Interview with Sheldon Harnick

Posted on: February 8th, 2016 by Ted Sod

Roundabout Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed renowned lyricist Sheldon Harnick about the development of She Loves Me and the significance of its latest revival.

Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick

Ted Sod: Will you give us some background information on yourself. When and where were you born? Where were you educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you? When did you decide to write lyrics for the theatre and why?

Sheldon Harnick: I was born in Chicago on April 30th, 1924, in an area called Portage Park. I went to Portage Park Grammar School, Carl Schurz High School, and Northwestern University. I studied violin with several teachers including Robert Quick, who had been the associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony. I don't know if any of my teachers had a profound influence on me, but I have fond memories of one grammar school teacher: Cora K. Schultz. She gave me a thorough grasp of English grammar, for which I've always been grateful.

I thought I would make my living via the violin. One of the reasons I chose to go to Northwestern was to study with Mr. Quick. But the other reason was that they had a lavish annual student musical called The Waa-Mu Show. My first year at Northwestern, I placed one song in the show. It was performed by a gifted student who later took the professional name of Charlotte Rae and had a successful career in the theatre and television. In her junior year, she went to New York over the Christmas holiday. When she came back, she loaned me the cast album of Finian's Rainbow.

When I listened to it, I was dazzled by the lyrics of E.Y. ('Yip') Harburg. They were not only poetic and inventive, but some of them dealt with serious subjects in ways that were both playful and entertaining. Instead of a career as a violinist, I now wanted to write lyrics for the musical theatre.




TS: How did you and Jerry Bock get involved with writing the score for She Loves Me? What do you feel the musical is about?

SH: Producer Larry Kasha invited Jerry Bock and me to write the score for a musical based on the film The Shop Around the Corner. The book was to be written by playwright Joe Masteroff. Jerry and I admired Joe's work, so we were pleased.

To me, She Loves Me is about different types of relationships. The primary story is about Georg and Amalia, two shy and lonely people. Watching their relationship change from initial antagonism to romantic involvement is both amusing and touching. A second story is about Ilona, a girl who always seems to be attracted to handsome, sexually appealing cads. During the course of the play, she has to break away from the attractive but amoral villain of the piece, Steven Kodaly. Eventually, she meets someone who really cares for her, which is extremely gratifying.

A third story has to do with Mr. Maraczek, the owner of the shop in which the story takes place. He is an older man who discovers that his marriage is unraveling. His story ends on a melancholy note. After a near suicide, he becomes resigned to his renewed bachelorhood. He comes to realize that his relationships with his employees will have to make up for the relationship he no longer shares with his wife.


TS: How did you research the world of She Loves Me? Will you give us some insight into your process as a lyricist and how you and Jerry worked specifically on this project?

SH: Even though She Loves Me takes place in an “Eastern European City,” I did no research for this project, unless frequently watching The Shop Around the Corner counts as research. What I needed to know, I found in the film or in Joe’s libretto.

Since She Loves Me tells three love stories, my research consisted of recalling the various kinds of relationships I've experienced: what it feels like to be in love, the fear of rejection, experiencing infidelity, et al. In short, my research was to try to relive the feelings I've experienced as an emotional human being. And when the script called for me to deal with something I had never experienced (e.g. Maraczek's attempted suicide), I did what all writers do: I called upon my imagination.

Jerry Bock and I had a way of working that I've never employed with any other collaborator. When we knew what the source material was, we went into our respective studios and began to work. I studied the script to find the key emotional moments, or those moments which might be treated in an amusing way.

Jerry began to write melodies. When he had composed anywhere from eight to a dozen melodies, he would record them and send me a tape. On the tape, he would preface each melody with his notion of where a song might be used. For instance, he might say, "Shel, this song could be for Georg as he describes the excitement he is feeling about the blind date he's to have that night." So the first lyrics I wrote for any show we worked on were always written to melodies Jerry had given me. Eventually, I would write lyrics which Jerry then set to music.

Before I begin to write a lyric, I study the scene in which the character is to sing. I try to imagine what that character is thinking and feeling. I take into account that character's personality and background, his or her education and the way he or she speaks in the dialogue scenes. My idea of that character's diction must match the librettist's. Eventually, I write a variety of sentences and phrases, things that the character might say. At some point, those sentences and phrases begin to coalesce into verses. Once I establish a pattern for those verses that pleases me, I construct the song, always remaining conscious of how the words will sound when sung.


Set Design for SHE LOVES ME by David Rockwell

Set Design for SHE LOVES ME by David Rockwell

TS: What was the most challenging part of writing lyrics for She Loves Me? What part was the most fun?

SH: The greatest challenge was finding ways to incorporate into the lyrics the names of items one would find in a parfumerie. The most fun I had was putting words to those melodies of Jerry's which captivated me (e.g. “Tonight at Eight”).


TS: Do you relate personally to any one of the characters in She Loves Me and, if so, which one and why?

SH: Since I explore all facets of my own personality when I'm writing lyrics, I related personally to all of the characters in She Loves Me: Georg and Amalia's shyness, Arpad's ambition, Kodaly's vanity, Ilona's neediness, etc. etc.


TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director and musical director when She Loves Me is being revived? Were you involved with casting? Will you be involved with rehearsals?

SH: I would want the musical director of She Loves Me to have the same capabilities he must have to music direct any musical of mine. He must be a fine musician, a good conductor, and someone who has demonstrated a feeling for the requirements of musical theatre. To direct the show, I would hope to find someone who has shown that he or she understands the rhythms of a musical; someone who is especially strong at working with actors. I would expect this director to give the production an attractive set and effective lighting. Scott Ellis fits those requirements perfectly. Consequently, I know Scott will cast the show wonderfully without my help.

Although I expect to attend rehearsals, I don't expect to play an active role. All the work of creating the show has been done. Experience has taught me that I will be able to give the actors pointers that will help them perform their songs more effectively.


TS: This is a very big season for you and the late Jerry Bock. There are three revivals of your musicals this year. She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, and Rothschild and Sons will all be seen. To what degree are you involved in NYC revivals of your work?

SH: In most revivals, I've been fortunate enough to have first-rate directors, so there's not much need for input from me. However, Rothschild and Sons was not really a revival. It was an extensive rethinking of the show, changing it from a large cast, two-act musical to a one-act musical with a cast of 11. It needed new songs, new reprises and a good deal of new dialogue. So Sherman Yellen (who wrote the libretto) and I did a great deal of writing and rewriting.


TS: What are you working on now? How do you keep yourself inspired? What do you look for in your writing collaborators? What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write lyrics for the musical theatre?

SH: My current project is the libretto for a one-act opera about Lady Bird Johnson with a score by Henry Mollicone. lt was commissioned by Texas State University, where the premiere will take place next April. What keeps me inspired? When I see a play, a musical, or an opera that has been particularly well written, well performed and well directed, it reminds me of what the theatre has to offer, and I can't wait to get back to my writing desk to try to create something equally entertaining and/or moving.

I have been fortunate enough to work with wonderfully talented composers and librettists. Collaboration has invariably been a joy because my partners have been intelligent, companionable, and extraordinarily gifted. I will continue to look for those qualities in any collaborator with whom I work in the future.

The advice I give to a young person who wants to write lyrics for the theatre is this: read widely and acquaint yourself with all types of literature. A theatre lyricist never knows what kind of assignment he will get. I also recommend that they stay abreast of what's happening in the world. And, of course, I recommend that they see as much theatre as possible.

She Loves Me begins performances on February 19 at Studio 54. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, She Loves Me, Upstage

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