No matter how effortless it may appear, any show you see on the stage is the result of lots of hard work and a little trial and error. New works bound for Broadway are put through a rigorous development process, during which they’ll be written and rewritten, cast members will come and go, and changes will be made up to (and even after) opening night. That was the case for each of the works you’ll learn about in this site.
To get a better idea of how this process works, we turned to a bona fide star who has walked the road to Broadway more than once: Sheldon Harnick. Mr. Harnick is one of the most successful musical theatre writers in history thanks to his witty, evocative, and complex lyrics. His most notable work was with composer Jerry Bock, with whom he wrote the score for Fiddler on the Roof, a great American classic you’ll learn much more about on the next page. Harnick and Bock’s other great musicals include the Pultizer Prize-winning Fiorello! and Tony Award nominees She Loves Me and The Apple Tree. Mr. Harnick spoke to dramaturg Jared Strange about what he looks for in a collaborator, his memories of working on Fiddler on the Roof, and whether or not he finds himself humming along to his old songs as much as the rest of us do.
“What a man, what a job!“On the Side of the Angels,” from Fiorello!
All these people
Who look to us for justice, trust us!”
Musical theatre is built on collaboration. Taking a show from page to stage is a team effort from beginning to end, involving dozens, sometimes hundreds of people (hopefully) working toward a common vision. For lyricists like Mr. Harnick, the most important collaboration is often with the composer, who gives music to the lyricist’s words.
“With a composer, I have to like his music,” says Mr. Harnick of his ideal collaborator. “I have to love his music, because if he’s gonna set my words to his music, I have to like it. On top of that, I have to be able to communicate with him on a friendly level. With Jerry Bock, of course, we were the best of friends, so that was easy.”
Mr. Harnick met Bock through a mutual friend after Bock had fallen out with his old partner. In order to establish a good relationship, collaborators need to figure how to work with each other effectively. When it came to working on Fiddler on the Roof, Bock’s melodies typically came first.
“It always started with him going into his studio and writing a bunch of melodies. He would record the melodies and then send [them to me]. Usually, each one would begin with a statement like, ‘I think this is for the butcher, or I think this is for Tevye,’ and sometimes I agreed with him and sometimes I didn’t. It was a wonderful way to get started because he gave me a lot to work with.”
Typically, the composer and lyricist are working with another writer who is in charge of the “book,” sometimes called the libretto. The book is the spoken script of the musical, the dialogue that holds the narrative together and gives context to the songs. In the case of Fiddler, that man was Joseph Stein. Together, Harnick, Bock, and Stein poured heart and soul into the text of Fiddler before turning their attention to assembling the rest of the team.
In the Rehearsal Room
“Two more minutes,“Tonight at Eight,” from She Loves Me
Three more seconds,
Ten more hours to go!
I’ll know, when this is done,
If something’s ended or begun,
And if it goes
As the text takes shape, so do the authors’ ideas for who might be best suited to bringing the musical to life.
“At a certain point in the writing, we can get a pretty good idea of who the choreographer might be that we would like, and who [would be] the director,” says Mr. Harnick. “Of course, we had a good friend in Harold Prince, who was both a producer and a director, so we would always take our stuff to him. As a matter of fact, we had asked him to direct Fiddler on the Roof and he smiled and said, ‘I’m not the right person for it, but I think Jerome Robbins is, why don’t you take it to Jerry Robbins?’”
Taking it to Robbins turned out to be a masterstroke. The celebrated choreographer and director, who you’ll learn more about in our site on West Side Story, was already an established force. Like the authors, he was also looking for a way to explore a crucial aspect of his identity.
“It stirred something in his own Jewish background,” recalls Mr. Harnick. “He hadn’t done much Jewish material, so he was fascinated by Fiddler on the Roof. It was very exciting working with Jerry. Knowing his body of work, we weren’t sure what he would come up with, but he was absolutely on the same page with us all the way. What he did was just a wonderful realization of what we had in mind.”
With a director and producer onboard, a musical typically enters a workshopping and rehearsal period. During this time, performers are brought on to flesh out the many characters in the world of the play. Thankfully for the Fiddler team, they had a major star on hand to help this process: Zero Mostel, one of the theatre’s great comic actors. Mostel was a forceful personality who often teased the equally forceful (but much more serious) Robbins. While Mostel obviously brought a lot to the lead role of Tevye, it’s important for the role to stand up on its own merits. Thankfully for Mr. Harnick, plenty of others have played it expertly.
“[Zero] brought his own comic skills to it. He was wonderful. But he was no more wonderful than Herschel Bernardi or some of the others who played it. Zero, of course, might have been funnier because he was a wonderful comic, but as far as playing the role of Tevye, it’s been played by many who are, I think, as effective as Zero.”
With the actors, designers, and technicians mixed in, the writers and creative team can now see how the musical might look once it’s fully realized. This allows them to make the changes required to take it from good to great. For the writers, this often means getting rid of material they otherwise adore because it just doesn’t suit the musical as a whole. In the case of Fiddler on the Roof, that meant losing the darkly comic number “When Messiah Comes.” When asked if he misses the material that gets cut, Mr. Harnick shrugs it off.
“Not really. Once we’ve staged it, that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s gonna be. As far as I’m concerned, I go on to the next thing and I don’t worry about the one that we’ve just staged – unless it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work then we throw it out or try to find out why it doesn’t work, rewrite it, and hope that the next time around, it’ll work.”
Over to the Audience
“Yes, now I have everything,“Now I Have Everything,” from Fiddler on the Roof
not only everything,
I have a little bit more.
Besides having everything,
I know what everything’s for!”
Once the show has been through several weeks of rehearsal, a series of out-of-town tryouts is set before it heads to New York. This gives the team an opportunity to show off their work to an audience in a major theatre center. More than anything, putting a show in front of an audience lets the creators know what is working and what isn’t.
“It all has to do with the audience,” Mr. Harnick assures us. “If the audience is not laughing at the jokes, or the audience seems to be restless, then we know we haven’t captured them and they’re not thrilled with what they’re seeing.”
Thankfully for Fiddler, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. After debuting in Detroit, the production came to The National Theatre, where it was rapturously received. Mr. Harnick recalls receiving one particularly warm welcome.
“One of my friends, an actor named Hal Lyndon, saw the show and he loved it. He was raving about it to me. That was very important, because we had no idea how the show would be received in Washington and it turned out to be a big hit, which was quite exciting.”
Despite succeeding out of town, a show can still undergo changes before it heads to Broadway. In the case of Fiddler, there were a few more adjustments in store, though by and large, the show that greeted Washington was the same one that opened on Broadway on September 22, 1964. It went on to garner numerous awards and has become a certified classic thanks to several Broadway revivals, a celebrated film adaptation, and even a Yiddish-language production that spawned its own tour. When asked why the story resonates with so many, Harnick takes it back to the center.
“I think it starts with the character of Tevye. Tevye is so human. He is such a recognizable human being, with the things that worry him, with the things he loves. Everybody can identify with him, so he’s the main reason, I think, Fiddler on the Roof is a success and why the story of Tevye and his daughters [written by Sholem-Aleichem] were originally very successful. It all has to do with Tevye’s humanity.”
On the Road Again?
Despite all his success, Mr. Harnick spends little time dwelling on the past. When asked if any of his classic songs get stuck in his head, like they do so many of us, his answer is unequivocal.
“No, because I’m off to something new. And it’s the new material that I hope I will hum, rather than the old material. It’s the new songs that I’m writing and hoping that they’ll work as well as the old ones did.”
Apparently, Mr. Harnick has his eye on a French play that might make for a good operetta. Whether or not it makes it along the road to Broadway remains to be seen. In the meantime, his message to other young creators looking to take that path is simple:
“When you write something and an audience enjoys it, it’s a wonderful experience. There’s nothing like it.”
Many musicals have had fascinating – and sometimes troubled – paths to Broadway. We’ll be looking closely at two of them, Fiddler on the Roof and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, later in this site. In the meantime, consider doing some research on your favorite musical to see how it came together. Did you know, for example, that every version of Hairspray – the original film by John Waters, the Broadway musical, and the film adaptation of that musical – has cast a newcomer in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad? Furthermore, did you know that Marissa Jaret Winokur, who originated the role on Broadway, was one of the very first people to audition? The producers couldn’t believe they had found the person so early on in the process that they hesitated to give her the part!
Discovered a great story? Tell us in the comment box below. Maybe it’s a musical that made its way through The National at one time or another.
Everett, William A. and Paul R. Laird. The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, 2nd Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Rosenberg, Bernard and Ernest Harburg. The Broadway Musical: Collaboration in Commerce and Art. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
Solomon, Alisa. Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013.