How a Young Sheldon Harnick Consoled Himself After Seeing His 1st Sondheim Show | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky How a Young Sheldon Harnick Consoled Himself After Seeing His 1st Sondheim Show

Plus, Seth tells how Liz Callaway had to choose between two new shows early in her career, and shares one of his favorite Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade performances.

Sheldon Harnick and Seth Rudetsky

Happy almost Thanksgiving! The Thanksgiving Day Parade always has fun Broadway performances and I have a few favorites for different reasons. I think the All Shook Up performance is cool because, (A) I love the show, and (B) it was in previews and the show changed after the parade broadcast.

Cheyenne Jackson was the male lead (and so fantastic!) and, even though the show was all Elvis songs, the creators didn’t want the audience to think the character was Elvis. Although Cheyenne’s character’s name was Chad, the creators felt that Cheyenne had too much of the essence of Elvis in his appearance. They needed something more than a different name to separate him from Elvis. Ther solution? Put him in a blonde wig. It was an odd choice for various reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Cheyenne told me he’s a “winter,” so he does not look amazing as a blonde.

Anyhoo, after a bunch of preview performance, the creators realized they could keep his hair au natural because it didn’t matter if people thought Cheyenne was playing Elvis or not. Luckily for us, they made that decision post-Thanksgiving Day Parade, so you can watch this number and see Cheyenne as a male Jean Harlow. Enjoy!

I’m in love with that cast album. Here’s my deconstruction from yesteryear:

If you haven’t gone outside, let me be the first to tell you that it is getting cold. Thankfully, I’m a-travelin’ soon to warm climates. First, I’ll be in Wickenburg, Arizona for a concert with Norm Lewis on December 1.

I cannot tell you how much I love his voice! Here’s one of my first deconstructions where I go into detail about his brilliance!

Just so you know: he is supposedly a baritone but he is hitting full-on Elphaba notes in this!!!!

After that, I’ll be back in L.A. at the Wallis doing my deconstructing Broadway show. We’ve just added a second show at 9:30!

Two weeks ago, I was very honored to have been invited to the memorial for the late, great Sheldon Harnick. I left that memorial feeling so incredibly creatively inspired. Holy cow, he never stopped writing!

In one of the many beautiful tributes that day, we were told that when he was in his 90s, he found a book that he thought could be a great musical. The book was in French, so first, he had to translate it from French into English. He did the translation!

We kept hearing about every project he did throughout his 90s, and then we were told that when he was 99, he was in the hospital and told his friend he had to be discharged. Not so he could rest comfortably at home, but because he had to get back to work! As a matter of fact, we were told that when he was near the end of his life, in bed and getting weaker, he uttered a sentence. Then, he paused. Then finally, he said another sentence. And they rhymed! Seriously. He was always creating.

I remember talking to him about his early days in NYC. He told me that he moved here in the 1950s and had dreams of writing a Broadway musical. He wound up being invited to see a reading a new musical by a young writer and was excited to see his “competition.” Well, that idea backfired.

After he saw it, he was devastated. He was so intimidated. He had no idea that people just starting out were so talented. Well, in retrospect, we could have told him that not everyone just starting out is so incredibly talented. Turns out, he went to a reading of Saturday Night by Stephen Sondheim!

Sheldon was terrified that everyone was at that level, and he wouldn’t be able to compete. So, he took a New York Times, looked at all the shows playing on Broadway, and decided to buy a ticket to Ankles Aweigh. “Why?” you ask. Well, he told me that he looked for a show with a terrible title so he could see the show and think, “If a show with this kind of name could be on Broadway, then maybe there’s a chance for me!”

Amazingly, even though he was so intimidated by Sondheim, Sheldon’s daughter, Beth, told us that Sondheim told her that her dad was his favorite lyricist.

Speaking of amazing Sheldon lyrics, one of my favorites is at the end of “Matchmaker.”

“…maybe I’ve learned,
Playing with matches a girl can get burned…”

That is such an incredible double meaning. First, there’s the age-old expression that one can get burned playing with matches, and then the double meaning that you can get burned if you get the wrong match, in this case, husband. Brilliant.

Here’s the 1970 cast of Fiddler on the Roof sing “Matchmaker” featuring Tzeitel, played by Bette Midler.

Speaking of Tzeitel, I heard the sad news that the original Tzeitel, Joanna Merlin, passed away. Interestingly, Joanna is connected to the recent good news that Liz Callaway’s album just got a Grammy nomination! Here’s the story.

Back in the 1981, Liz Callaway got cast in the original Merrily We Roll Along. She was the swing, meaning the offstage understudy for the female ensemble. Well, while Merrily was just beginning rehearsals, she also wound up being cast as the lead in another show called Gallery which was opening at The Public Theater. The writer was the great Ed Kleban, who had recently penned the lyrics to the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical A Chorus Line. Ah. A luxury problem, but still, what to do? Richard Maltby Jr., who was directing Gallery, told Liz that if she took that show he would direct her club act for free. Hal Prince, who was directing Merrily, told Liz that if she stayed with Merrily, he would put her on stage in the show, instead of casting her as the offstage swing. Hal even sweetened the deal, promising she could understudy the leading lady, played by Ann Morrison.

Liz could not decide and told me she felt like everybody was angry with her. During all this turmoil, she ran into Hal Prince’s casting director, Joanna Merlin. (Yes, Joanna had gone from acting in a Hal Prince produced musical to being his casting director.) Joanna told Liz to trust herself and do what felt right. So, Liz decided to join Merrily We Roll Along. Liz definitely feels like she made the right choice because Gallery never opened. “And,” as she told me with a triumphant smile, “Merrily ran for 16 performances.”

There’s more to the story!

There were lots of rehearsals while Merrily was in previews and, to preserve Ann’s voice, Liz would sing Ann’s songs while Ann rehearsed the blocking. Liz realized later on that Sondheim was in the theatre the whole time and heard her singing, leading to him cast her in A Stephen Sondheim Evening, where she sang “What More Do I Need” (a song I listened to obsessively in college).

P.S. Full circle-style, “What More Do I Need” is from Sondheim's show Saturday Night that Sheldon Harnick saw that devastated him.

After Merrily, Liz was then cast in the incredible Follies concert with the NY Philharmonic (alongside Daisy Prince, Jim Walton and Howard McGillin). Listen!

Liz’s long relationship with Sondheim culminated in her putting together a show about him after he passed away called To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim. The show was recorded, and the recording just got a Grammy nomination! Brava Liz. Get the CD and all of her amazing albums here

One more thing!

Joanna Merlin was also fantastic in the film version of Fame as the dance teacher who keeps asking Lisa (Laura Dean) “Where’s the sweat?” Watch these fantastic scenes (and brava Laura and cast for speaking all the dialogue while dancing up a storm). Peace out!

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