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Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who wrote 'Fiddler on the Roof,' dies at 99

Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick at the Tony Awards in May 2016.
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Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick at the Tony Awards in May 2016.

Updated June 23, 2023 at 10:58 AM ET

One of the last masters of Broadway's Golden Age, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick, has died. He wrote Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello!, among other musicals. He died Friday in New York City of natural causes, according to his publicist. He was 99.

Whether he was writing about New York politician Fiorello LaGuardia, perfume shop employees in Budapest, or a Jewish dairyman in pre-revolutionary Russia, Harnick always wrote lyrics for specific characters in specific situations.

"Part of my talent, as a lyricist," Harnick told NPR in 2014, "is that I believe I think like a playwright, in terms of character, so that I can find different diction, different voices for the different characters."

Harnick's career extended for over 60 years. He came to New York from Chicago in 1950 and began writing songs – both music and lyrics – for topical revues on and off Broadway.

Harnick recalled that it was another famous lyricist, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the writer of Finian's Rainbow and The Wizard of Oz, who gave him some great career advice, after hearing some of Harnick's tunes.

He said, Harnick recounted, "'In my experience, there are more capable theater composers than there are theater lyricists, so you will get invitations to work with other people, besides yourself.' He said, 'Take those invitations. It can facilitate your career.'"

After a couple of partnerships, Harnick met composer Jerry Bock through a mutual friend. They hit it off and Harnick signed with Bock's publisher, Tommy Valando.

"And Tommy worked an actual miracle!" Harnick exclaimed. "He got Jerry and me the job of writing the songs for a new musical called The Body Beautiful, even though Jerry and I had never written a song together, which is still astonishing to me!"

The Body Beautiful was a flop, but producer and director Hal Prince liked their work and hired them for a musical called Fiorello!, which won them a Pulitzer. Prince worked together with Bock and Harnick on four shows; Prince directed She Loves Me and produced Fiddler on the Roof.

"The variety of what they could write was extraordinary," Prince told NPR. "The score of She Loves Me is as good as any score they've ever written, including Fiddler. It's so subtle and intelligent. And everything they wrote was character-driven."

Sheldon Harnick, center, with Jerry Bock, left, and actor Alfie Bass in London after it was announced that Bock would take over the role of Tevye in <em>Fiddler on the Roof</em> in October 1967.
Gary Weaser / Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sheldon Harnick, center, with Jerry Bock, left, and actor Alfie Bass in London after it was announced that Bock would take over the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof in October 1967.

Fiddler on the Roof was directed by Jerome Robbins. Prince says Robbins wasn't satisfied with the original opening number from Fiddler, a song called "We Haven't Missed a Sabbath Yet," because it didn't explain what the show was about.

"We met and we met and we met," Prince explained, "and each time he'd say, 'But what's it about? What's it about?' And finally Sheldon – I've never heard him lose his temper before – said 'Oh, for God's sakes, Jerry, it's about tradition!' And Jerry said, 'That's it! That's what it's about. Write the opening number.'"

So Bock and Harnick wrote "Tradition." And Fiddler on the Roof ran for 3,242 performances on Broadway, has played all over the world, was made into a film and is constantly being revived. Bock and Harnick worked together on a couple more shows, then their partnership broke up. Harnick worked with other composers, among them Richard Rodgers and Michel Legrand.

New York University theater professor Laurence Maslon says he thinks Harnick's shows struck a chord with audiences because Harnick himself was such a sympathetic man.

"Sheldon doesn't have a mean bone in his body," Maslon says, "and his generosity just filters through all this characters. And I think that's why people embraced them, as shows, because Sheldon embraced the audience first, in his lyrics."

And Sheldon Harnick never stopped working in his own lifetime.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 22, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous web version of this story incorrectly said Sheldon Harnick moved to New York in the late 1940s. He moved in 1950.
Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.