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By KENNETH JONES
No one could blame Sheldon Harnick if he simply reveled in his past achievements. After all, as the lyricist of classic musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, and She Loves Me, his laurels include a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, and countless productions around the world.
But Harnick's hardly resting. This month alone, he's re-writing several of his shows.
They're all part of Musicals in Mufti, a regular series at the York Theatre Company that stages barebones readings of lesser-known musicals. In honor of his 90th year, the York's giving Harnick the entire winter festival, presenting five of his works in eight weeks.
The series began in mid-January with a revue called A World to Win, and it will close with Tenderloin, a 1960 Broadway flop with late composer Jerry Bock that plays March 7-9.
But Harnick's most invested in the presentations of his three "unknown" book musicals---the long-aborning Dragons (which ran Jan. 31-Feb. 2), the new Moliere-inspired Malpractice Makes Perfect (Feb. 14-16,) and his 1961 Off-Broadway disappointment Smiling, The Boy Fell Dead (Feb. 21-23). Since he views that trio as the most immediately viable for full production, he's keeping his pencil at the ready.
"For the revue, I wasn't there very much in rehearsal, but for all of the rest of them, except Tenderloin, I will be," Harnick says. "I like editing. Generally, you work under the assumption that everything can be shorter. I like to see if I can reconstruct a sentence. I find that enjoyable work."
In recent months, there was considerable editing and prep work leading to the Mufti reading of Dragons, an allegorical fairy tale with book, music, and lyrics by Harnick, ambitiously tackling the subject of despotism. The musical, first penned in the 1980s and previously seen in regional and academic settings, is based on a play by Soviet-era Russian playwright Evgeny Shvarts.
"When [York artistic director] Jim Morgan suggested that we do these shows, I looked at Dragons," Harnick says. "I had abandoned it about 10 years ago, being unable to solve the second act. I got to the last 10 or 12 pages and thought, 'Oh, my God, this is a lecture.' That's when my writer's instincts kicked in. I suddenly had an idea for a song that might help solve the problem. So I wrote a new song called 'Dragons' that goes in toward the end. More than anything, the show is about the difficulty of handling power."
For the Mufti run, with the help of director Maggie Harrer, "we cut those last 10 or 12 pages down to about two pages and included the song, changing [the show's conclusion]. The new song worked, and I was very happy with that. I even have a title song now."
Most of the revisions to Smiling, The Boy Fell Dead, which spoofs rags-to-riches Horatio Alger stories, were done several years ago by Harnick, the surviving member of a team that included composer David Baker and book writer Ira Wallach. The Mufti run marks the New York City debut of the freshened script and score, following an earlier reading in New Jersey.
"About 10 years ago, when I turned 80, I wondered if there was some failed musical that I had that would bear re-examination," Harnick says of his return to the earlier property, which played for a split-second at the Cherry Lane. "I looked in my files and to my astonishment found that I had five different scripts [for Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead], each with a lot of material by Ira Wallach that was not in the other scripts. It was delicious material. I took the material in those five scripts, and I accommodated them into one new script, and along the way I revised lyrics and juggled the score a bit."
Malpractice Makes Perfect, inspired by Moliere's 1666 comedy The Doctor in Spite of Himself, is the only Mufti title that's wholly new, making its general-public debut following private industry readings in 2013. Harnick penned book, music, and lyrics, working from his own translation of the French original.
Writing-wise, Malpractice is "in the state that I really want it," he explains, although the opening sequence was revised prior to the Mufti run to exploit the newly adopted title. (Character actor Brad Oscar, of The Producersand recently Big Fish, will star as the sham doctor in a role that Harnick says might have been written for Phil Silvers had he been alive 350 years ago.)
Mufti's brief Monday-to-Sunday rehearsal/performance period has only whetted Harnick's appetite. With due respect to the value of readings, he says he's craving the luxury of a four-week rehearsal process and the thorough preview period of a full production.
Until then, his editing pencil will be sharpened and ready. "Where you learn things, really, is watching it in front of an audience," he says.
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist who writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photo by Ben Strothmann