Nonagenarians Sheldon Harnick and Joe Masteroff Welcome She Loves Me Back to Broadway
The prolific musical-theater scribes reflect on the creation their classic musical as a new production starring Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi takes shape.
"I still remember," says Sheldon Harnick as he recalls the opening night performance of She Loves Me in 1963, "the show was going well and the audience was loving it. And then Barbara [Cook] did 'Ice Cream' and there was a curtain that was supposed to cross the stage. When it crossed, Georg would do 'She Loves Me.' The [curtain] got stuck. Do you remember that?"
"I remember that!" replies Joe Masteroff enthusiastically. "On opening night, that's not what you want to see happen."
"It was going so well," says Harnick. "You could tell the stagehand was jerking on it, and it didn't clear. I thought, 'Oh my God, the show's going to die now.' Whoever was offstage gave it a heroic tug and [it] cleared and the audience cheered."
With music by the late Jerry Bock, She Loves Me was the only collaboration between Harnick, 91, and Masteroff, 96. Inspired by the film The Shop Around the Corner (which also gave rise to Nora Ephron's film You've Got Mail), Harold Prince's original Broadway production starred Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey as a pair of warring shop clerks who unknowingly become pen pals.
It played only 301 performances during its original run, a commercial failure. A 1993 revival, directed by Scott Ellis for Roundabout Theatre Company, was far more successful, transferring from a non-profit production to a commercial run, though playing only a total of 354 shows.
Now, with Ellis at the helm once again, Roundabout is celebrating its 50th anniversary by bringing She Loves Me back to Broadway, in a brand-new production at Studio 54 starring Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. For Harnick and Masteroff, it's a long time coming for a show they love so much.
What was the writing process like back when you were creating She Loves Me?
Sheldon Harnick: From my point of view, it was a lovefest. Jerry Bock and I went to our studios and Jerry would start to write musical numbers. He would put it on a tape and say, "I think this is for Amalia" or "I think this is for Georg," and then when he had about a dozen numbers, he would send me the tape. He was very generous, because on every tape, there would only be one or two numbers that coincided with ideas I had, and all the rest went back into his trunk.
Joe Masteroff: When I work with Hal Prince, I don't see anybody else. I would write a scene and give it to Hal, and that's the last I hear of it. Then musical numbers start coming in, and Hal says, "We'll play some of them for you some day." [laughs] He liked very much to be the captain of the ship. I don't remember even talking to you when I was working on She Loves Me. Do you remember? Did we have meetings?
Sheldon: I don't think we did.
Joe: I saw Hal and you saw Hal, but not together.
Sheldon: I do remember that I almost got killed working on [the song] "Tonight at Eight." There's a lot of notes in it. I like to write when I walk, and I was walking with that melody in my head, trying to fit lyrics to it. Suddenly, I heard this horn sound. I looked up and I was in the middle of the street and there was a truck two inches away from me. He slammed on the breaks and honked his horn and I looked up and I remember saying, "It's OK, I got the lyric!" [laughs]
The original production got positive reviews but only had a brief run on Broadway. What happened?
Sheldon: When we opened, we got good reviews and I thought, "Well, we're here for two years." After about six months, business began to fall off and we were heartsick. After about eight and a half months, it closed. We lost the entire investment. It was just heartbreaking.
Joe: She Loves Me has probably gotten the best reviews of any show I've ever written. Reviews constantly would come in from all over the country from distinguished critics [saying], "This is the best musical I've ever seen." It was astonishing because nobody was coming to see it.
Sheldon: I remember the headline of the Time Magazine review was "The Quiet One" because we opened with Hello, Dolly! and Oliver! Big shows. In comes this quiet, intimate show. [After it closed] we went a year without a production. And then we had a production; I think it was at Bucks County. We got a letter from the company saying, "We don't know why this didn't work on Broadway, but our audiences love it."
Little by little, [it] established itself as a cult show. In 1993, Roundabout did a production, and Scott Ellis was the director. The reviews were love letters, [and] the following year, we had sixty productions. Suddenly, She Loves Me was a show people did. But up until then, it had just been something that made us very sad.
Have you been to rehearsals for the new version?
Joe: I was there yesterday. I was all the way in the back of the auditorium, and suddenly I heard this sound coming off the stage. The ladies [Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski] were doing one of their numbers, and they're both so gorgeous and they were both singing so magnificently. I said, "With those two girls in it, you can't miss."
Sheldon: I heard [Zachary Levi] do "Tonight at Eight." He didn't get honked at by a truck or anything, but he did a wonderful job.
Do you still get butterflies on opening nights?
Joe: No. When you're my age, it's nice to have an opening, but it isn't like it is when you're twenty-three.
Sheldon: I always get nervous. But it's Broadway, and it's a wonderful cast, and hopefully the audience will be as excited about the show as they have been in the past.
Is there anything you would change about She Loves Me after all these years?
Joe: I must say, the one thing I didn't like…[though] I like the song "She Loves Me," I hate it as a title for the show. It seems so cliché. It seems like every title you've ever heard. "
Who came up with it?
Sheldon: Probably Hal.
Joe: I'm sure it was Hal. He never asked me about anything. There ought to be something, like "She Loves Me?" with a question mark, which is more effective as a title, I think. It gives the audience something to wonder about. Does she?
Sheldon: I wanted to call it I've Got Mail! [laughs]