He may be best known as the lyricist for “Fiddler on the Roof,” but Sheldon Harnick, who turns 90 this year, is one of the most prolific artists in the American musical theater. Now, audiences will have a rare opportunity to see some of Harnick’s lesser-known works, including some for which he also wrote the book and music. For its annual Musicals in Mufti series, the York Theatre Company is staging four forgotten Harnick musicals over the next two months (yorktheatre.org,  935-5820).
The series kicks off this weekend with a revue, “Sheldon Harnick’s A World to Win,” which includes a medley from “Fiddler” as well as the song, “In My Own Lifetime” from “The Rothschilds.” Directed by Robert Brink, it features Broadway veteran Jason Graae, along with Kerry Conte, Rhym McLemore, and Aaron Serotsky.
After “A World to Win,” the York will present “Dragons,” which is based on the Russian writer Yevgeny Schwartz’s “The Dragon,” an allegory about life in post-Stalinist Russia. Then, in mid-February comes “Malpractice Makes Perfect,” based on Moliere’s comedy, “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” Next up, in late February, appears the 1960 Off-Broadway flop, “Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead,” about a turn-of-the-century Midwestern boy who goes from rags to riches. The series wraps up in early March with “Tenderloin,” a 1960 Broadway musical about a minister who tries to reform the denizens of the vice-ridden New York neighborhood.
None of these four musicals has an explicitly Jewish theme, but Harnick, as he told The Jewish Week in a recent interview, has rarely dealt with Jewish themes in his work. “I never saw myself as specializing in Jewish themes,” he said. Nevertheless, his Jewish identity has always been important to him, from his boyhood in the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park. The scattered Jewish families in his area belonged to an Orthodox synagogue that met in the upstairs hall of a secretarial school.
“I loved the rabbi,” he said, “and I thought that I wanted to be one myself, even though people giggled at the long beard that I wore when I played [Chanukah story figure] Mattathias, at the age of 9, in a Hebrew school play.” After seder at his grandmother’s house, Harnick recalled, his aunts and uncles would play piano, violin and other instruments, “turning the holiday into a musicale.”
Harnick explains the disproportionate involvement of Jews in musical theater as a byproduct of the “emotional singing” in Orthodox synagogues. “It’s almost a natural step,” he concluded, “to go from that aspect of synagogue services to theater.”