Sheldon Harnick, Northwestern Alum and Broadway Legend, Dead at 99
Sheldon Harnick (BSM49), famed theatrical songwriter and colyricist of Fiddler of the Roof, passed away June 23 at the age of 99.
Harnick is best known for his work with Jerry Bock on Tony Award winners Fiorello! and Fiddler on the Roof as well as the Tony-nominated musicals She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, and The Rothschilds. His work on Fiorello! won Harnick and his collaborators a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Harnick won the 2009 Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre and in 2016 received the Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre. Also in 2016, he received a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement alongside Marshall Mason (C61), the founder of New York’s Circle Repertory Company.
Harnick’s work was notable for its wit and warmth, but also a playful profundity that made his words memorable and enduring. Fiddler opened in 1964 and became the longest-running Broadway show in history with more than 3,200 performances. It held that record for a decade. Fiddler won nine Tony Awards, has enjoyed five Broadway revivals, and stands as one of the most beloved, oft-quoted musicals of all time.
An acclaimed Yiddish-language version premiered off-Broadway in 2018 and costarred Rosie Jo Neddy (C17).
Northwestern, particularly the music theatre program in the School of Communication, benefited from Harnick’s talents. His musical Dragons premiered at Northwestern in 1984. A Wonderful Life ran in the 1994-95 season of the Theatre and Interpretation Center (now the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts) and was one of if not the first shows that played in a newly remodeled Cahn Auditorium. The School’s American Music Theatre Project mounted in 2009 a staged reading of Harnick’s adaptation of Moliere’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself, directed by Dominic Missimi, professor emeritus and founder of Northwestern’s music theatre program, with music direction by associate professor of instruction Ryan T. Nelson. The cast of A Doctor comprised guest artists and student actors, including the late Bernie Yvon (C86), a Chicago theatre mainstay. The previous summer Missimi directed a revue of Harnick's work, titled Tonight at Eight: Saluting Sheldon Harnick. The Broadway legend's wife, Margery, was frequently in attendance.
"One of the joys of running the music theatre program was the opportunity to become Sheldon Harnick's friend," Missimi said. "With every visit to the campus—and there were many—he never failed to inspire the students, and their director, with his countless stories of the creation of his landmark musicals. His genius as a lyricist and composer was only matched by his kindness and love of theatre. He was a giant of the American music theatre."
Harnick received an honorary degree from Northwestern in 2018.
The following excerpt was published in 2004 in Northwestern magazine.
Harnick grew up on Chicago's northwest side in Portage Park, near his father's dental office. His mother was active in local organizations, and young Harnick gained experience performing for her arts club. He began studying violin at age 8, often practicing for hours. While still in high school, he played violin for amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions.
"Even though I was playing the violin, I could still hear the lyrics," Harnick remembers. "At that time I was turned on by the patter songs, so I began to familiarize myself with Gilbert and Sullivan. I was more fascinated by the virtuosity than anything else. Little by little, I also realized what a fine poet Gilbert was and how imaginative he was, even in the slower songs. So he became an enormous influence."
Harnick's plans for college were interrupted when he was drafted in 1943. He was eventually assigned as a technician in the Signal Corps, attached to the Air Force. While stationed at Robins Field in Georgia, Harnick used his spare time to write songs and perform in shows for his fellow troops. Indeed, his future life in musical theater was beginning to take shape.
After the war Harnick attended Northwestern on the GI Bill. He had good reason to choose the school.
"I knew that Northwestern had one of the most elegant student revues in the Chicago area — the Waa-Mu show," recalls Harnick, who majored in violin. "It was big, and the man who produced it, Joe Miller (J29), really knew what he was doing.
"My last year at Northwestern," continues Harnick, "I wrote half the show. My work with Waa-Mu was very rewarding, and it really pointed me in the direction of the theater."
Another Waa-Mu alumna, Charlotte Rae (C48), helped Harnick confirm his career direction when she returned from New York one day with the Finian's Rainbow album.
"I was dazzled," Harnick says. "I loved the music. But it was the lyrics that were a whole new world. I thought, 'My God, listen to what Yip Harburg is doing — the cleverness, the wit, the humor, the style, the inventiveness.' And it's not just to entertain; he's trying to say important things. I thought, 'Wow, that would be a career worth pursuing.'"
(Photo of the cast and crew of A Doctor in Spite of Himself, with Harnick in the center, courtesy of Dominic Missimi, pictured far left)