(Robert Berkvist’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/23; Photo: The lyricist Sheldon Harnick in 2015; via Ben Vereen/twitter. He gave voice to a broad range of characters, including starry-eyed young lovers, corrupt politicians and struggling Jews in early-20th-century Russia.Credit…Chad Batka for The New York Times.)
His collaborations with the composer Jerry Bock also included “Fiorello!” — which, like “Fiddler,” was a Tony winner — and “She Loves Me.”
Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist who teamed up with the composer Jerry Bock to write some of Broadway’s most memorable musicals, including the Tony Award winners “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Fiorello!,” died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 99.
His death was announced by a spokesman, Sean Katz.
Mr. Harnick’s lyrics could be broadly funny, slyly satirical, lushly romantic or poignantly moving. He gave voice to a broad range of characters, including starry-eyed young lovers, corrupt politicians, a quarreling Adam and Eve and, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” struggling Jews in early-20th-century Russia.
When three unmarried sisters in “Fiddler” confront the village matchmaker, two of them hopeful and the third cynical, they all end up having second thoughts:
Matchmaker, matchmaker, plan me no plans
I’m in no rush, maybe I’ve learned
Playing with matches a girl can get burned.
So bring me no ring, groom me no groom,
Find me no find, catch me no catch.
Unless he’s a matchless match!
When the leading man in “She Loves Me” is about to meet the woman with whom he’s been trading love letters for months, he practically sings himself into a nervous breakdown:
I haven’t slept a wink, I only think
Of our approaching tête-à-tête,
Tonight at eight.
I feel a combination of depression and elation;
What a state!
Mr. Harnick met Mr. Bock in the late 1950s, and the two quickly realized they could work together despite their different temperaments. “I tend to approach things skeptically and pessimistically,” Mr. Harnick told The New York Times in 1990. “Jerry Bock is a bubbling, ebullient personality.”
The team would break up after a dozen years over a dispute involving their musical “The Rothschilds.” But the combination worked extremely well while it lasted.
The late 1950s was a challenging time for newcomers to the musical stage. The decade’s hit Broadway musicals had included “Guys and Dolls,” “The King and I,” “Wonderful Town,” “My Fair Lady” and “Candide.” “In those days,” Mr. Harnick recalled in a 2004 interview, “lyricists were consciously trying to be more sophisticated and literate. Now we’re in the Andrew Lloyd Webber vein, trying to hit bigger, broader audiences.”
Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock got off to a weak start in 1958 with “The Body Beautiful,” set in the world of prizefighting; it closed after a brief run. But they bounced back decisively the next year with “Fiorello!,” a breezy portrait of one of New York City’s most colorful politicians.
“Fiorello!,” which had a book by George Abbott and Jerome Weidman and was directed by Mr. Abbott, starred Tom Bosley as Fiorello H. La Guardia, the reformer who was mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945. Its score evoked a time when political corruption was rife.
The song “Little Tin Box,” for example, suggests how a crooked party boss (Howard Da Silva) might have responded when a judge asked him how he has managed to buy a yacht, given his modest salary. The boss replies:
I am positive Your Honor must be joking.
Any working man can do what I have done.
For a month or two I simply gave up smoking
And I put my extra pennies one by one
Into a little tin box
A little tin box
That a little tin key unlocks.
There is nothing unorthodox
About a little tin box.
“Fiorello!” ran for nearly 800 performances and won three Tony Awards, including the prize for best musical, which it shared with “The Sound of Music.” It was also one of the few musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.