Sheldon Harnick dies at 99 — the Broadway lyricist wrote 'Fiddler on the Roof' The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist was one of the last masters of Broadway's Golden Age. His career extended over 60 years.

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

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the last masters of Broadway's golden age has died. Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics for "Fiddler On The Roof" and "Fiorello!," among other musicals. He was 99. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Whether he was writing about a New York politician...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NAME'S LAGUARDIA")

TOM BOSLEY: (As Fiorello LaGuardia, singing) The name's LaGuardia - L-A-G-U-A-R-D-I-A.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing) L-A-G-U-A-R-D-I-A.

LUNDEN: ...Or perfume shop employees in Budapest...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES ME")

DANIEL MASSEY: (As Georg, singing) She loves me. And to my amazement, I love it, knowing that she loves me. She loves me.

LUNDEN: ...Or a Jewish dairyman in pre-revolutionary Russia...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WERE A RICH MAN")

ZERO MOSTEL: (As Tevye, singing) All day long, I'd biddy-biddy-bum (ph) if I were a wealthy man.

LUNDEN: ...Sheldon Harnick always wrote lyrics for specific characters in specific situations, he told NPR in 2014.

SHELDON HARNICK: Part of my talent as a lyricist 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.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY LITTLE MINUET")

HARNICK: (Singing) There's hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.

LUNDEN: 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.

HARNICK: He said, 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.

LUNDEN: 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.

HARNICK: And Tommy worked an actual miracle. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST MY LUCK")

HARNICK: (Singing) Why is it just my luck that I'm still in love?

LUNDEN: The show 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.

HARNICK: The variety of what they could write was extraordinary. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ICE CREAM")

BARBARA COOK: (As Amalia, singing) He brought me ice cream, vanilla ice cream. Imagine that - ice cream.

LUNDEN: Prince directed "She Loves Me" and produced "Fiddler On The Roof," which was directed by Jerome Robbins. Here's a rare recording of Bock and Harnick singing the original opening number from "Fiddler," "We Haven't Missed A Sabbath Yet."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE HAVEN'T MISSED A SABBATH YET")

HARNICK: (Singing) A race with the sun so at the proper time, the candle can be lit and blessed.

JERRY BOCK: (Singing) The liver will be chopped. The challah will be baked.

LUNDEN: Hal Prince says Jerome Robbins wasn't satisfied with the song because it didn't explain what the show was about.

HAL PRINCE: We met and we met and we met. And each time he'd say, but what's it about? What's it about? And finally, Sheldon - I'd 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 about. Write the opening number.

LUNDEN: So Bock and Harnick wrote "Tradition."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRADITION")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) ...To have the final word at home. The papa, the papa - tradition. The papa, the papa...

LUNDEN: "Fiddler On The Roof" ran for 3,242 performances on Broadway, 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, and Harnick worked with other composers, among them Richard Rodgers and Michel Legrand. NYU theater professor Laurence Maslon says he thinks Harnick shows struck a chord with audiences because Harnick himself was such a sympathetic man.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN MY OWN LIFETIME")

HARNICK: (Singing) In my own lifetime, I want to see the fighting cease.

LUNDEN: And Sheldon Harnick never stopped working in his own lifetime. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE, SUNSET")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (As characters, singing) Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset.

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