From June ’06 Spotlight: 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.