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Wonder of Wonders: Celebrating Sheldon Harnick

Musical director and host Ted Sperling at the 92nd Street Y. (Photo: Richard Termine)

Wonder of Wonders: Celebrating Sheldon Harnick

By Deirdre Donovan

Wonder of Wonders: Celebrating Sheldon Harnick closed out the 2023-2024 Lyrics & Lyricists series on a glorious note. Written, directed, and genially hosted by Ted Sperling, it originally was planned to be a 100th birthday celebration for Harnick. But when the lyricist died on June 23, 2023, Sperling was determined to move forward with the project, albeit as a memorial to his beloved colleague and friend.

It showcased 25 songs from Harnick's catalog, with the lion's share given to those that he crafted with the composer Jerry Bock, including Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds, and-the elephant in the room-- Fiddler on the Roof

The cast was top-notch: Sam Gravitte, Adam Heller, Adam Kantor, Alysha Umphress, and Anna Zavelson brought their own signature to the Harnick creations. Although the artists performed a few numbers quite straightforwardly, they mostly tried to evoke the song's original context by re-enacting a mini-scene from the Broadway show. But no matter how each song was rendered, it inevitably carried the mark of Harnick's warm and generous personality-and the sparks of his musical genius.

Sperling's presentation of Harnick's oeuvre wasn't strictly chronological. It leapfrogged back and forward through time either to accommodate a story or, in the case of Fiddler on the Roof, to give the musical pride of place at the program's end.

First up was "Beautiful, Beautiful World" from the Broadway musical The Apple Tree (1966), warm-heartedly sung by the company. The show failed to charm the critics when it opened but it caught the eye of Hal Prince who hired Harnick and Bock for a musical called Fiorello!, which won them a Pulitzer and a Tony. Sperling shared that Prince immediately embraced Bock for the project but only hired Harnick after he auditioned with lyrics for four songs.  

Alysha Umphress (Photo: Richard Termine)

Sperling proved to be a gifted raconteur-and a shrewd musical historian as well. He shared some of Harnick's background with the audience, noting that the lyricist was born in Chicago in 1924. He first trained as a violinist but practiced so hard that he hurt his arms. Consequently, he rechanneled his artistic energies into writing theatrical lyrics. But, since Broadway was a tough go for any fledgling lyricist, he began penning songs for revues, including one called The Shoestring Revue that featured a melody called "Garbage." In spite of its off-putting title, Alysha Umphress put an appealingly comic spin on the melody and had the audience leaning in for each rhyme and rhythm.

Sperling introduced a quartet of crowd pleasers from the 1963 She Loves Me: The first salvo, "Try Me," was persuasively sung by Gravitte; "Tonight at Eight" was rightly interpreted with raw emotion by Kantor; "Will He Like Me?" followed, with perfect pitch by Zavelson; and "A Trip to the Library" was winkingly delivered by Umphress.

The aforementioned Apple Tree resurfaced in Act 1, with a foursome of delicious songs: "Feelings" (Kavelson), "The Apple Tree" (Kantor), "It's a Fish" (Gravitte), and "Oh, to be a Movie Star" (Umphress). All imaginatively stemming from the fictive Diary of Adam and Eve, each melody hit its mark, largely because the performers put such gusto in their voices. Too bad the show's first critics weren't present to take note.

If The Apple Tree was a flop, The Rothschilds (1970) was a problem child. The musical is about the rise of the Rothschilds from modest beginnings in Germany to the founding of their financial empire. Sperling ensured that the audience got a whirlwind tour of the musical with renderings of "Rothchild and Son" (Kantor, Heller, and Gravitte), "Everything" (the company), and "In My Own Lifetime" (Heller). Sperling tactfully said to the audience that the show suffered from that theatrical syndrome called "Second Act Problems." In any event, it led to unresolvable artistic differences between Harnick and Bock, and Rothschilds became their last musical collaboration.

Act 2 was ushered in with "Little Old New York" from Tenderloin (1960), fittingly performed with a rakish air by the company. Things really ratcheted up, however, when Sperling introduced numbers from the aforementioned Fiorello! While the songs "When Did I Fall in Love" (Zavelson) and "The Very Next Man" (Umphress) had definite flavor, it was "Little Tin Box" (Heller, Kantor, Gravitte) -- a portrait of a crooked politician who steals money from the public coffers to line his own pockets -- that brought down the house.  Sperling added that the musical's first audiences tended to pay more attention to the crooked politicians and sex worker than the upright folk in the story. "It's just like today," he remarked.

Not all the songs in the program were familiar.  In fact, there was one melody called "Dear Sweet Sewing Machine" that was created-and then jettisoned-from the second act of Fiddler on the Roof.  Although endearingly sung by Gravitte and Zavelson, it was evident that this song, though charming in a homespun way, was not cut from the same theatrical cloth as "Tradition" or "If I Were a Rich Man." Another melody, "Where Do I Go from Here?", was cut from Fiorello! As ably sung by Gravitte, it made one realize that some good songs never see the light of day.

Adam Heller (Photo: Richard Terine)

There's little question that the songs from Fiddler on the Roof proved to be the high point of the show. Whether it was "Miracle of Miracles" (Kantor) "If I Were A Rich Man" (Heller) "Do You Love Me?" (Heller and Umphress) or the audience sing-a-long "Sunrise, Sunset," all pointed to Harnick's lyrical genius and profound humanity. Winning 9 Tony Awards in 1964, Sperling noted that "Sunrise, Sunset" is played at just about every wedding reception across the globe. He added that the musical's numerous revivals (Sperling was the musical director for the fifth Broadway revival in 2015) is also a testament to its timelessness and how it continues to speak with immediacy to people, regardless of their race, religion, or economic class.

Sperling wrapped up the program with the song, "You're Going Far" from The Heartbreak Kid, with music by Cy Coleman. Indeed, it made one reflect not only on how wonderfully far Harnick went with his lyrical talent, but how he has been indelibly engraved into the musical history books and the hearts of musical theater lovers everywhere.

Wonder of Wonders: Celebrating Sheldon Harnick

Through June 3rd.

At the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue (at 92nd Street), Manhattan.

For more information, visit

Running time: 2 hours with intermission.