BWW Interviews: Sheldon Harnick Fiddles with 'Sons' at North Coast Rep

Sheldon Harnick has enjoyed a career so stellar as to elicit envy among the multitude of Broadway lyricists who have tried to follow his path. The brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (Fiorello!), and Tony and Grammy winning composer (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me) has been regaled with so many awards for some of the Great White Way's most beloved hits that his collection of statuettes likely weighs more than he does.

This year the nonagenarian, in addition to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fiddler's Broadway premiere, is adding another blast from the past to his cavalcade of accomplishments: a reimagined version of The Rothschilds, his 1970 Broadway collaboration with composer Jerry Bock and book writer Sherman Yellen, now titled Rothschild and Sons. Rothschild chronicles the evolution of the influential family that obtained a declaration of rights for oppressed European Jews in the nineteenth century. Harnick will be in attendance at the show's premiere stage reading at San Diego's North Coast Repertory Theatre on Sept. 22 and 23.

EM: I am honored to speak with you. You're coming to San Diego with a newly revised project?

SH: A revised version of an old project. So in a way it's a new project.

EM: What made you decide to do that, and reteam with your cohorts?

SH: Some years ago Arnold Mittelman, who used to run the Coconut Grove Theater in Florida, did a successful production of Rothschild and Sons. A year or two ago he decided to try and revive it. His director in Florida had some ideas for changes, which he felt might make it a better show. He suggested those changes to our book writer Sherman Yellen. He liked them, and I did, too. Over the last couple of weeks we've added a new song, and I've been revising lyrics for three other songs we're going to use reprises on, and Sherman has written new scenes at the end that strengthen the show and make it even better. That's what we're going to find out when we have the reading on the 22nd and 23rd.

EM: Why did you decide to do this reading in San Diego?

SH: That was Arnold Mittelman's doing. As producer he made all those arrangements. But I'm delighted, I haven't been to San Diego for years. I was there when I was commissioned to do a translation of Merry Widow for Beverly Sills. They started the tour in San Diego. I went out for the first performance and that was the one time I've been there.

EM: That must have been many years ago if it was for Beverly. I'm sure you'll find San Diego's changed a great deal.

SH: (Laughs) I didn't get to see it, I just went to rehearsals, saw the performance, and came home. So I don't know San Diego at all. My wife and I will be there from the 19th until the 25th, so maybe this time we'll be able to see a bit of it.

EM: That would be super. I'm sure you'll like North Coast Rep's charming theatre. If you read my reviews you'll know I've been very pleased with their productions. Was it also Mittelman who arranged to have the premiere there?

SH: I'm sure it was.

EM: Do you approach a project that's being retooled and revived like Rothschild with new eyes and ears, or do you base your work on past experiences with the show?

SH: With Rothschild, when I knew I was going to be reworking something I hadn't looked at since 1970, I wondered whether it would take a long time to get back into that mode. I was delighted to find that as soon as I reread the script I just plunged right back into it and felt quite at home. As though I'd been working on it yesterday. It's really like visiting an old friend.

EM: You obviously have a great deal of affection for the story and its characters.

SH: I think that's a good way to put it. The character of Mayer Rothschild the patriarch, the five sons, and Mayer's wife, the way our book was handled they're so sympathetic to me, and they're people I can identify with so easily. It's been wonderful fun to try and find words for them to sing.

EM: There's nothing quite like words. Being a wordsmith is my greatest pleasure. I can totally relate to what you just said.

SH: (Laughs) Oh, good!

EM: have you worked with any of the North Coast Rep actors before?

SH: If they're California actors, I tend to doubt I would know them. But as a member of the Dramatists' Guild - I'm on their council - I'm very much aware that North Coast has a wonderful reputation back east.

EM: That's wonderful to hear. You've received the National Jewish Theater Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award. How did that feel for you?

SH: All awards feel wonderful. To have your work acknowledged, vindicated, it's always an exciting moment. As I'm sure you're aware, there's so much heartbreak connected with our business that when something nice happens it's something to be savored, and I did savor that moment.

EM: I'm not surprised. Forgive me if this sounds kind of hackneyed, but I can't help wonder as you look back on your very long stellar career, how do you feel about your accomplishments? You must feel proud. Or are you just looking forward to continuing to create?

SH: (Laughs). Well, my comment is probably going to be surprising. I look back and I'm very pleased at what I've managed to accomplish. But right now I've reworked three shows, one was never produced, one was produced in colleges, one was produced Off-Broadway and failed. I've redone them and I'm trying to get productions on them, and I'm now going through immense frustration being unable so far to get any of those shows produced. So I look back and I think, to quote Shakespeare, I have done the stage some service. Why can't I get these shows produced?

EM: Yes, that is the eternal question, not "To be or not to be" but "Why can't I get these things produced?" In any case, I do hope you have continued success and that you'll find a way to keep doing this because after all why shouldn't you? I look forward to meeting you here in San Diego.

SH: I look forward to meeting you. Any "fiddler" is a friend of mine.

EM: It's been an absolute delight. Thank you so much.

SH: Thank you.

To purchase tickets, call the box office at 858-481-1055, or visit www.northcoastrep.org.

Photo credits: Margery Harnick

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From This Author Erica Miner

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