Sheldon Harnick, best known as the man who wrote all the beloved lyrics for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, came to Chicago recently to celebrate his 82nd birthday. Harnick was born and raised here, and received a degree from the School of Music at Northwestern University before heading off to the Big Apple.
On Friday, April 28, Harnick was inducted into the Waa-Mu Wall of Fame during the diamond anniversary festivities for Northwestern’s world-famous Waa-Mu show. (He composed songs for three Waa-Mu shows during his student years, and continued to contribute material as an alum.) The next morning, Harnick headlined a fund-raiser for the TimeLine Theatre at the Three Arts Club (soon to be remodeled and transformed into the company’s new home). Even though his birthday was on Sunday, TimeLine’s Artistic Director PJ Powers lead the packed crowd in a rousing chorus anyway. As we got to the name line there was a slight hesitation but, good Chicagoan that he is, PJ plowed right through the formalities: “Happy Birthday, Dear Sheldon; Happy Birthday to You!”
The mission of the TimeLine Theatre Company is to present “stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues,” and in that spirit they are currently presenting FIORELLO!, the first hit Harnick wrote with his primary collaborator, Jerry Bock. Based on the life of legendary New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, FIORELLO! won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award in 1959, but has seldom been revived since. Now events converge into fortuitous timing: Chicago recently hosted the largest immigrants’ rights march in the nation and Jon Stewart has nightly fun lampooning Washington cronyism. So what could be more relevant than a tribute to voters wise enough to aim this 5’2” populist at a power structure reeking of corruption?
And trust the creators of FIDDLER to know that LaGuardia was half-Jewish. (His mother’s birth name was Irene Coen.) On the campaign stump, Fiorello rabble-rouses in Italian, and Yiddish: “Ich bin LaGuardia! Tammany iz nicht kosher!” The climax of the scene is almost a dress rehearsal for Tzeitel’s wedding.
Harnick is a fabulous raconteur with many wonderful stories to tell. “When Howard Da Silva auditioned [for the role of political kingmaker Ben Marino] he had a chip on his shoulder because he had been blacklisted and he was sure we would reject him. But George Abbot [who co-wrote FIORELLO!’s libretto and directed the original production] didn’t care, and FIORELLO! restored Da Silva’s career.” Terry Hamilton, who pays Marino in the TimeLine production also makes the most of his two show-stoppers “Politics and Poker,” and “Little Tin Box,” a testament to the strength of the material as well as the courage of its creators.
FIORELLO! runs through June 18. To order tickets, call 773-281-TIME (8463) or visit the TimeLine website.
For something totally present tense, check out THE CLEAN HOUSE at the Goodman. Sarah Ruhl’s play was nominated for a Pulitzer last year and while I found it flawed, the Wilmette native is definitely someone to watch. Ruhl’s protagonist is a woman named Lane; cool and reserved, Lane is a very proper WASPette who always wears white and likes things just so. Her nemesis is Ana: colorful, passionate, messy, and you guessed it, Jewish. The cast has great fun with Ruhl’s dialogue, which is cleverly constructed even though it lacks depth, but the real star is Todd Rosenthal, who designed the sets.
THE CLEAN HOUSE runs through June 4. To order tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit the Goodman website.
Lakeview therapist Diane Schank is kvelling over her daughter’s new book A MORE PERFECT UNION: HOW I SURVIVED THE HAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE, and she invites us all to Hana’s book-signing event at 7 PM on Thursday June 22 at The Hideout (in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood). A MORE PERFECT UNION dissects modern American wedding rituals from both first-person and third-person perspectives. While recounting her own struggle under the bombardment of psycho/social expectations, Hana adroitly folds relevant cultural history into her narrative to remind us that few traditions, if any, actually date back to Mount Sinai.
Everyone comes to wedding planning with inchoate emotions, and for most Americans this means sorting through a huge multicultural grab bag. Perfect example: the best man, who is not Jewish, gets very upset when the groom, who is Jewish, decides he doesn’t want to wear a yarmulke. The father of the bride expects the rabbi to discipline his son-in-law-to-be, but the rabbi thinks it best to defer to the bridal couple. Oy!
The Hideout is located at 1354 West Wabansia. For more information about the 6/22 event, visit their website. To learn more about Hana, order her books, and/or read additional reviews of A MORE PERFECT UNION, visit her website. To see pictures of baby Milo and find out what Hana has been up to since “the big day,” go directly to her blog — MORE PERFECT — “wherein I attempt to do all the things that women are supposed to do and generally make myself miserable in the process.”
NOTE: In case it’s not clear from the above, Hana has a great sense of humor, and her turns of phrase are often hilarious.
Joe Lelyveld, retired foreign correspondent and former editor of THE MEW YORK TIMES, spoke to an overflow audience at the Newberry Library on Thursday April 20. The program, co-sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival, coincided with the paperback release of Lelyveld’s new memoir OMAHA BLUES.
Although the book itself contains many incidents of specific interest to Jewish-Americans (Lelyveld’s father was a rabbi), the Newberry crowd was more focused on current events and Lelyveld was happy to oblige. “We were all very interested in the world during the Cold War. We wanted to know if events were good or bad for America. We no longer care about specific circumstances. Big danger! This leads to the idea that we can go into a country and ‘straighten things out.’ No big deal!”
Click here to order OMAHA BLUES from Amazon.com.
TZIVI’S DVD COLLECTION
Facets Multimedia has just released a DVD version of WAITING FOR THE MOON, Jill Godmilow’s loving tribute to intellectual gadfly Gertrude Stein. Godmilow teaches at Notre Dame where she obsesses on questions like: “How real is the reality in documentary films?” In her commentary on the new Facets DVD, Godmilow explains that while the incidents described in WAITING FOR THE MOON are fictional, she believes the emotional content is true. She’s clearly taking her lead from Stein herself, who ends her best-known book THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS as follows: “About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. And she has and this is it.” WAITING FOR THE MOON won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1987 Sundance Festival then lapsed into obscurity. Bravo to Facets for bring it back to us.
Click here to learn more about Facets.
Click here to purchase WAITING FOR THE MOON from Amazon.com.
Click here to read “How Real Is the Reality in Documentary Film?,” a conversation between Jill Godmilow and Ann-Louise Shapiro (historian and Dean of The New School University in Manhattan).
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.