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5:16 am
Sun July 6, 2014

Even Broadway Has Its B-Sides: The Lost Songs Of Sheldon Harnick

Originally published on Sun July 6, 2014 12:50 pm

Sheldon Harnick has been a working lyricist for over 60 years. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the musical Fiorello! and a Tony Award for Fiddler On The Roof. But he says a career in the theater means writing some songs that, for whatever reason, don't make the show.

"Sometimes, the song was changed because a scene was changed and it no longer accommodated the song," Harnick says. "So, sometimes there had to be a new song."

Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013, a new two-CD set of rare or previously unheard songs written by Harnick, was released this spring, just in time to celebrate the songwriter's 90th birthday. The compilation is a showcase songs that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor — like "'Til The Bootlegger Comes" from Fiorello!, which appears as a demo recording featuring Harnick and writing partner Jerry Bock. Harnick says he and Bock loved the song, and audiences loved it during the show's pre-Broadway tryout, but then the two met with Fiorello!'s co-author and director.

"George Abbott said, 'I don't like the scene that that's part of. I want to change that scene and part of the change will mean we're gonna lose the song.' Which was heartbreaking, 'cause the song was working wonderfully," Harnick says. "But it led to the creation of another song, 'Little Tin Box,' which was as good, if not better."

Ken Bloom co-produced the new collection. He says Harnick is a master craftsman.

"Sheldon is a really witty writer. He's really smart; he knows how to do it," Bloom says. "But, as opposed to other writers, his wit and his invention is not the purpose of the song. He's not showing off — he's still writing for character. And if you listen to all these CDs with different characters singing, the lyrics fit the language of that character."

Harnick says every song he writes is for a specific character in a specific situation.

"Part of my talent as a lyricist," he says, "is that I believe I think like a playwright, in terms of character, so that I can find different diction, different voices for the different characters."

So Harnick's lyric for "A Butcher's Soul," a song sung by Lazar Wolf, the butcher in Fiddler On The Roof, is particularly meaty — but Fiddler's director, Jerome Robbins, had to cut it.

"Jerry Robbins loved that song, but he said 'Fellows, I have to disappoint you. What it does is put the focus in the scene on the butcher and it mustn't be," Harnick says. "It has to be on Tevye and his problem, so we have to lose that song.'"

The song got replaced by "To Life! (L'Chaim)," with the lead character of Tevye, played by Zero Mostel, front and center.

Harnick says he and Bock basically wrote three or four songs for every one that made it into a show. The original opening number for Fiddler On The Roof was called "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet." Hal Prince, who produced Fiddler, recalls that Robbins didn't like the song. He felt it didn't explain what Fiddler was about.

"We met and we met and we met and, each time he'd say, 'But what's it about? What's it about?'" Prince says. "And finally, Sheldon — I've never heard him lose his temper before — said, 'Oh, for God's sake Jerry, it's about tradition!' And Jerry said, 'That's it! That's what [it's] about. Write the opening number.'"

Another famous song from Fiddler On The Roof, "Sunrise, Sunset," started out somewhat differently than the version most people recognize.

"We did it [as] a mazurka," Harnick says, humming the original tune. "And, you know, through the years, it kinda got loosened up into more of a ballad."

Harnick says he hadn't heard most of the material on the Hidden Treasures in decades.

"But it was great fun," he says, "going over these songs and allowing myself to be proud of myself, by what I had done. You know?".

At age 90, the songwriter says he's spending a lot of time answering birthday cards and rewriting three shows he hopes to get produced in the future.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Sheldon Harnick has written a lot of songs for the theater. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for the words he wrote for the musical "Fiorello" and a Tony award for "Fiddler On The Roof." But for every song, you might remember from your favorite show, there are even more you've never heard because the songs were cut. A new two-CD set showcases dozens of Sheldon Harnick's hidden treasures. It's just been released to celebrate the songwriter's 90th birthday. Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Sheldon Harnick has been a working lyricist for over 60 years. And part of working in the theater means you write songs, that for whatever reason, don't make it into the show.

SHELDON HARNICK: Sometimes the song was changed because a scene would change and it no longer accommodated the song. So sometimes there had to be a new song.

LUNDEN: Like this one from "Fiorello," set during prohibition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL THE BOOTLEGGER COMES")

SHELDON HARNICK AND JERRY BOCK: (Singing) It's simply amazing what you can accomplish with cherries or berries or plums. What was once unthinkable is now extremely drinkable - 'Til the bootlegger comes.

LUNDEN: That's Sheldon Harnick and his writing partner Jerry Bock singing "Til The Bootlegger Comes" on a demo recording. Harnick says he and Jerry Bock loved it and audiences loved it during the show's pre-Broadway tryout. But then the songwriters met with Fiorello's co-author and director.

HARNICK: George Abbott said, I don't like the scene that that's part of. I want to change that scene and part of the change will mean we're going to lose the song, which was heartbreaking because the song was working. It was working wonderfully. But it led to the creation of another song, "Little Tin Box," which was as good, if not better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE TIN BOX")

HOWARD DA SILVA: (As Ben Marino) (Singing) You're implying I'm a crook and I say no sir. There is nothing in my past I care to hide. I've been taking empty bottles to the grocer and each nickel that I've got was put aside.

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) That he got was put aside.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) Into a little tin box.

DA SILVA: (As Ben Marino): A little tin box. That little tin key unlocks.

KEN BLOOM: Sheldon is a really witty writer.

LUNDEN: Ken Bloom coproduced the CD set. He says Sheldon Harnick is a master craftsman.

BLOOM: But as opposed to other writers, his wit and his invention is not the purpose of the song. He's not showing off. He's still writing for character. And if you listen to all the CDs with different characters singing, the lyrics fit the language of that character.

LUNDEN: Sheldon Harnick says every song he writes is for a specific character in a specific situation.

HARNICK: Part of my talent as a lyricist is that I believe I think like a playwright in terms of character. So that I can find different diction - different voices for the different characters.

LUNDEN: So Harnick's lyric for a song sung by Lazar Wolf the butcher in "Fiddler On The Roof" is particularly meaty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BUTCHER'S SOUL")

HARNICK: (As Lazar Wolf) (Singing) A butcher has his feelings. He is not a piece of meat. A man is not a chicken. You should hang him by his feet.

LUNDEN: That's Sheldon Harnick singing "A Butcher's Soul," which Fiddlers director Jerome Robbins had to cut.

HARNICK: Jerry Robbins loved that song. But he said fellas, I have to disappoint you. What it does is put the focus in the scene on the butcher - and it mustn't be. It has to be on Tevye and his problem. So we have to lose that song.

LUNDEN: It got replaced by "To Life! L'chaim!" With the lead character of Tevye played by Zero Mostel front and center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO LIFE! L'CHAIM!")

ZERO MOSTEL: (As Tevye) (Singing) Here's to our prosperity, our good health and happiness. And most important - to life, to life, l'chaim.

HARNICK: (Singing) L'chaim, l'chaim - to life.

LUNDEN: Harnick says he and composer Jerry Bock basically wrote three or four songs for every one that made it into a show. The original opening a number for "Fiddler On The Roof" was called "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'VE NEVER MISSED A SABBATH YET")

SHELDON HARNICK AND JERRY BOCK: (Singing) There's noodles to make and chicken to be plucked and liver to be chopped and challah to be baked. A race with the sun so at the proper time, the candles can be lit and blessed.

LUNDEN: Hal Prince, who produced Fiddler, recalls that the show's director Jerome Robbins didn't like the song. He felt it didn't explain what fiddler was about.

HAL PRINCE: We met and we met and we met. 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 sake Jerry - it's about tradition. And Jerry said that's it, that's what about -write the opening number.

LUNDEN: So Bock and Harnick wrote "Tradition."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRADITION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Tevye and the Papas) (Singing) Who, day and night, must scramble for a living, feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers? And who has the right as master of the house to have the final word at home? The Papa, the Papa. Tradition.

LUNDEN: One of the most famous songs from "Fiddler On The Roof" started out somewhat differently than the version most people recognize.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE SUNSET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) Is this the little girl I carried? It to the little boy at play?

HARNICK: We did it dee dum bum bum badum bum bum - which is a mazurka. And, you know, through the years, it kind of got loosened up into more of a ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE SUNSET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly flow the days.

LUNDEN: Harnick says he hadn't heard most of the material on the CD set in decades.

HARNICK: But it was great fun going over these songs and allowing myself to be proud of myself by what I had done.

LUNDEN: And at age 90, Sheldon Harnick says he's spending a lot of time answering birthday cards and rewriting three shows he hopes to get produced in the future. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE SUNSET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise sunset. Swiftly flow the days.

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. B. J. Leiderman wrote our theme. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.