One storyline in the history of the evolution of what we now know as “a musical” has been the progression of lyric writing from light verse to less rigid but often more potent forms of poetry.
Those of us who love the genre feel a great appreciation and respect for the works of W. S. Gilbert, P. G. Woodehouse, Ira Gershwin and Larry Hart on up through the best of today’s practicing wordsmiths.
But there is one man who seems to have traveled that evolutionary path in a single career: Sheldon Harnick. A new, two-disc set from Harbinger Records’ Musical Theater Project reveals that evolutionary trek in one fascinating package.
In the process, it presents and preserves some previously unknown gems written with legendary composers including not just Jerry Bock, his long-time partner with whom he wrote Fiorello!, She Loves Me and, of course, Fiddler on the Roof, but Richard Rodgers, with whom he wrote Rex, and Michel LeGrand who composed the music for his version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
These gems have been gathered from Mr. Harnick’s personal collection. Mostly, they are “demos” made to demonstrate a song or a full score for potential producers or investors, or to give creative colleagues something to listen to to understand how Harnick and his composing partner see a particular song working.
Harbinger did a great job two years ago doing a similar project with the “hidden treasures” of Hugh Martin, and now they match that with these 52 recordings of Harnick’s.
The audio quality of almost all of the recordings is amazing, having been cleaned up to a crisp clarity that brings Harnick and his colleagues into the room with you. Obviously, however, restoration engineer Alan Silverman struggled mightily with one track, “Every Man For Himself,” which had more noise than the others. He wasn’t completely successful, but since the song was part of the score for The Body Beautiful, which wasn’t preserved with a cast album, it is good they included it along with four other songs from that almost lost score.
The album starts, however, not with songs from Broadway book shows, but with songs Harnick wrote for comic revues and cabaret shows which called for the kind of light verse set to music that has flavored the genre from the days of Gilbert and Sullivan.
With their emphasis on word craft and playful rhyme elaborating on a single point, these bright bon mots demonstrate the wit, charm and extraordinary felicity of the youthful Harnick.
Harbinger Records catalog HCD3002
Brian D’Arcy James
Running time 1:44 over 52 tracks on two discs
Booklet includes Mr. Harnick’s notes regarding each song
From that solid base of lightness it is fascinating to watch Harnick’s abilities accommodate increasingly heavyweight topics within the confines of the needs of a particular moment or scene in a full book musical.
Not all these songs made it into the final product. His lyric for “Summer Is” in The Body Beautiful is as evocative as you could possibly want, but it got cut because it wasn’t completely appropriate for the people who were supposed to be signing it in that story about the world of boxing. Would a bunch of pugilists be likely to sing that “Winter is gloves and homburg / Winter is cold cement / Summer is Sigmund Romberg / In a music tent / Pleasure bent”? No, but the stanza is a charmer.
There is a great number that didn’t quite make it into Bock and Harnick’s Pulitzer Prize winning Fiorello! but which delight nonetheless. “‘Til the Bootlegger Comes” plays with home-made hooch concoctions.
From Tenderloin, Harnick demonstrates his ability to get inside the mind of the characters in his plays by resurrecting from his library a demo of “I Wonder What It’s Like” in which the strictly Presbyterian unmarried church ladies who objected to the immoralities of New York’s red-light district take a moment to “Wonder What It’s Like” to be with a man.
The story of how Jerome Robbins identified the real theme of Fiddler on the Roof as a play about changing traditions is well known in theater circles. Less well known is that the show was originally going to open with a rousing number “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet” for Tevye’s wife and daughters followed by Tevye arguing not so much with God as with his horse in “What a Life.” Both are here, along with a song for the butcher Lazar Wolf (“A Butcher’s Soul”) and one celebrating the arrival of “Letters From America” from which Bock and Harnick salvaged the portion about “Anatevka.”
Not all of the songs found on this set have been rescued from complete obscurity. “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine” and “When Messiah Comes” from Fiddler as well as “Where Do I Go From Here?” from Fiorello! are on Bruce Kimmel’s “Lost in Boston” series and “Christmas Eve” is on his “A Broadway Christmas” compilation.
Previously unheard songs abound however.
There are three new recordings made specifically for this project of songs from the Tudor musical Rex that Harnick did with Richard Rodgers, one of the musicals Rodgers wrote after the death of Oscar Hammerstein II. Two are their premiere recordings: “I Brought You A Gift” which King Henry VIII was to sing to the body of his third wife, Jane Seymour as she lay in state and “The Pears of Anjou” in which Henry laments that he himself was to die before fruit could be expected from newly planted pear trees.
Not all the tracks are sung by Harnick and his composers. There are tracks by Charlotte Rae and Betty Garrett from early in Harnick’s career and two from much more recent efforts: Brian d’Arcy James demonstrating “Wine, Wine, Wine” which was to be in a musical based on Moliére’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and Audra McDonald singing “You Made My Day” which was written for a project of Marlo Thomas’.
With 52 tracks on two discs, this package is something of an immersion course in Harnick’s work – a rich feast indeed.
As such, it is best taken in something other than a single evening. Sample a portion and take a break – perhaps take time to listen to the full score of the shows for which some of these songs were written. After hearing these recordings of “That’s How Much I Missed You” and “In My Own Lifetime” from The Rothchilds I just had to put on the Original Broadway Cast recording.
The riches here are sweet enough to overwhelm the taste buds if gobbled down in one sitting. It took the man half a century to create these marvels. If you can take time to relish the details you will find individual lines and couplets that deserve multiple uses of the pause and repeat buttons on your disc player. This is the best way to savor delights like “No matter how badly or goodly its done / The doing and trying can be great fun” or the marvelous string of double meanings for “collected,” “incinerations” and “beyond the pale” in reference to “Garbage.”