The Fresh Air Interview
1:27 pm
Wed April 30, 2014

At 90, 'Fiddler' Lyricist Tells His Story

Originally published on Thu May 1, 2014 9:13 am

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof's Broadway premiere. Lyricist Sheldon Harnick co-wrote the songs for Fiddler, as well as Fiorello!, She Loves Me and Tenderloin. Just in time for his 90th birthday, Harnick has released a new album, Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013), a collection that includes Harnick singing demos of his own popular songs, rarities from early in his career, and pieces cut from Broadway shows. Many of the recordings are from his private collection.

"Any successful lyricist has to be part playwright and has to be able to put himself into the minds and the hearts and the souls of the characters he's writing about," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That's part of a theater lyricist's talent."


Interview Highlights

On how he began to write songs

"I started writing songs in high school. I had written poetry. I didn't know much about the theater or songwriting, but a classmate of mine liked my poetry and asked me to collaborate with him, and he was very interested in the theater. So we began to write sketches, we began to write song parodies, [and] eventually we began to write songs, and then I was drafted during World War II.

"There were 90 days when I found myself in a special service unit, so I began to write songs. On Monday nights, we'd have performances with guitar players, accordion players, and I would sing songs about my Army experience and began to realize the audience thoroughly understood what I was saying. And they responded enthusiastically.

"When I got out of the Army, I went to Northwestern University, because I knew they had a wonderful annual student revue. And that's where I began to write Broadway-type songs. Little by little, I got familiar with theater songs, and while I was at Northwestern I was introduced to the album of Finian's Rainbow. And that really turned me around, because I heard Yip Harburg's lyrics and I thought, 'That's what I want to try to do.' "

On his writing process with his musical partner, Jerry Bock

"It was very stimulating. When I met Jerry [Bock], we developed a method of working that I've never worked with with anybody else. Once we knew what the source material was, we would go into our respective studios and start developing musical numbers. When he had a number worked out to his own satisfaction, he would record it, and eventually he would send me a tape with anywhere from eight to 12 or 15 numbers on it, each one would start where he would say, 'This I think is for the butcher,' 'I think this song is for this situation.' So I would listen to those, and it was very exciting. It was my own world premiere, and on any given tape there might only be two or three musical numbers that I thought I could use. But the best of them were extremely exciting; I couldn't wait to put lyrics to them. I never thought about the problem of setting lyrics to music as opposed to writing lyrics first."

On writing a song for a musical that eventually gets cut

"During the first show that Jerry and I did, The Body Beautiful — when songs were cut, that was difficult and maybe not heartbreaking, but it was frustrating and very sad. But by the time we did Fiddler [on the Roof], I had learned that the name of the game is rewriting — that when a song does not work or is not right, you have to replace it. So by the time we did Fiddler, when songs were thrown out I thought, 'Yeah, that's a nice song. We can't use it.' But the problem was to write something that really was right for the show, that would make the show better, make the show more successful. So I can't say that I was that unhappy when a song was cut."

On director Jerome Robbins' motivation for telling Fiddler's story

"When Jerome Robbins became our director, he told us this story. He said when he was 6, his parents took him to that part of Poland where their ancestors came from, and even at the age of 6 he remembers it being a very emotional experience. Then, during World War II, as he read about the extermination of these little villages by the Nazis, he was certain that the village that he had visited when he was 6 was one of those villages that had been obliterated. So when we gave him the opportunity to direct Fiddler, he said, 'I want to put that culture back on stage. I want to give it a theatrical life of another 25 years.' He was being modest, because now it's almost 50 years and it's still going strong. But he was a man obsessed with restoring that culture. He did enormous research. I think [Robbins], more than anyone else, is responsible for the success that Fiddler's had."

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

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRADITION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tradition, tradition, tradition. Tradition, tradition, tradition.

GROSS: That's one of the best known songs from "Fiddler on the Roof," written by my guest, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and composer Jerry Bock. In addition to co-writing the songs for "Fiddler," Harnick wrote the lyrics for the musicals "She Loves Me," "Fiorello" and "Tenderloin."

I love hearing composers sing their own songs, so I'm delighted that there's a new album of demos and performances featuring Harnick singing his songs. I was unfamiliar with most of the songs on the new album. That's the point. Some of these songs never made it into the shows they were intended for. Others are songs he wrote for reviews early in his career.

The album is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)." Many of the recordings on this double CD are from his private collection. I recorded my interview with Sheldon Harnick last month, but we held it for today because today is his 90th birthday, and you'd never know it from how he sounds in this interview.

Let's start with a track from the new album. It's the demo recording of "Sunrise, Sunset" from "Fiddler on the Roof," featuring Harnick, accompanied by composer Jerry Bock. This year marks the 50th anniversary of "Fidder's" Broadway premiere. A revival is in the works for next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE, SUNSET")

SHELDON HARNICK: (Singing) Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don't remember growing older. When did they? When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be so tall? Wasn't it yesterday when they were small? Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze.

(Singing) Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset...

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And happy birthday. It's so wonderful.

HARNICK: Oh thank you, thank you very much.

GROSS: We'll hear some songs later that weren't used in "Fiddler on the Roof" that you wrote but that were taken out. So...

HARNICK: Well, as a matter of fact, this CD set is supposed to be the unknown songs, and the two men who created it, Bill Rudman(ph) and Ken Bloom(ph), when they said they wanted to use "Sunrise, Sunset," I said but that's a very familiar song. They said not with you singing it.

GROSS: That is true.

HARNICK: So that's why it's in there.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So your best known musicals, "Fiorello," "She Loves Me," "Fiddler on the Roof," were written with the composer Jerry Bock. And you say when you wrote songs by yourself, the lyrics would come first and the music would come after. But when you met Jerry Bock, he wrote the music first, and then you wrote the lyrics. What effect did that have on your songwriting, to have to change your whole approach like that?

HARNICK: Actually it was very stimulating. When I met Jerry, we developed a method of working that I've never worked with anybody else. Once we knew what the source material was, we would go into our respective studios. Jerry would go into his and start developing musical numbers. When he had a number worked out to his own satisfaction, he would record it, and eventually he would send me a tape with anywhere from eight to 12 or 15 numbers on it.

Each one would start where he would say this I think is for the butcher, I think this song is for this situation, and I never thought about the problem of setting lyrics to music, as opposed to writing lyrics first. As I say, the music was to me so exciting, I just wanted to put lyrics to it so I could be able to sing it.

And then when I had a lyric, I would go over to Jerry's studio, he was living in New Rochelle when we began to work. We would go into his studio and begin to work on this song because writing the lyric, writing a lyric to the music, was not the final stage. The final stage was singing it and seeing whether, when you actually sang it with piano accompaniment, whether it was comfortable to sing or whether there were moments in the lyric that had to be polished.

And then when we finally got it to where - the point where we really thought it's finished, then we would call Jerry's wife, she would come downstairs to the studio, we would sing it, and if she liked it, then that was finished.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sheldon Harnick. It's his 90th birthday. And there's a new, terrific double CD called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)." It includes songs that were taken out of shows that most of us have never heard, and it includes mostly his performances of those songs.

So there's a song I want to play from "Fiorello" that's a beautiful unrequited love song. Unfortunately, it was taken out of the show. Let's hear the song and how lovely it is, and then you can tell us why it was never actually in "Fiorello."

HARNICK: OK.

GROSS: So this is a demo recording with my guest Sheldon Harnick and his co-composer Jerry Bock at the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE")

HARNICK: He doesn't love me. I know it's true. The signs are all too clear. But loving him the way I do, where do I go from here? The time is coming...

GROSS: That's Sheldon Harnick, singing his lyric to the song "Where Do I Go From Here" with the composer of the song, Jerry Bock, at the piano, a song written for the musical "Fiorello," but it wasn't used in the musical. But it is included in the new double CD "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)."

So Sheldon Harnick, tell us why that song was not used in "Fiorello."

HARNICK: The song is written for Marie, Marie Fisher, who is LaGuardia's secretary, and she had nursed a crush on him for years, and then she watched as he fell in love with someone else. So we wrote this melancholy song for her, "Where Do I Go From Here." And the song, when she performed, when we were in our pre-Broadway tour, the song, although the cast loved it, the audience didn't.

We could tell because the response to the song was kind of sparse, and our director, George Abbott, said the problem is it makes her look self-pitying, and Marie was not the kind of a woman who was self-pitying, and the audience does not want to see her that way, so we can't use the song, and we took it out.

The cast - because the cast loved the song, they kept asking us to consider putting it at some other place in the show so we could find a spot for it, but we couldn't find a place, and it was never used. Years later there was a production of the show by some church theater group on the east side of New York. They wrote and they asked if they could restore "Where Do I Go From Here." And they had a place to put it, which we'd never thought of. So we said sure, try it.

I didn't get to see it, but Jerry Bock did. And I said did it work, and he said no.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: On the other hand, we did have a lovely recording of it by Robert Goulet.

GROSS: So I want to move on to another show that's represented in this new Sheldon Harnick CD, and this is from the musical "Tenderloin," which is - you describe what the plot's about.

HARNICK: "Tenderloin" was based on a true story. The end of the 19th century, there was a minister in New York who wanted to clean up the district where vice flourished, and it was a district known as the Tenderloin. So he went on a crusade to do that. And an author named Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a fictional treatment of that, in which a minister tries to clean up the Tenderloin.

So in the book there are two young women who belong to the parish where the minister has his pulpit, and they were discussing his crusade, this crusade to clean up vice, and these were two very innocent young women, and they were asking each other do you know about these things.

So we wrote them a song called "I Wonder What It's Like to Be With a Man." Well, when we did our pre-Broadway tour, there were a few women critics, and they loved the song, but all of the male critics were made uncomfortable by it, which was a surprise, and the song was cut.

Years later there was a production of the show at a place called the Equity Library Theater, and we restored the song, and there were no problems with it at all. Last month the song was done at a staged reading of the show at the York Theater. I had several of my so-called unknown and lesser known shows were done there, and we had two wonderful young leading ladies who did the song, "I Wonder What It's Like," and it almost stopped the show. The applause just went on and on and on, which is a wonderful vindication for the song.

GROSS: It's a great song, and as we listen to this, I think people - what year is this show from?

HARNICK: This is 1960.

GROSS: OK, I want people to think about in 1960, writing the song from the point of view of two virgins who are working on this church crusade, knowing that they're not supposed to be thinking about sex.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And this was not a typical subject, I think, for Broadway in 1960. So here's a wonderful song called "I Wonder What It's Like" with a lyric by my guest Sheldon Harnick, who we'll hear singing, and we'll hear the composer Jerry Bock at the piano and also singing backup vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER WHAT IT'S LIKE")

SHELDON HARNICK AND JERRY BOCK: (Singing) I wonder what it's like, what it's really like to be with a man. I wonder how it feels, how it really feels to be as close as two people can. I know I'll never know until - I know I wouldn't dare until - I know it isn't right until you're married. Of course, to be sure, to be sure, of course, how true, quite true, and still I wonder what it's like, I wonder how it feels to be with a man.

(Singing) Nice girls shouldn't even read about such things, think about such things, dream about such things. So where could you go to ask about you know? The people who do know get all flustered. They become both deaf and dumb as they politely close the subject, draw the curtain. How can a curious girl make certain? There is one way of finding out what every bride discovers, but decent well-bred American girls, especially young Presbyterian girls, don't take lovers, definitely not. And yet I wonder what it's like...

GROSS: That's a recording that's featured on the new double CD "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)" that features a lot of demo recordings that Sheldon Harnick made for plays, you know, for musicals that he wrote. And we just heard him singing a song he wrote the lyric for, "I Wonder What It's Like," with the composer of the song, Jerry Bock, at the piano and chiming in on vocals. And that was cut from the musical "Tenderloin."

It must have been hard for you to write from the point of view of two virgins thinking about sex, I mean because you couldn't come out and say things. First of all, they wouldn't use that language because they were on a church crusade, two young virgins on a church crusade, and also you just didn't use certain language. You didn't use certain words on Broadway in 1960.

HARNICK: That's true, yeah, but I think - that was my inner virgin speaking.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: And any successful lyricist has to be part playwright and has to be able to put himself into the minds and the hearts and the souls of the characters he's writing about. That's part of a lyricist's, a theater lyricist's talent. And I believe that I have that talent.

GROSS: You know, my favorite line is: So where can you go to ask about, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: I know.

GROSS: It's so colloquial, and it's so perfect, and it's so, like, we can't really talk about this, but we know what we're talking - like you capture all of that in those two lines.

HARNICK: Well, what I love about that is the you know is a part of a rhyme, which comes unexpectedly. Where do you go to talk about, you know. The people who do know get all flustered and so forth, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, that's really terrific. If you're just joining us, my guest is lyricist Sheldon Harnick. This is his 90th birthday, and in celebration there's a new double CD of Sheldon Harnick rarities, mostly songs that were cut from musicals, mostly him performing those songs. It's called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)."

HARNICK: I love that word rarities. That's a good description of it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and among the best known shows that he wrote the lyrics for, "Fiorello," "She Loves Me" and "Fiddler on the Roof." There's a new double CD of Sheldon Harnick rarities called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)" that includes a lot of songs that were cut from musicals, that most of us have never heard, and on most of these recordings, he's singing.

So let's play another rarity from this new double CD, and this is from a TV musical that I've never seen from 1966 called "The Canterville Ghost," and the song is called "I Worry." Do you want to talk about writing this lyric?

HARNICK: Yes, one of the characters in the show, the show is about an American advertising man who's in England, working in England, and for his family he rents a castle, not knowing that the castle is haunted by a ghost. His daughter, his young daughter, meets a young English nobleman and falls him love with him, but she has no confidence in herself, and she confesses to him on one occasion that she worries about everything.

And this song was fun to write because I tend to be a worrier, too, and I identified with her.

GROSS: OK, so here it is, a song called "I Worry," which was - has a lyric by my guest Sheldon Harnick. Who wrote the music for this?

HARNICK: This was also Jerry Bock.

GROSS: OK, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WORRY")

HARNICK: (Singing) I worry about religion. I worry about my fate. I worry about my parents. I worry about my weight. I worry about my posture. I worry about my tact. Whenever I meet new people, I worry. In fact there are so many things I would like to try that I'll never try, I'm afraid to try. For what if I should fail? And what if someone left? I think that I would die.

(Singing) I worry about the future. I worry about the past. I worry about the present. It's lovely, but will it last? I worry about most everything, and as a final touch, I worry that maybe I worry too much.

GROSS: That's a song from a 1966 TV musical called "The Canterville Ghost," sung by the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, with the composer Jerry Bock at the piano. I like the line I worry about the future, I worry about the past. I worry about the present. It's lovely, but will it last?

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: I know. That's the way I feel and these days more than ever.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you said you're a worrier. What are the things that you worry most about, that have, like, you've always worried about?

HARNICK: Well, up until "Fiorello," I guess, I worried about being able to make a living in the theater. My parents also worried about that. They suggested that my brother and I open a shoe store. They said you can write your songs at night, but during the day you'll make a living. So that was one of the things.

I had had two unsuccessful marriages. I worried whether I would have a relationship that would last. That turned out to be when I met Margie(ph), that problem got solved. I worry today when I look at the newspaper, there's endless worry. I worry about climate change. I worry about the Crimea, about Russia and Crimea. There's - if you're happy worrying, there's an endless supply of things to worry about.

GROSS: Now you say that Jerry Bock, the composer with whom you wrote the most songs, was different from you in that respect. You describe him as an ebullient gentleman who exuded self-confidence. So if you were a worrier, and he was ebullient and self-confident, how did that play out in writing songs together and in preparing before a show because you'd probably be worrying about whether it was going to do well, and maybe he'd be confident.

HARNICK: That's exactly right. Jerry, he seemed to have endless self-confidence, and it's reflected in the buoyancy of his music, which is I think one of the things that made us a good team is that the blend of his buoyancy and my lack of confidence resulted in, I think, very rich songs.

I enjoyed with people like that. Another person exactly like that was the late Joe Riposo. We did a show together, and Joe was very confident and outgoing and ebullient. It's wonderful to work with people like that.

GROSS: Lyricist Sheldon Harnick will be back in the second half of the show. The new album "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)" features recordings of him singing his own songs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with lyricist Sheldon Harnick. He co-wrote the songs for the musicals "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiorello," "She Loves Me" and "Tenderloin." A new double CD gives us a chance to hear him singing some of his own songs. It's a compilation of his demo recordings and performances. The album is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures" because many of these songs were never used in the shows they were intended for, others were written for reviews early in his career. Our interview was recorded last month, but we held it for today because today is his 90th birthday.

One of the pleasures of this new double CD is that there are songs that you wrote for "Fiddler on the Roof" that were taken out of the musical that were never used.

HARNICK: Many of them.

GROSS: Yeah. And it's you performing them. And "Fiddler on the Roof" is set in 1905 in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia, where the Jews are under attack and eventually forced out. So let's hear one of those songs. And this was supposed to be the opening number for "Fiddler on the Roof." It's called "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet." Tell us about what your intention was in writing this song and why you decided to not use it.

HARNICK: The intention was to start the show with an exciting musical number. And the excitement came from the fact that the sun was going down, the Sabbath was almost here and the mother and the five daughters still had so much work to do, so the mother's urging the girls on to help clean up, get ready for the Sabbath and it just, it made for an exciting musical number.

It wasn't used because when Jerome Robbins became our director, we had many, many meetings before we went on to rehearsal at each meeting he started with the same question, what is this show about? And he would say there's something that gives this show its power and we don't know what it is. And finally at one of those meetings one of us said hey, you know what this show is about? It's about changing of the way of life of a people in these Eastern European communities, these little towns these shtetls, and Robbins got very excited about that. He said if that's the case, then what you have to write is a member about traditions, because we're going to see those traditions change. And that's so important in the show. Every scene or every other scene will be about whether a tradition changes or whether it remains the same. So instead of a song with the mother and the daughters getting ready for the Sabbath, he wanted us to write a song about tradition because he thought that's what the show is really about.

GROSS: And this song actually includes musical lines that were used in other songs for "Fiddler." Do you want to give us an example?

HARNICK: When the song was cut, some of the melodic lines wound up as underscoring for other scenes. And one theme in the song "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet," the theme is (Singing) de, dum, pum, pa, pa, pa, da, pum, pum, pum. While we were in rehearsal, we cut a song that was written for the three older daughters because we had the three older daughters, one was an actress, one was a dancer and one was a singer. They could all sing well enough to sing a simple song, but we wrote a difficult song and the actress and the dancer had trouble with it so the song was cut and we had to write a new song. So we wrote a song, "Matchmaker," which was much simpler. And what Jerry Bock did was he took the theme from "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet." (Singing) dum, pum, pa, pa, pa, da, pum, pum, pum. And he made it into (Singing) de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de. He was very economical. He never wasted anything. He changed that being into the theme for "Matchmaker."

GROSS: And also, you took a line that was originally written for the Sabbath song and used it in "Tradition." But instead of the lyric for "Tradition," it's like, (Singing) there's noodles to be made and chickens to be plucked. What's the lyric...

HARNICK: Oh my God, you pick that out. That's right. Yes.

GROSS: So what's the line that you actually used in "Tradition" instead of there's noodles to be made and chickens to be plucked?

HARNICK: As far as I remember, there was no actual lyric written to that. But what Jerry did, he took the melody for that. At the very beginning of "Fiddler on the Roof," there's a violin solo, an unaccompanied violin solo. And he took that melodic line from "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet" and gave it to the violinist. So he starts by playing, (Singing) bum pa, dum, pum, pum, pum pa, dum, pum, pum. I don't believe that I ever put a lyric to that. There was a lyric put to it. Our publisher, Tommy Valando, said why don't you take that, write a lyric to it so we can publish a song called "Fiddler on the Roof?" So I did. I wrote a special lyric...

GROSS: Oh.

HARNICK: And I know that I remember the first words was (Singing) a way above my head. And it went on from there, I don't remember the lyric. But I wrote a lyric that was meant to be a commercial lyric so we could have a song called "Fiddler on the Roof."

GROSS: Oh, so you'd have a title song.

HARNICK: So we'd have a title song. Yeah. Even...

GROSS: And the song was actually never in the show.

HARNICK: Not in the show, but it was in the sheet music.

GROSS: That's so interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Like another era. Well, OK. So now we have to hear "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet," the song we've been talking about that was cut from the show that was meant to open the show, "Fiddler on the Roof." And we'll hear Sheldon Harnick singing with Jerry Bock at the piano.

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

HARNICK: (Singing) Mama, Mama, we finished what you told us. Mama, Mama, could we go out and play? No. I rubbed and I scrubbed and the table's nice and clean. And I scrubbed all the chairs up and down and in between. Mama, Mama, can we go out? Mama can we go out? Mama can we go and play? There's still too much to do today

Did you change the towels? Uh-huh. Then put on the Sabbath tablecloth, second table and don't go away. (Singing) Mama, Mama, you mustn't be so nervous. Mama, Mama, for heaven sakes, relax. So who can relax when there's so much to be done, keeping one eye on the soup and the other on the sun. Mama, Mama don't be nervous. Mama, we'll be ready long before the sun has set. We've never missed the Sabbath yet.

(Singing) Somehow the house will be clean, floors will be swept, soap will be cooked, things will be boiled and noodles to make and chickens to be plucked and labor to be chopped and Halal to be baked. Raised with the sun, stir at the proper time. The candles can be lit and blessed. There's noodles to make and shave, noodles to be plucked, liver to be chopped, Halal to be baked. Raised with the sun, stir at the proper time and the Halal will be blessed.

GROSS: So that was the song that was written for "Fiddler on the Roof" but never used, so by the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who was accompanied on that by the composer of the song, Jerry Bock. It's featured on the new double CD "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949 to 2013," which features a lot of demo recordings, such as the one we heard that were used for shows that Sheldon Harnick wrote.

Were you sorry that that song wasn't used, that because it's a really good song for the show, even though you substituted tradition for it? Is it frustrating when you write a good song that works for the show, it's not going to have a life outside of it because it's - that kind of song only works in the show.

HARNICK: During the first show that Jerry and I did, "The Body Beautiful," when songs were cut, that was difficult and maybe not heartbreaking, but it was frustrating and very sad. But by the time we did "Fiddler," I had learned that that's the name of the game is rewriting; that when a song does not work or is not right, you have to replace it. And so by the time we did "Fiddler," when songs were thrown out I thought, yeah, I thought yeah, that's a nice song. We can't use it. But the problem was to write something that really was right for the show, that would make the show better, make the show more successful. So I can't say that I was that unhappy when a song was cut.

GROSS: My guest is lyricist Sheldon Harnick. His new compilation is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Sheldon Harnick. He wrote the lyrics for the Broadway musicals "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiorello," "She Loves Me" and "Tenderloin." A new double CD called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures" features him singing some of his own lesser-known songs.

So as the lyricist for some great shows, what did you see as your role during rehearsals for the show? Were you there for the rehearsals? Were you giving notes?

HARNICK: It's so difficult to get a production that when a show's in production I attend every day. It's a gift. My role is to listen and to see if I can make suggestions that will help the performer understand the lyric and be able to perform the lyric better. Also, I listen and make sure that technically they are singing the song, that their diction is right, they're pronouncing all of their consonants, things like that, and in general to try and be as helpful as I can in every way.

Also when we did "Tenderloin" and we were on the road, we found that we were in trouble and I realized that I had not studied the book enough to be of help and I resolved at that point to become thoroughly familiar with a book of every show I did so that if there were troubles that I might have suggestions in that area as well as the area of lyrics.

GROSS: So in the show "Fiddler on the Roof," there's a song called "Anatevka," which the Jews in this small town sing when they are forced out of their village, Anatevka. And it's a very - the song that's used in the show is both about well, it's just a place, it's not an important place, but it's also very nostalgic song for the place that they are being forced to leave, the place that is their only home. But initially, in "Fiddler on the Roof," there is a song called "Letters from America." So tell us what the intention was with "Letters from America" and why it became "Anatevka."

HARNICK: Well, we felt we needed, it's traditional kind of to have an up-tempo song opening the second act to get the second act of to a good start and we felt we needed that. So Joe Stein remembered that his father had told him while he was still in Europe, when people went to America they would write letters describing the life in America that made everybody's mouth water. They just wanted to immediately to move to America, although some of the letters were very funny. Like when correspondent said, you know, we only work half a day here, 12 hours.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: So we wrote the song and part of it was very active. I think you'd call it a kazatsky, a Russian kazatsky. (Singing) Yum pum pa dum. Yum pum pa dum. Ya va da ta dada. Yum pum pa dum. Anyway, it was Hal Prince our producer on the show who pointed out to Jerry Robbins - because Robbins wasn't sure why we were working on. He just wasn't sure that it was a right way to open the act. So he did - he showed when he had created to Hal. And Hal said guys, this is not your usual Broadway show. We don't have to start with the villagers gambling on the green. It's just not the way to start. So what we did was have Zero Mostel, out as Tevye and bring the audience up to date on what had happened since the end of act one.

Then as we worked on the show in our pre-Broadway tour, Robbins came to Jerry Bock and me one day and he said, you know, I want to end the show - or just shortly before the end - I want to have a song for our principles where they're about to be expelled from this village where they've lived all their lives. I want a song and for them which will describe how they feel about having to leave this village, Anatevka. And he said I think if we take that song from "Letters from America" that had been fast and if we slow that down (Singing) Yum pum pa dum. Yum pum pa dum. He said I think that will have the melancholy quality that we need. And Jerry and I love that idea immediately. So then I set to work to write a nostalgic song, because the sole, a premature nostalgia as his principal actors, Tevye and his wife Golda and the butcher and the matchmaker, as they try to imagine what life will be like when they're no longer living in their beloved little Anatevka.

GROSS: So let's hear the demo version that you made out of "Letters from America," The song that was cut. And that we'll segue into a little bit of the song that you wrote instead, "Anatevka," the song that was actually used in "Fiddler on the Roof."

HARNICK: (Singing) Here in Anatevka, 90 percent are behind in the rent and we're hungry to amend. That's a Rothschild saw our town crossed himself and ran.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANATEVKA")

HARNICK: (Singing) Follow, who needs America? Who needs a new community changing our ways to I don't know what? Who needs America? Maybe there's opportunity. Maybe I would like America, who? Anatevka. Anatevka, thoroughly orthodox. Anatevka, where else would Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka, Anatevka, obstinate, orthodox, Anatevka. Though pigs me wanders through the street. Where is the Rabbi more widely renowned or revered? Well, Anatevka hasn't exactly been the Garden of Eden.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Avram) That's true.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Golde) After all, what have we got here? (singing) A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Yente) A pot.

(as Lazar) A pan.

(as Mendel) A broom.

(as Avram) A hat.

(as Tevye) Someone should've set a match to this place years ago.

(as Mendel) A bench.

(as Avram) A tree.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Golde) So what's a stove?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Lazar) Or a house?

(as Mendel) People who pass through Anatevka don't even know they've been here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Golde) A stick of wood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Yente) A piece of cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) What do we leave? Nothing much. Only Anatevka. Anatevka. Anatevka. Underfed, overworked. Anatevka. Where else could Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka. Anatevka. Intimate, obstinate Anatevka. Where I know everyone I meet. Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place. Searching for an old familiar face. From Anatevka. I belong in Anatevka...

GROSS: So we heard two recordings back to back there, "Letters from America." That was the demo version made by the songwriters Jerry Bock and my guest Sheldon Harnick, and then we heard the song that they used instead after they took "Letters from America" out of the show and that song was from the cast recording, the original cast recording, of "Fiddler on the Roof." The song is "Anatevka."

You know, when I hear some of the songs from "Fiddler on the Roof," I get tears in my eyes, in part because my parents had very few albums when I was growing up but they had "Fiddler on the Roof" and they played it over and over and over and over. And it really started to drive me crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But when I hear it now, you know, my parents passed, you know, like several years ago and when I hear it now I think about my parents and I think not only about how good the songs are but I think what those songs meant to them and what it was like for them in the 1960s to go to Broadway and see a show about Jews on a shtetl in Eastern Europe because their parents had been Jews in shtetls in Eastern Europe.

And I'm sure you know how much this musical meant, you know, has meant to so many people.

HARNICK: Yes. One of the things - when Jerome Robbins became our director he told us this story. He said when he was six his parents took him to that part of Poland where their ancestors came from and even at the age of six he remembers it as being a very emotional experience.

Then during World War II as he read about the extermination of these little village by the Nazis he was certain that the village that he had visited when he was six was one of those villages that had been obliterated. So when we gave him the opportunity to direct "Fiddler" he said I want to put that culture back on stage. I want to give it a theatrical life of another 25 years. He was being modest because now it's almost 50 years and it's still going strong.

But he was like a man obsessed with restoring that culture. He did enormous research. And I think Jerry more than anyone else is responsible for the success that "Fiddler" has had. Not that Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I didn't do good work, but it was what Robbins brought to it with this obsession to put that culture back on stage that made the show what it is.

GROSS: You didn't have that obsession, did you?

HARNICK: No. I was just trying to recall the way I was brought up. I was brought up in a section of Chicago which was not a Jewish area but we had - the few Jewish people had managed to pool their resources and keep a synagogue going. The original location of the synagogue was up above a secretarial school. It was just in a hall. And eventually they pooled their resources some more and they bought a church that had been abandoned and turned it into a synagogue.

They worked very hard at keeping their culture alive. I do remember when we wrote "Sunrise Sunset," the first person we played it for was Jerry Bock's wife. And when I perform a song for someone I try not to look at them. It makes me a little upset if they're not paying attention. So I look above them or to the side of them.

Anyway, I sang "Sunrise Sunset" and when I finished, then I looked at Jerry's wife Patti and I was startled to see that she was crying. And I thought my goodness; this song must be more effective than we even know. And the same thing happened - I am not a pianist but the music to "Sunrise Sunset" is easy enough so that I could learn the piano part - and I played it for my sister.

And when I finished I looked and she had tears in her eyes. And that was a very unusual experience.

GROSS: I read that you had briefly considered being a rabbi.

HARNICK: When I was in Hebrew school when I was a kid we had a wonderful rabbi, a livewire. His name - I still remember his name which is significant because I have a terrible memory - his name was Rabbi Glick. He loved children. He loved having us in theatrical events and he was very exciting to be around and I wanted to be like him. I thought I wanted to be a rabbi.

But because he was so appealing and so engaging he got a job in a much wealthier synagogue and he left us. And the man who replaced him reminded me of Charles Laughton...

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: ...in one of his meaner roles. And he was very quick in my Hebrew lessons - if I made a mistake, this rabbi was very quick to slap my hand with a ruler. And I no longer wanted to be a rabbi.

GROSS: That's funny. So if you're just joining us, my guest is Sheldon Harnick, the great lyricist whose Broadway shows include "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiorello," and "She Loves Me." And now there's a new double CD called "Hidden Treasures: Sheldon Harnick 1949 to 2013." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick. He is celebrating his 90th birthday and to celebrate there's a new double CD called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures 1949 to 2013" that features a lot of the demo recordings that he made for his shows. And a lot of the songs that are included on this CD are songs that were taken out of the shows. So most of us have never heard these songs.

Now, something that...

HARNICK: You mention...

GROSS: Yeah.

HARNICK: You mentioned my 90th birthday several times and it suddenly struck me - my goodness, that's old. And the thing is I don't feel old. I don't feel any more than 88.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How's your health?

HARNICK: My health is very good.

GROSS: Great. I'm glad to hear that. When you were starting on Broadway were there songwriters who helped you and gave you advice?

HARNICK: Not that gave me advice. The advice that I got came from Yip Harburg. I met him through - he was my idol and I met him through the performer Charlotte Rae. But as for songwriters, one songwriter who tried to be very helpful was Steve Sondheim. When Steve did not - had got an offer for a job that he didn't particularly want to take, he would recommend me very highly.

And I would get - sometimes I would get calls from those producers. And that was extraordinarily generous of Steve, I thought.

GROSS: How did you first meet him?

HARNICK: That was funny. I hadn't been in New York that long. My brother was already in New York and working. He was in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," I believe, and he called me one day and he said how would you like to see a backers audition? And I said oh, I'd love it. I've never seen one. So we went to see the audition and when they started to do the songs, I thought oh, my god; these songs are brilliant.

And I never heard of the songwriter. I thought if this score by somebody who's an unknown, if the unknowns in New York write like this, I might as well go back to Chicago. I was very depressed by the end of the audition. And my brother said would you like to meet the songwriter? I said no.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: But he introduced me and he said this is Stephen Sondheim. So we became friends. And the end of that story is that when I went home I looked at the ABC ads. I thought I have to see a musical that's terrible and I looked at the ABC ads to see whether there was a title that might suggest that the show would be bad. And there was. There was a show called "Ankles Away."

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: "Ankles Away." So I went to see that and it wasn't very good and I thought there is a place for me in New York.

GROSS: Oh. Because if that could get onto Broadway then you could too?

HARNICK: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: What was the Sondheim thing that you heard, the Sondheim show that you heard at the backers audition?

HARNICK: It was called "Saturday Night."

GROSS: Oh. Yeah.

HARNICK: And...

GROSS: Now, that was his first musical and it's never...

HARNICK: That was his first musical.

GROSS: It was never really staged. Yeah.

HARNICK: Yeah. I think - eventually I think it was done at the Second Stage and the score was wonderful but the book had weaknesses and that's why it never made a name for itself.

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, thank you so much for talking with us. It's just been a treat to hear some of the stories behind some of your songs. And I wish you a great 90th birthday and a great 90th year.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: You have made this a wonderful birthday already.

GROSS: Today is Sheldon Harnick's 90th birthday. His new album of demos and performances is called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures 1949 to 2013." It's a collaboration between Harbinger Records and the Musical Theater Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.