PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sheldon Harnick, the Tony and Pulitzer-Winning Lyricist of Fiorello!

By Robert Viagas
26 Jan 2013

Tom Bosley in the original Broadway production of Fiorello!
It's been a long time since there was a new Sheldon Harnick show on Broadway. Does that bother you?
SH: Well, there will be a new show, but it won't be on Broadway. It will be next season Off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. I did an adaptation of the Molière play The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and everybody who's heard it likes it, but everybody also feels that it really is for Off-Broadway. And, if it's hugely successful Off-Broadway, there's always the possibility that it would transfer to Broadway.

Who's the composer?
SH: I am. I didn't start out to be, but it wound up that way, and I'm very happy with the score that I've written.

What appealed to you about that story?
SH: Well, I love to read plays, and, at one point, a couple years ago, I was reading the plays of Molière, and I got to that one, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and as I was reading it I thought, "Molière wrote this 350 years ago for Phil Silvers." It's just a very funny play, and I thought, "I wonder if there's a musical in this?" So I started to work on it, and I thought, "If it turns out to be a play with songs, that's not what I want to do," but the more I worked on it, I thought, "This is a genuine musical." There's a lot of music in this, so it was great fun to do.

There's a number of shows that revised their lyrics to fit changing sensibilities. Tom Jones opted to revise the song about rape in The Fantasticks and Stephen Sondheim removed the word "fag" from Company. I know that on the cast album of Fiorello!, the song "The Very Next Man" has a comic lyric about domestic abuse, but you later changed it. Will the original lyric be heard in the Encores! staging?
SH: No, no, no. No. Originally, it was a lyric that Marie, his wife, had sung, and it was meant to be sardonic. But she was talking about tolerating abuse. And, as women's consciousness' got raised — and men's, too — it just seemed that it was a tasteless lyric, so I had to change it. There's another lyric that I had to change when we opened. Are there enough people in the audience who knew what a Willys-Knight was? A Willys-Knight was an inexpensive automobile from the '20s and '30s that was like a Ford, but these days, nobody knows what a Willys-Knight is, so I had to change that lyric [in the verse to first wife Thea's song, "When Did I Fall in Love?"].

Like that lyric from Strouse and Adams' "All in the Family" theme, "Gee… The old LaSalle ran great…"
SH: Right. Who knows what a LaSalle is today?

Are you going to make other changes to the show? Are there new songs?
SH: There is a new number. In the second act, there's a moment where LaGuardia's first wife Thea has died, and he has run for the mayor and lost by a lopsided amount, and he's onstage alone…devastated. Jerry Bock and I had tried to write him a song. We made a couple of tries at it, and no matter what we wrote, our [original Broadway] director George Abbott said, "The song is self-pitying, and he was not a self-pitying man," so eventually we settled on the tiniest of reprises. He sings, "The name's La Guardia," spells his name and walks offstage. It was that small. And, about 20 years ago, I saw a production, and I thought, "We really need a song there," and it's taken all this time to find a song that wasn't self-pitying. Shortly before [composer] Jerry Bock died, I came up with an extended lyric for that reprise and a new lyric in the middle of a monologue. I gave it to Jerry, and he said, "This I like," and it was the last thing he set before he died. So we tried it out. There was a production [at] NYU — a wonderful production. We had a chance to try it out there, and it worked. And so we'll be doing it, but with a brand-new orchestration for this production.