The primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral history Project

Celebrating the visionaries who created New York's vibrant Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater.

Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick

Born on Wednesday, April 30, 1924

Interviewed on: Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Location: At his home
Interviewed by: Casey Childs
Interview #104
"I hope I get to the point in my life where I can do this…it’s so important just to constantly look at the show, analyze the show, see what’s right and what’s not right."
Sheldon Harnick Highlights
Video Length: 4 Minutes, 39 Seconds
Sheldon Harnick Interview
Video Length: 1 Hour, 2 Minutes

Sheldon Harnick is a lyricist known for his work in musicals, revues, and cabarets that have appeared both on and Off-Broadway.  His Off-Broadway credits include: THE LITTLEST REVUE (1956), KALEIDOSCOPE (1957), SMILING THE BOY FELL DEAD [aka FAIR HAIRED BOY] (1961), WET PAINT (1965), SHE LOVES ME (1985), THE ROTHSCHILDS (1990), ROTHSCHILD & SONS (2015), and FIORELLO! (2016). He worked with Mary Rodgers and the Bil Baird Marionettes on PINOCCHIO (1973). On Broadway, his credits include: New Faces (of 1952), She Loves Me, and Rex. His collaborations with composer Jerry Bock, which include The Body Beautiful, Fiorello!, Tenderloin, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree, and The Rothschilds, led them to be considered “the most important musical partnership of the ‘60s.”

For opera, he has written English versions of the librettos for Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, Lehar’s The Merry Widow and Bizet’s Carmen. Original librettos include Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, Love in Two Countries, Coyote Tales, and The Phantom Tollbooth. He wrote lyrics for the theme songs for the movies The Heartbreak Kid and Blame it on Rio.

Born in Chicago, Sheldon Harnick trained as a violinist at a young age. He later studied violin and musical composition at Northwestern University, where he also wrote for the Waa-Mu show, the student revue. While at Northwestern, he was inspired to write musicals by his friend Charlotte Rae, who insisted that he listen to Finian’s Rainbow. In 1950, Harnick moved to New York City with the intention of writing songs for musical revues. Many revues were done at The Village Vanguard, where he later met Yip Harburg, who encouraged him to pursue songwriting. His first song on Broadway was “The Boston Beguine,” which was featured in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952, a musical revue starring Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, Carol Lawrence, Ronny Graham, and Paul Lynde, Harnick’s friend from college. The revue included sketches written by Mel Brooks and songs and lyrics by Harnick, among others. “The Boston Beguine” was positively received, and Harnick’s career was launched. He later wrote Two’s Company for Bette Davis, which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who introduced Harnick to Stephen Sondheim. Harnick has collaborated with artists such as Joe Stein, Barbara Cook, Hal Prince, Arthur Penn, and Jerome Weidman. He has received numerous awards for his work, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Fiorello!) and three Tony Awards:  Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof  and a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.

Mentioned in Interview

George Abbott, Lee Adams, John Murray Anderson, Bil Baird, David Baker, Ethel Barrymore, Jack Beeson, Jerry Bock, Tom Bosley, Abe Burrows, Jack Cassidy, Barbara Cook, Alice Ghostley, Jay Gorney, Yip Harburg, John Kander, Lawrence Kasha, Paul Lynde, Zero Mostel, Phyllis Newman, Arthur Penn, Hal Prince, Charlotte Rae, Jerome Robbins, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Sillman, Stephen Sondheim, Joe Stein, Ira Wallach, Jerome Weidman, American Jewish Theatre, Bil Baird Theatre, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Hudson Guild Theater, Master Theatre, Phoenix Theater, Provincetown Playhouse, Renata Theatre, 13th Street Theatre, Village Vanguard, York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church, FIORELLO!, KALEIDOSCOPE, THE LITTLEST REVUE, THE MADWOMAN OF CENTRAL PARK WEST, PINOCCHIO, ROTHSCHILD & SONS, THE ROTHSCHILDS, SHE LOVES ME, SMILING THE BOY FELL DEAD, WET PAINT