ashley.

There was no funeral. A celebration of life is planned, and will be announced at a future date.

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