Award-winning Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick, of 'Fiddler on the Roof' fame, dead at 99

 June 24, 2023

Famed Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick, perhaps best known for his many beloved songs in "Fiddler on the Roof," has passed away at the age of 99, according to Deadline.

Per his spokesman, Sean Katz, Harnick died of natural causes at his home in Manhattan, New York, on Friday.

An award-winning songwriting collaboration

The Associated Press reported that Harnick was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and then attended the Northwestern University School of Music, where he studied the violin and earned a bachelor's degree in music.

He was more interested in songwriting than playing the violin, however, and eventually moved to New York City to begin his career in theater both on and off-Broadway.

It was there that Harnick met composer Jerry Bock, with whom he would go on to successfully collaborate with on numerous musicals for 13 years before going their separate ways following a final project together in 1970.

"I think in all of the years that we worked together, I only remember one or two arguments -- and those were at the beginning of the collaboration when we were still feeling each other out," Harnick told the AP of Bock in a 2010 interview. "Once we got past that, he was wonderful to work with."

Best known for "Fiddler on the Roof"

The first big hit for Harnick and Bock came in 1960 with "Fiorello!" about New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, which earned them both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, per the AP.

They would go on to write songs and scores for several other musicals, some better received than others, but without a doubt, their biggest hit ever was 1965's Tony Award-winning "Fiddler on the Roof," which was adapted from a collection of stories about a family of Orthodox Jews struggling to survive in Imperial Russia in 1905.

It featured numerous memorable hit songs like "If I Were a Rich Man," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," and "Sunrise, Sunset," and after an eight-year initial run the play has been revived countless times, from Broadway to off-Broadway to even high school theaters all across the country.

"His lyrics were clear and purposeful and never lapsed into cliche," Harvey Fierstein, who played lead character Teyve in a 2004 Broadway revival, said in a statement about Harnick, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "You’d never catch him relying on easy rhymes or ‘lists’ to fill a musical phrase. He always sought and told the truth for the character and so made acting his songs a joy. A JOY! A JOY!!!! I can’t say that loudly enough. And this atheist will pronounce it … a blessing!"

Survived by wife, children, and grandchildren

THR reported that Harnick, in a 2016 interview with the L.A. Times, explained his successful profession as, "A theater lyricist is a playwright who writes short plays in verse that have to be set to music."

"The important thing is that no matter how clever you are or how complicated the song is, you have to write something that is immediately comprehensible to an audience. They have to hear it and understand it as it is sung," he added. "You also have to write for character and for situation. Characters can’t sound like when they speak, they’re one person, and when they sing, they’re somebody else."

THR noted that Harnick was first married to fellow Northwestern alum Mary Boatner from 1950-1957, then later was briefly wed to comedienne Elaine May from 1962-1963.

He is survived by his third wife, actress Margery Gray, who starred in two of his plays before they were married in 1965, as well as their two children, Beth and Matthew, along with four grandchildren -- Vaughn, Melody, Heather and Ashley.

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