Picking a favorite Sheldon Harnick song is nearly impossible for me. If I tell you “Ice Cream” or “If I Were a Rich Man” give me a few seconds and I’ll start rattling off practically every other song he’s written. When picking songs for a Broadway itunes playlist, I couldn’t just pick one song and found myself placing every original cast album of his material into mix. That said, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the divine Kate Baldwin to make the selections for her utterly charming tribute to Mr. Harnick, simply titled She Loves Him, playing Feinstein’s at the Regency from March 8-12, with the 86 year old lyricist appearing as her special guest.
Out of the seventeen selections, all but four had music by the late, great Jerry Bock, Harnick’s long-time collaborator. Together they wrote some of Broadway’s best scores including Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree and my personal favorite She Loves Me, racking up a few Tony Awards and a Pulitzer. Mr. Harnick has also collaborated with Joe Raposo on the musical version of A Wonderful Life, Richard Rodgers on Rex and others. On top of all this, he contributed his own material (words and music) to many off-Broadway and Broadway revues of the 1950s. Harnick’s lyrics are among the best ever written: character specific, vibrant and literate, brimming with wit and panache.
Kate started off with a bit of a tease, making her way to the microphone with a pad and pencil. Suddenly from the piano came a familiar four note introduction to “Ice Cream.” However, instead of writing a letter to “Dear Friend,” she wrote a letter to “Dear Sheldon,” asking him to be a part of her show with a specialized “He Loves Me.” Other gems soared: “When Did I Fall in Love?” stopped this show of showstoppers,” Ilona took us on “A Trip to the Library” and “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You” from A Wonderful Life was just beautiful.
The Tony-nominated soprano also happens to be very pregnant with her first child and her impending motherhood informed many of the selections made throughout the evening, most affectingly in her rendition of She Loves Me’s “Will He Like Me?” With utmost subtlety and without changing a single word, the song — which is in context Amalia’s admitting her apprehensions before her first date with “Dear Friend” — was suddenly a new song entirely. I know it’s Kate’s favorite Harnick song and hers may well be the definitive rendition (all due respect to the delightful Barbara Cook, who was also in the house).
Charlotte Rae’s name came up several times throughout the evening. Like Baldwin and Harnick, Ms. Rae is also an alumnus of Northwestern University. While studying, Rae played Harnick the original cast album of Finian’s Rainbow and encouraged him to be a musical theatre writer. Two specialties he wrote for Rae were on the program, which were of particular interest as Harnick also wrote the music. The first was the clever “The Boston Beguine” from New Faces of 1952, about a sexless romp between a bachelor stenographer and a Harvard Man. (Rae opted to do Three Wishes for Jamie instead and the song put the brilliant Alice Ghostley on the map). The other is the madcap “The Ballad of the Shape of Things,” a devilishly subversive number that was the comic highlight – and a song I’ve been unable to get out of my head all day. (Incidentally, Harnick told the enraptured opening night crowd that it was one of the easiest songs he’d ever written).
Usually when I’m at a show where there is a special guest, the individual might make an appearance for a song or two. Kate brought Sheldon onstage halfway through her set to a tumultuous ovation and much to our delight incorporated him into the rest of the show, starting with a spirited “To Life!” from Fiddler. One of the great memories I’ll always treasure was the opportunity to see Sheldon bring down the house with his own “If I Were a Rich Man” (aside from being a terrific writer, he’s a terrific performer). Together, they also shared the lovely “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine,” a gentle waltz that was taken out of Fiddler during the pre-Broadway tryout. They finished with a stirring duet of “In My Own Lifetime,” a haunting anthem from The Rothschilds. For their encore they shared “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler.
The evening was directed by Diana Basmajian, Kate’s frequent collaborator who also did magnificent work on the star’s first appearance at Feinstein’s, helping to shape Kate’s vibrant patter and find the story in every song. They devised an amusing framing device with Kate finding (and in some cases facetiously stretching for) parallels between herself and Sheldon with an unbelievable combination of poise and self-effacing humor. Scott Cady served as musical director and pianist, Andrew Sherman was on woodwinds (apparently almost all of them) and John Beale was on bass; a perfect trio.
I simply cannot stress how magical this night this was; a joyous occasion that you secretly wished would never end. If anyone from PS Classics is paying attention, this must be Kate’s follow up recording to “Let’s See What Happens.” She Loves Him belongs on CD for everyone to hear. In the meanwhile, I have a ticket for the last show on Saturday night and I hope you’ve gotten your tickets as well. You don’t want to miss the best show in town.
And while I’m at it, Kate Baldwin needs to be Broadway’s next Amalia in She Loves Me. It’s been 18 years since the last revival — and we’re long overdue.