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Remembering Broadway legend and 'Fiddler on the Roof' lyricist Sheldon Harnick

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. One of Broadway's great lyricists, Sheldon Harnick, died last week at the age of 99. In 1964, he and his writing partner, composer Jerry Bock, brought to life a small Jewish village in Czarist Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRADITION")

ZERO MOSTEL: (As Tevye) A fiddler on the roof - sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?

DAVIES: That's Zero Mostel in the original Broadway cast recording of "Fiddler On The Roof." It ran for 3,242 performances, which, at the time, was a Broadway record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRADITION")

MOSTEL: (As Tevye) One word - tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) Tradition, tradition, tradition, tradition, tradition, tradition.

DAVIES: Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock also wrote the Broadway musicals "Fiorello!," a musical about political corruption; "She Loves Me," a love story between two pen pals set in Budapest; and "Tenderloin," set in the red-light district of 1860s Manhattan. Stephen Sondheim said Harnick was one of his favorite lyricists for his, quote, "grace, charm and perfection of setting," unquote. Sheldon Harnick has been a frequent guest on FRESH AIR. We're going to listen to excerpts of three of our interviews with him. We begin with our 1988 interview recorded with Terry Gross. The 1963 cast recording of the musical "She Loves Me," after being long out of print, had just been reissued. Here's the title song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES ME")

DANIEL MASSEY: (As Georg Nowack, singing) She loves me. And to my amazement, I love it, knowing that she loves me. She loves me. True, she doesn't show it. How could she when she doesn't know it? Yesterday she loathed me. But now today she likes me, and tomorrow, tomorrow - ah. My teeth ache from the urge to touch her. I'm speechless, for I mustn't tell her. It's wrong now, but it won't be long now before my love discovers that she and I are lovers. Imagine how surprised she's bound to be. She loves me. She loves me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is this very good news for you that "She Loves Me" has been reissued? Are you glad to see it back in print again?

SHELDON HARNICK: Oh, it certainly is because, along with "Fiddler On The Roof," I think it's the favorite show that I've ever been connected with.

GROSS: It closed after a little over 300 performances...

HARNICK: That's correct.

GROSS: ...On Broadway. The liner notes were written by the producer of this reissue, Larry Lash, and he implies that audiences really wanted brassier entertainment then "She Loves Me" at the time that it opened on Broadway. What was the context that it opened in?

HARNICK: The context, meaning other shows?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

HARNICK: Well, it was 1963. Oh, I don't remember what the other shows were, but I think it's true that "She Loves Me" is a very literate, rather gentle show and, as some people have called it, caviar. It seemed, at the time, to have a limited audience that when - as a matter of fact, when it closed, I was quite distressed because I loved the show so. And for about two years, if I remember correctly, it seemed to be dead, which was both bewildering and depressing. But through the years it got performances, and I began to get letters - Jerry Bock and I both got letters from companies who performed it saying, we love the show. We love to perform it. And that was gratifying. And over the years, little by little, it's made its way into the mainstream of shows that get performed.

GROSS: Let me ask you a couple of things about the title song that we just heard. The initial rhymes are really repetitions. She loves me, but she doesn't know it - no, she loves me, but she doesn't show it. How could she when she doesn't know it? What goes through your mind when you're using, say, two its instead of rhyming an it with a sit or an it with a bit - but to reuse that word?

HARNICK: Oh, that's a different kind of rhyme. The rhyme is not it. If you'll notice, the accent is on the first - is on the prior syllable, show it, know it, and that's done all the time. If it were one word, it would be like action faction. So that's - the rhyme is not necessarily on the last syllable. It's where the stress is. And in those cases, the stress is on show and on know.

GROSS: I like the line, my teeth ache from the urge to touch her. I...

HARNICK: Well, that's an extremely personal line. I was trying to use myself as Georg, and I realized that there are situations with some women where, whatever the feelings are, they get me right in the back of the teeth. Now, I have a - I had a friend who, not having had that experience, he said, what kind of a line is that? He said, my - I love you, and my foot hurts, you know? So it was very personal to me. And I just hope that other people either will identify with it or at least understand what I was saying.

GROSS: I want to play the opening number that you wrote the lyrics for for "She Loves Me." This is called "Good Morning, Good Day." But before we hear it, I'd like you to talk a little bit about the function that this song had to serve within the play 'cause opening numbers are really important. They have to set the tone for everything that's going to follow. And they frequently have to introduce the characters as well.

HARNICK: Right.

GROSS: What are some of the functions this song had to play when you were writing it?

HARNICK: Well, the - I guess the main thing that the song did was to set the tone of the show. And, for good or for bad, it's a gentle tone. It's not a razzle-dazzle opening number. Also, the number - lyrics and music interweave with some of Joe Masteroff's dialogue. So it was really a delineation of character at the top of the show, the people we were going to be spending the next two hours with. And mostly it was that. It was getting you to know them, getting you to get a sense of the fact that they're comrades in this shop that they all work in.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear a part of "Good Morning, Good Day," with the lyrics by my guest, Sheldon Harnick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING, GOOD DAY")

RALPH WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo, singing) Good morning.

NATHANIEL FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos, singing) Good day.

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo, singing) How are you this beautiful day? Isn't this a beautiful morning?

FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos, singing) Very.

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo, singing) Hey, Sipos. How's this?

FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos, singing) That's a very elegant pose. But is all that elegance necessary?

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo) And why not? I represent Maraczek's, don't I? We're not a butcher shop or a hardware store. We're a parfumerie. And that means we're...

FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos, singing) We're stylish...

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo, singing) That's it.

FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos, singing) ...With a quiet dignity.

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo, singing) Yes. And we get the tilt of our hats right.

FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos, singing) That's right.

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo, singing) When I ride my bike, people see what Maraczek's' like. So I think it's very important that I look my best. Here comes Miss Ritter.

FREY: (As Ladislav Sipos) Miss Ritter.

BARBARA BAXLEY: (As Ilona Ritter, singing) Good morning.

NATHANIEL FREY AND RALPH WILLIAMS: (As Ladislav Sipos and Arpad Laszlo, singing) Good day.

BAXLEY: (As Ilona Ritter, singing) How are you this glorious day? Have you seen a lovelier morning?

FREY AND WILLIAMS: (As Ladislav Sipos and Arpad Laszlo, singing) Never.

BAXLEY: (As Ilona Ritter, singing) It's too nice a day to be inside shuffling soap. I have no more energy whatsoever.

Does anybody mind if I take the day off? Arpad, why aren't you old enough to take me away from all this?

WILLIAMS: (As Arpad Laszlo) I'm old enough.

BAXLEY: (As Ilona Ritter) Then marry me, and I'll...

GROSS: When you're writing a lyric, do you find that you frequently throw out the first few versions of it before you come up with the one you like, or are you lucky enough to hit on it the first time?

HARNICK: Well, what I find - funny you should say that. I haven't thought about this for a while - but what I find is quite often the first version of a lyric - it's not that the lyric won't be technically good, and the idea may even be good, but what I find is I don't know the character well enough yet, so that as my acquaintance with the character deepens, then I will look at that lyric and no longer be satisfied with it and think, no, that's really not what the character would say at this time, so that I throw it out and start over again. And if I'm lucky, I'm able to rescue - salvage some of the better lines from the song.

GROSS: You never write pop songs, at least not that I know of. All of your songs are written in the context of a show.

HARNICK: Right. I learned very early that that was not my talent. I was quite disappointed when I discovered that because when I came to New York from Chicago, it was with the idea of being another Irving Berlin, writing for the theater and having songs come out of it that were pop hits. And little by little, as I talked to people and as I looked around and as I was honest with myself, I thought, no, that's not the way I write. So I was hoping that ultimately some of the songs from the shows would become standards, and that's what happened. There's been a few.

GROSS: Well, what did make you realize that your gift was for writing songs within shows and not just pop songs?

HARNICK: Well, I think one of the - there were two experiences, I think. One, I hadn't been in New York too long when I had four songs in an off-Broadway revue called the "Shoestring Revue," and they got very nice press. So I was invited up to meet a publisher, a publisher in the pop field. And I played him my stuff. And after I did, they said, well, your work is too filled with ideas. It's not simple enough for what - what we want is something much simpler. And I thought, I guess that's true. But I write complicated most of the time. Or at least I do try and put ideas in. I thought, well, if that's the case, that's the case.

Then the other experience was after I had met Jerry Bock and we started to work together, there was a period when we didn't particularly have a show to work on, so we worked on a lot of what were meant to be pop songs, and we didn't sell any of them. And at a certain point we looked at each other and thought, well, that's not what we do.

DAVIES: Sheldon Harnick, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're remembering lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who died last week at the age of 99. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Harnick, recorded in 1988.

GROSS: Before you started working with composer Jerry Bock, you were writing music for your own songs. And I think it was Yip Harburg, the lyricist who's probably best known for writing lyrics to "The Wizard Of Oz," who told you to stick to lyrics. Was that good advice?

HARNICK: Yes. Well, it certainly facilitated my career. What he did was to tell me that in his estimation at that time - this was the early '50s - that there were more capable theater composers than there were capable theater lyricists. So what he actually said was, if you - you can facilitate your career by agreeing to collaborate with other composers instead of writing music yourself. And that's what I did. Shortly before he died, as a matter of fact, he told a good friend of mine, Madeline Gilford, who was a very close friend of his - my name came up in a conversation they were having, and Yip said, I wonder if I did that young man a disservice. He said, his music was fine, but I was - I wanted him to get ahead faster, so I wanted him to work with other people. And I hope I didn't steer him away from writing his own music.

GROSS: I think one of the things that would be really nice about writing lyrics to somebody else's music is that you've got a variety of lines to write to, that you've got - if the music's coming first, you have somebody else's lines to fit your words and rhymes to, and that there'd be less of a possibility of getting stuck or of rewriting the same song.

HARNICK: Well, there's always the possibility of getting stuck. But what is wonderful about writing with someone else - there's two things that come to mind. One is that music, although people consider it as an abstract art form, music to me is very concrete. Music says certain things so that when I hear a piece of music, when Jerry used to give me a tape with a lot of new music on it, music suggests ideas. Music suggests emotions and moods. And I would find myself getting ideas for lyrics that I wouldn't have had if I hadn't heard those pieces of music. So that was wonderful.

The other thing is, as you were implying, one of the difficult things to create in writing a lyric is the form of the lyric, or at least it's difficult for me. Maybe other people don't have that problem. But to create a fresh form is not always easy. And when someone gives you a piece of music, the form is there, so you don't have to worry about that. All you have to worry about is the other things - singability and clarity and rhyme and things like that.

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim back at his lecture on lyrics that he gave at the New York Y years ago - this was in the 1970s - said that you were one of his favorite lyricists and that he liked your work for its grace, its charm and its perfection of setting. And I think that perfection of setting has really been an important one for you. And I think of the different kinds of settings you've had to write - for "Fiorello," which is about New York politics, "Fiddler On The Roof," which is set in an Eastern European shtetl. I mean, those are two really different extremes that you had to write lyrics for.

HARNICK: I - well, I do my research. And as a matter of fact, I think that accounts for the - I think, the least successful show that I did.

GROSS: Which one?

HARNICK: The first one with Jerry Bock was called "The Body Beautiful." And I accepted the show because I was very hungry to get a show on Broadway, but it was not the show I should have done. It was about boxing. And boxing was a sport and a milieu that I really had almost no interest in. So although I did my research, my heart wasn't in it.

GROSS: Well, "Fiddler On The Roof," which was a very unusual setting, the Eastern European shtetl, was one of your most successful shows and one of the most successful shows on Broadway, probably. This was one of the shows that you initiated the idea for.

HARNICK: Right. A friend had sent me a novel by Sholem Aleichem, a book called "Wandering Star," about a Yiddish theatrical troupe touring all over Russia and Poland. And I loved it. And I gave it to Jerry Bock to read. He loved it. And we gave it to Joe Stein to read. Joe read it. And he said, it's too sprawling. It covers 40 years. It has a cast - I mean, it has about 80 characters. It's just too big, he said, but the writing is wonderful. And it's very inherently musical. Why don't we look for more things by Sholem Aleichem? So we did, and we found the Tevye stories, which we then optioned and began the project ourselves.

GROSS: We were talking before about songs that do and don't have lives outside of the show. And you said you always wanted to write songs that would have a life outside of the show. I think the songs in "Fiddler On The Roof" certainly did. And I think especially of "Sunrise, Sunset," about how many weddings...

HARNICK: Right.

GROSS: ...That song has been sung at. Can I ask you to recite the lyrics from the song?

HARNICK: I think I can.

GROSS: Or the opening (laughter).

HARNICK: I think I can remember the first chorus, anyway.

GROSS: OK.

HARNICK: 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 that they were small? Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly flow the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze. Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly fly the years, one season following another, laden with happiness and tears.

GROSS: What came first in that song when you were writing it?

HARNICK: The music. And I remember it very vividly. Jerry Bock was living in New Rochelle at the time. And I would take the train out there. We would go into his basement, where he had a studio. And he played me the music for "Sunrise, Sunset." And I just - I was so moved by it, I had the experience of having - I've used this phrase describing this experience before. I had the experience of having lyrics kind of crystallize on the notes. It came out very fast, very rapidly. And we were both so thrilled with it that we called Jerry's wife, Patti. We said, come down, come down. And she ran down to the basement, and we played it, and she wept.

GROSS: When you're looking at a book that you're going to be writing the lyrics for, how do you know where the songs go? What makes the place in a Broadway book for a song?

HARNICK: Well, there can be a number of different places. One, of course, which we're all taught, is that one looks for the emotional high point of the scene, where the emotion is so strong that the words want to start soaring instead of just being spoken. You want the addition of music to deepen the emotion.

But also, there can be a spot - oh, for instance, in "Fiorello!," as Jerome Weidman wrote the book, he had a scene in a political clubhouse where the men were playing poker. And I thought, oh, my, I played a lot of poker in the Army. And I remembered a lot of the colorful lingo that went with poker. And I thought, I want to use that lingo for a colorful lyric. So I spoke to Jerome Weidman. And I said, I want to borrow some of your lines. And I want to change a large part of this poker game into music. And he said, be my guest. He was very generous. So I did that.

GROSS: You remember any of the lyric? This is "Politics And Poker" you're talking about, right?

HARNICK: This is "Politics And Poker." Well, the first part was all that king bets. I panic whenever anybody asks me to remember one of my lyrics. But it's...

GROSS: (Laughter) Feel like an imposter when that happens?

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: They'll see right through me. They'll see that I have this small boy who comes in and does all my lyrics for me.

GROSS: (Laughter). One last question. When you're writing lyrics for a song, where are you? At the piano, at the desk, on the couch, driving in the car?

HARNICK: I'm various places. Where I prefer to be when I start is in a reclining chair. And on a little end table next to the chair is my thesaurus and my rhyming dictionary if I need them. But I like to be quiet and calm and just in a position to think, and hoping that the phone won't ring because I'm a compulsive answerer. Then once the lyric is started and it reaches a point where I'm excited about what I'm doing, then it can be on a subway, on a train, walking around the city. In fact, I have to be careful that I don't walk right out into traffic.

GROSS: (Laughter) I thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you.

HARNICK: Well, thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Lyricist Sheldon Harnick speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Harnick died last week at the age of 99. After a break, we'll hear parts of two other interviews with him. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE, SUNSET")

MOSTEL: (As Tevye, singing) Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?

MARIA KARNILOVA: (As Golde, singing) I don't remember growing older. When did they?

MOSTEL: (As Tevye, singing) When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be this tall?

KARNILOVA: (As Golde, singing) Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters, singing) Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly flow the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze. Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDDIE GOMEZ'S "MATCHMAKER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Today we're remembering lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who died last week at the age of 99. He, along with his writing partner composer Jerry Bock, wrote the Broadway musicals "Fiorello!," "She Loves Me" and "Fiddler On The Roof." In 2004, Terry spoke with Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock on the occasion of the Broadway revival of "Fiddler On The Roof." It starred Alfred Molina as Tevye, the role originated by Zero Mostel. They talked about writing the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARNICK: The only piece of music that I can think of that was definitely influenced by Jewish music was "If I Were A Rich Man" because Jerry and I had gone down to see a Hebrew actors union benefit. We went down looking to see whether there was - were there any performers in that that would be useful for our show. And there was one. There was a man named Zvee Scooler, who became our innkeeper. But as part of the entertainment, a mother and daughter came out. And they did a Hasidic chant all in thirds and sixths with just syllables, no actual words. And Jerry called me the next day, saying he'd been so taken with this that it's inspired him to write something similar.

JERRY BOCK: And that was a collaborative thing, again, because what affected us was both the word chant as well as the accompanying music. But once again, I think we converted it into our own variation of same.

HARNICK: Right.

GROSS: Well, Sheldon Harnick...

BOCK: And it was - after all, it's only part - I don't want to put it down because I think it's a surprising part and an endearing part of the whole song, "If I Were A Rich Man."

GROSS: Well, I'm going to play "If I Were A Rich Man," and this is the only track that I'm going to play from the original cast recording 'cause - because Zero Mostel is so famous for how he interpreted this song. So let's hear Zero Mostel from the original cast recording doing "If I Were A Rich Man."

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

MOSTEL: (As Tevye) Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor, either. So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune? (Singing) If I were a rich man, (vocalizing), all day long, I'd biddy-biddy-bum (ph) if I were a wealthy man. I wouldn't have to work hard, (vocalizing), if I were a biddy-biddy (ph) rich, daidle-deedle-daidle-daidle (ph) man. I'd build a big, tall house with rooms by the dozen right in the middle of the town, a fine tin roof with real wooden floors below. There could be one long staircase just going up and one even longer coming down and one more leading nowhere just for show. I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks for the town to see and hear, squawking just as noisily as they can. And each loud (vocalizing) will land like a trumpet on the ear as if to say, here lives a wealthy man. Oh, if I were a rich man, (vocalizing)...

GROSS: Zero Mostel from the original cast recording doing "If I Were A Rich Man." There's a new cast recording from the new revival that's out, and we'll hear more from that in a moment. My guests are Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to the show, and Jerry Bock, who wrote the music. Sheldon Harnick, the yaidle-deedle dig-a-dig-a-do (ph) part (laughter)...

HARNICK: Right.

GROSS: Did you actually write out the syllables that you wanted Zero Mostel to sing?

HARNICK: Well, it wasn't that I necessarily wrote them for Zero, but what happened was this. When Jerry played me the music he wrote, he did the whole song in that kind of a Hasidic chant. And we decided that it would be great fun to preserve part of the chant and not just to write wall-to-wall lyrics for the song. But my problem was I don't come from a background where I was comfortable chanting in that fashion. And I thought, OK, I'll have to create some kind of syllables which give the effect of that kind of chanting.

And I came up with the daiddle-deedle-daiddle dig-a-dig-a deedle-daiddle-dum (ph), which I thought was kind of fun and sounded a little like the chanting. But when we played the song for Zero, he said, I come from a background - I don't want to do the syllables you've written. Is it OK with you if I do it the way I think it should be done? And I said, absolutely. I said, I can't sing it that way. So Zero did it with his - stylistically, it sounded quite...

BOCK: Authentic.

HARNICK: ...Authentic, yeah. So when I perform the song, I have to do it with the syllables 'cause that's the only way I can sing it.

BOCK: By the way, if Sheldon had said, no, absolutely not; you must do the lyric, he would have done it his way anyway.

HARNICK: Right.

GROSS: Was he hard...

HARNICK: Well, I was...

GROSS: ...Or easy to work with?

HARNICK: He was...

BOCK: Both.

HARNICK: In terms of music, he was - although he was not a singer, he was extremely musical.

BOCK: Yes.

HARNICK: So that - in that sense, he was very easy. And as a matter of fact, he did me a huge favor. After he started to learn "If I Were A Rich Man," I got nervous about it because I thought most of the song is rather droll. And then I went for a serious ending, and I began to worry whether I should change the ending and make the ending droll also. So I suggested that in a conference we had one day. I think Hal Prince was there and Jerome Robbins and Zero. And Zero looked at me. He said Sheldon - he said, don't change the ending. If you want to - this is the man. He said, it's - the jokes in the song are terrific. But this is the man that you've described, the man who wants a seat by the Eastern wall, who wants to be able to pray. This is the real Tevye. So he saved - and we kept the ending, and I'm glad we did.

BOCK: I'm glad, too.

GROSS: Here's one of the show's most popular songs, "To Life," performed by Alfred Molina as Tevye and David Wohl as the butcher Lazar Wolf. They're drinking a toast because Tevye has just agreed to let the butcher marry Tevye's daughter, Tzeitel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO LIFE")

ALFRED MOLINA: (As Tevye) Let's drink on it.

DAVID WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf) Why not?

MOLINA: (As Tevye) To you.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf) No, my friend, to you.

MOLINA: (As Tevye) To the both of us.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf) To our agreement.

MOLINA: (As Tevye) To our agreement, to our prosperity, to good health and happiness but, most important, (singing) to life, to life, l'chaim.

ALFRED MOLINA AND DAVID WOHL: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing) L'chaim, l'chaim, to life.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Here's to the father I've tried to be.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf, singing) Here's to my bride-to-be.

MOLINA AND WOHL: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing) Drink, l'chaim, to life, to life - l'chaim, l'chaim, l'chaim, to life.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Life has a way of confusing us.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf, singing) Blessing and bruising us.

MOLINA AND WOHL: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing) Drink, l'chaim, to life.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf, singing) How much more can we be joyful when there's really something to be joyful for?

MOLINA AND WOHL: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing) To life, to life, l'chaim.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) To Tzeitel, my daughter.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf, singing) My wife. It gives you something to think about.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Something to drink about.

MOLINA AND WOHL: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing) Drink, l'chaim, to life.

WOHL: (As Lazar Wolf) Reb Morta.

GROSS: This is the only song that actually has a Yiddish word in it, l'chaim, which is a toast to life. So, Sheldon Harnick, when you were writing the lyrics, it seems to me you intentionally avoided using anything Yiddish with the exception of this song.

HARNICK: Well, there is one other song. The dream uses the word mazel tov.

GROSS: Oh.

HARNICK: But...

GROSS: That's true - a blessing on your head.

HARNICK: Yeah.

GROSS: Mazel tov. Mazel tov.

HARNICK: Well, there was a reason for that. Short - not too long before we went into rehearsal, I went to see a comedian named Lenny Bruce. I'd heard that Lenny Bruce was controversial because he used a lot of profanity and obscenities in his act. And I was curious. So I went to see him. And it turned out that the obscenities and the profanities were all done as characters that he portrayed. And so they sounded like things those particular characters would actually say. And I wasn't disturbed by the profanity or the obscenity at all. What did disturb me was that when he wasn't doing the characters and he was just talking, he would throw in Yiddish words. And they would get - they would elicit laughter from a few people here and there. But many of the other people in the club turned to each other and said, what did he say? What did he say?

So I thought it'll be probably useful to use a couple of Yiddish words in our show, in the dialogue and in the lyrics - just a couple for flavoring. But if anyone laughs when they're used, then they come out. And also, when they're used, they have to be used in a way that the audience will know what they mean. So, of course, in "To Life," there's an explanation...

BOCK: You defined it.

HARNICK: ...That goes along with these words.

BOCK: Right.

HARNICK: To life, to life, l'chaim, l'chaim. Nobody can miss that. And the word mazel tov is usually used in a setting where it's pretty clear that it means congratulations, you know?

BOCK: Yes, yes.

HARNICK: Good fortune.

BOCK: Unhappily, after the show was running - the original show was running, our dear star Zero would occasionally go into a matinee and use more Yiddish than we ever could have dreamed of in certain performances to sort of make him a confidant of what he thought that kind of audience was. We all thought that was naughty, to put it mildly.

GROSS: Did you yell at him afterwards?

HARNICK: Yes. Yes. Joe Stein made a terrible mistake one day. We were in the audience when he used a kind of really naughty Yiddish word. And we went backstage, and Joe said to him - he said, Zero, you were wonderful today. Buddy Hackett couldn't have done it better.

(LAUGHTER)

HARNICK: And Zero was furious. And he said, what do you mean by that? And Joe said - he said, Zero, do you have to add those kind of words, especially the words that have the naughty implications? And Zero kind of did what he wanted.

BOCK: Yeah.

HARNICK: So it was another two weeks before he would take those words out. And then when he thought, OK, I've done it enough, then he took it out. So that answers your question. Yes, he was difficult, but audiences adored him. You know, even - whatever he did, usually what he did was so funny that audiences just loved him.

DAVIES: Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. When we come back, we'll hear some of Terry's 2014 interview with Harnick commemorating his 90th birthday. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY'S "MATCHMAKER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Lyricist Sheldon Harnick died last week at the age of 99. With composer Jerry Bock, he wrote the Broadway musicals "Fiddler On The Roof," "Fiorello!" and "She Loves Me." He's been a frequent guest on FRESH AIR. And today we're listening back to portions of our interviews with him. Terry spoke with him in 2014 for his 90th birthday. He had just released "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949 To 2013," a collection of demos and performances of himself singing, some of them songs that never made it into the shows they were intended for. He talked about he and Jerry Bock's working method. Bock would write the musical numbers and send a tape of them to Harnick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARNICK: 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 the 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: 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, well, you could tell us why it was never actually in "Fiorello!" So...

HARNICK: OK.

GROSS: 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: (Singing) He doesn't love me. I know it's true. The signs lines are all too clear, but loving him the way I do, where do I go from here? The time is...

GROSS: That's Sheldon Harnick singing his lyrics 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 Fischer, who was La Guardia'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 it 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.

DAVIES: Sheldon Harnick speaking with Terry Gross in 2014. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY'S "DO YOU LOVE ME?")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're remembering lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who died last week at the age of 99. Let's get back to Terry Gross's conversation with Harnick recorded in 2014, when he'd turned 90 and had released "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013)," a collection of demos and performances of himself singing.

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're 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 a 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 was 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 thought we needed an - it's traditional kind of to have an up-tempo song opening the second act to get the second act off to a good start. And we thought 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 move to America, although some of the letters were very funny, like one correspondent said, you know, we only work half a day here, 12 hours.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARNICK: So we wrote the song, and part of it - a part of it was very active. I think you'd call it a kazotsky, a Russian kazotsky - (vocalizing). Anyway, it was Hal Prince, our producer on the show, who pointed out to Jerry Robbins - 'cause Robbins wasn't sure while we were working on it. He just wasn't sure that it was the right way to open the act. So we - he did - he showed what 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 gamboling on the green. It's just not the way to start. So what we did was have Zero Mostel come 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 principals where they're about to be expelled from this village where they've lived all their lives. I want a song 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 - (vocalizing) - he said, I think that will have the melancholy quality that we need. And Jerry and I bought that idea immediately. So then I set to work to write a nostalgic song because - a song of premature nostalgia as these principal actors - Tevye and his wife, Golde, 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 of "Letters From America," the song that was cut, and then 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTERS FROM AMERICA")

HARNICK: (Singing) Here in Anatevka, 90% are behind in the rent. And we're hungry to a man. Once, a Rothschild saw our town, crossed himself and ran. However, 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'd like America. But in Anatevka, Anatevka - thoroughly Orthodox Anatevka - where else could Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka, Anatevka - obstinate, Orthodox Anatevka - though pigs may wander through the street, where is the rabbi more widely renowned or revered?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANATEVKA")

BEA ARTHUR: (As Yente) Well, Anatevka hasn't exactly been the Garden of Eden.

PAUL LIPSON: (As Tevye) That's true.

KARNILOVA: (As Golde) After all, what have we got here? (Singing) A little bit of this. A little bit of that.

ARTHUR: (As Yente) A pot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Mordcha) A pan.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mendel) A broom.

MICHAEL GRANGER: (As Lazar) A hat.

LIPSON: (As Tevye) Someone should have set a match to this place years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Avram) A bench?

GRANGER: (As Lazar) A tree?

KARNILOVA: (As Golde) So what's a stove?

GRANGER: (As Lazar) Or a house?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mendel) People who pass through Anatevka don't even know they've been here.

KARNILOVA: (As Golde) A stick of wood.

ARTHUR: (As Yente) A piece of cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, 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.

GROSS: So you said you were 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. And 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'd had two unsuccessful marriages. I worried whether I would have a relationship that would last. That turned out to be when I met Margie that, that problem got solved. I worry today. When I look at the newspaper, there's endless worry. I worry about climate change. 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...

HARNICK: I think...

GROSS: ...And in preparing before a show? Because you'd probably be worrying...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...About whether it's 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.

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.

HARNICK: (Laughter) You have made this a wonderful birthday already.

DAVIES: Sheldon Harnick speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2014. She spoke to him on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Harnick died last week at the age of 99.

On Monday's show, we'll continue the holiday weekend by listening to our interview with Neil Diamond. He's the subject of a new Broadway play called "A Beautiful Noise." And we'll remember Oscar-winning actress and member of the British parliament Glenda Jackson, who died earlier this month. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.