Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, one of the two co-creators of Fiddler on the Roof, has died at the age of 99.
Harnick, who died in New York on Friday of natural causes, was one-half of one of the top songwriting duos in Broadway history alongside composer Jerry Bock. After their debut collaboration The Body Beautiful in 1958, the pair had their first hit with Fiorello! in 1959, which earnt them a 1960 Pulitzer and Tony, followed by Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, The Apple Tree, Tenderloin and cult success She Loves Me.
Sheldon Harnick (L) and Jerry Bock speak during the Dramatists Guild Fifth Annual Benefit Dinner at the Hudson Theater May 10, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)
Their final songwriting collaboration, The Rothschilds, inspired by Frederick Morton’s bestselling 1961 book about the banking dynasty, had its premiere in New York while the original production of Fiddler on the Roof was still on Broadway. In 2018, Harnick told the JC that the end of the songwriting partnership was a “source of great regret”.
It was the choice of British director Derek Goldby, who directed Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the National Theatre, which sparked a difference in opinion between Harnick and Bock, who died in 2010.
“Jerry became extremely friendly with him [Goldby] and I did not,” Harnick told the JC. “I felt that we had hired the wrong man. He was capable, but not for our show. And it caused great problems between Jerry and me. At the end of that show, Jerry went off in his direction and I went mine.
“We remained friends [because] we had too much business in common that we had to take care of. But we didn’t write together anymore. Also, Jerry was a very capable lyricist and he wanted to write his own songs. So that was something he pursued.”
Producers Shelden Harnick and Joseph Stein arrive to the "Fiddler On The Roof" after party January 20, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Playing on Broadway from 1964 to 1972, Fiddler on the Roof set a long-standing record and won 10 Tony Awards, which have often been credited to Harnick’s vast lyrical talent.
Born in Chicago in 1924, Harnick learnt the violin as a child and had hoped to be a concert violinist until he started writing songs and sketches for student shows while studying at Northwestern University School of Music.
Before joining forces with Bock in 1958, he made his Broadway revue debut with a song in The Boston Beguine in 1952. He also received Tony nominations for The Apple Tree (1967), She Loves Me (1964), The Rothschilds (1971) and Cyrano – The Musical (1994).
Of the many shows he wrote with Bock, he told the JC: “We loved the stories and did our best to realise them on stage in terms of book, music and dance.”
English actor Alfie Bass (right) at a reception at the Savoy Hotel in London, where it was announced that he would take over the role of Tevye in the musical 'Fiddler on the Roof' at Her Majesty's Theatre, 29th October 1967. At the keyboard is the musical's composer, Jerry Bock (1928 - 2010), and centre, lyricist Sheldon Harnick. (Photo by Gary Weaser/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
“One of the things Jerry and I were happy about is that The Rothschilds, like Fiddler on the Roof, presented Jewish people as human beings with all the faults of other human beings so that people could identify with them and not make devils of them.”
He also said that The Rothschilds was a story that he’d still have chosen to write in 2018. “Our show is not about banking so much as a family that was hemmed into a ghetto with very little prospect of improvement,” he said. “It’s about how they managed to not only get out of the ghetto out but make a life for themselves. They became very rich. But getting rich is unimportant compared to how they managed to improve themselves.”
The award-winning lyricist’s death comes three months after that of Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor famed for his portrayal of Tevye in the Fiddler on the Roof stage musical and 1971 film adaptation.