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In Appreciation: Sheldon Harnick

One of the last masters of Broadway’s Golden Age, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick, has died. He wrote Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello!, among other musicals. He died Friday in New York City of natural causes, according to his publicist. He was 99.

Whether he was writing about New York politician Fiorello LaGuardia, perfume shop employees in Budapest, or a Jewish dairyman in pre-revolutionary Russia, Harnick always wrote lyrics for specific characters in specific situations.

Harnick’s career extended for over 60 years. He came to New York from Chicago in 1950 and began writing songs – both music and lyrics – for topical revues on and off Broadway.

Harnick recalled that it was another famous lyricist, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, the writer of Finian’s Rainbow and The Wizard of Oz, who gave him some great career advice, after hearing some of Harnick’s tunes.

He said, Harnick recounted, “‘In my experience, there are more capable theater composers than there are theater lyricists, so you will get invitations to work with other people, besides yourself.’ He said, ‘Take those invitations. It can facilitate your career.'”

After a couple of partnerships, Harnick met composer Jerry Bock through a mutual friend. They hit it off and Harnick signed with Bock’s publisher, Tommy Valando.

“And Tommy worked an actual miracle!” Harnick exclaimed. “He got Jerry and me the job of writing the songs for a new musical called The Body Beautiful, even though Jerry and I had never written a song together, which is still astonishing to me!”

The Body Beautiful was a flop, but producer and director Hal Prince liked their work and hired them for a musical called Fiorello!, which won them a Pulitzer. Prince worked together with Bock and Harnick on four shows; Prince directed She Loves Me and produced Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof was directed by Jerome Robbins. Prince says Robbins wasn’t satisfied with the original opening number from Fiddler, a song called “We Haven’t Missed a Sabbath Yet,” because it didn’t explain what the show was about.

“We met and we met and we met,” Prince explained, “and each time he’d say, ‘But what’s it about? What’s it about?’ And finally Sheldon – I’ve never heard him lose his temper before – said ‘Oh, for God’s sakes, Jerry, it’s about tradition!’ And Jerry said, ‘That’s it! That’s what it’s about. Write the opening number.'”

So Bock and Harnick wrote “Tradition.” It became the longest-running musical in Broadway history, a record that stood for a decade. Bock and Harnick worked together on a couple more shows, then their partnership broke up. Harnick worked with other composers, among them Richard Rodgers and Michel Legrand. In addition to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” the score included a number of songs that would soon be regarded as classics, including “Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and Tevye’s humorously wistful lament “If I Were a Rich Man” (“There would be one long staircase just going up/ And one even longer coming down/ And one more leading nowhere, just for show”).

Among the Bock-Harnick team’s other noteworthy efforts was “She Loves Me” (1963), based on the same Hungarian play that was the basis for the movies “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In the Good Old Summertime” and “You’ve Got Mail.” The story of two workers at a perfume shop in Budapest (Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey) who finally realize that they have been trading romantic letters and that they are meant for each other, “She Loves Me” had no showstopping songs and was not initially a big success, closing after 301 performances. But it has grown in popularity after a series of revivals — although Broadway productions in 1993 and 2016 were equally brief.

Their other shows included “The Apple Tree” (1966), three musical playlets (including one about Adam and Eve) directed by Mike Nichols, and “The Rothschilds” (1970), based on Frederic Morton’s biography of the Jewish family that rose from the ghetto to become a financial powerhouse.

It was a dispute over who would direct “The Rothschilds” that ended the Bock-Harnick partnership. The show’s original director, Derek Goldby, was replaced by Michael Kidd at the urging of Mr. Harnick and others who wanted someone with more musical-theater experience. Mr. Bock was irate.

“Jerry felt that Derek had gotten a raw deal,” Mr. Harnick recalled in 1990. “For a while, the feelings between us were very bad.” He added that “things changed for the better” when “Fiorello!” was revived in 1985 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and he and Mr. Bock met there to work on it. (It was revived again off Broadway in 2016.)