Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick talks ‘Fiddler’ and fish

  • Harnick with the cast of “Fiddler” CONTRIBUTED

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Published: 6/25/2018 10:55:55 PM
Modified: 6/25/2018 10:55:58 PM

Chat with famed Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick or his wife, Margery, and the conversation will likely turn to fish these days.

That’s because the couple have melded their respective artistic talents to produce another striking volume featuring Sheldon’s elegant prose set to Margery’s vibrant photography. While their previous collaboration captured images and words depicting their beloved New York City, their current subject was more confined – a small California fishpond.

“We were visiting our daughter (in Malibu) who took us to a friend’s house with a Koi pond,” recalled Margery from New York. “I took some photos, and when I saw the pictures, I just fell in love with them and realized they could tell a story.”

Koi were first bred for their color in the early 1800s in Japan where they are appropriately called nishikigoi, meaning “living jewels.” Today, the brightly colored fish are found in ornamental fishponds around the world.

“Margie’s photos inspired me to write the text,” said Harnick.

Their 52-page book, “Koi: A Modern Folk Tale,” with a forward by Alan Alda, is steeped in Asian themes.

“Because of their origin, I thought the narrative should take the form of haiku,” explained Harnick, referring to the 3-line verse style of Japanese poetry written in lines of five, seven and five syllables, respectively. His story is also infused with Asian folklore, which tells of Koi being transformed by the gods into dragons as a reward for their perseverance and endurance in life.

Best known for his stage musicals in collaboration with composer Jerry Bock, Harnick is a Tony Award winner (“Fiddler on the Roof,” 1965) and a recipient of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize in Drama (“Fiorello!”). Margery is an accomplished actress, dancer, painter and photographer.

A rarity in the entertainment world, the couple have been married for more than 50 years. “We still hold hands together in the theater,” said Harnick, who turned 94 in April.

In fact, the pair have experienced plenty of hand-holding while attending opening nights during more than 30 Broadway productions featuring Harnick’s songs. His biggest Broadway hit was “Fiddler” amassing over 3,200 performances during its first run with Zero Mostel as Tevye.

While he says he would try to get to know actors in his plays, it wasn’t always easy, especially with Mostel.

“Zero didn’t really let you get close and even off-stage he was always ‘on.’ I remember a party he gave for the cast and everyone turned up and wanted to mingle and eat. But Zero began to entertain his guests and finally his wife had to drag him out of the room. He was someone who always needed an audience.”

“Fiddler” saw five Broadway revivals and countless theatrical productions worldwide, as well as the popular Norman Jewison directed motion picture in 1971. A new production is due to open this summer at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, but with a twist (see www.nytf.org).

“The production is entirely in Yiddish!” said Harnick.

And as they have always done together on opening nights, you can guarantee Sheldon and Margery will be in the audience, holding hands, for the premiere on July 4.

“On open nights, I always just want to see the show, mix with the cast and hopefully congratulate them on their performances.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 700 newspapers and magazines. Visit: www.tinseltowntalks.com  

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