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Pen-Pal Passion Is Revived In Broadway's 'She Loves Me'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. If you wished you could see the popular Broadway revival of the musical "She Loves Me" but haven't been able to get to New York to see it, you're in luck. You'll have the opportunity next Thursday, June 30, when Broadwayhd.com live-streams that night's performance of the show, making it available on its website and other platforms. "She Loves Me" is one of two current musical revivals by the late composer Jerry Bock and the lyricist Sheldon Harnick. The other is among the most famous in Broadway history, "Fiddler On The Roof." Harnick just received a special lifetime achievement Tony award for his work.

The director of this new "She Loves Me" production is Scott Ellis, associate artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre, who also directed an earlier revival of "She Loves Me" way back in 1993. Today we'll hear from both Sheldon Harnick and Scott Ellis, who spoke with Terry Gross in March.

"She Loves Me" is set in Budapest in 1934. The two main characters, Georg and Amalia, have just started working together in a shop that sells perfume, soaps and cosmetics. They're rivals and snipe at each other at work. What they don't know is that they are corresponding with each other through personal ads. The letters are delivered anonymously, so neither of them realizes who they're actually writing to and that they're actually falling in love with each other.

Let's start with the opening song. It's morning and the characters are just arriving at the shop where they work. The song is "Good Morning, Good Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING, GOOD DAY")

DANIEL MASSEY: (As Georg, singing) Good morning, good day. How are you this beautiful day? Isn't this a beautiful morning?

NATHANIEL FREY: (As Sipos, singing) Very.

MASSEY: (As Georg, singing) Hey, Sipos, how's this?

FREY: (As Sipos, singing) That's a very elegant pose, but is all that elegance necessary?

MASSEY: (As Georg) And why not? I represent Maraczek's, don't I? We're not a butcher shop or a hardware store. We're a perfumery, and that means we're...

FREY: (As Sipos, singing) We're stylish?

MASSEY: (As Georg, singing) That's it.

FREY: (As Sipos, singing) With a quiet dignity.

MASSEY: (As Georg, singing) Yes. And we get the tilt of our hats right.

FREY: (As Sipos, singing) That's right.

MASSEY: (As Georg, singing) When I ride my bike, people see what Maraczek's like, so I think it's very important that I look my best. Here comes Ms. Ritter.

FREY: (As Sipos) Ms. Ritter.

BARBARA BAXLEY: (As Ms. Ritter, singing) Good morning.

DANIEL MASSEY NATHANIEL AND FREY: (As Georg and Sipos, singing) Good day.

BAXLEY: (As Ms. Ritter, singing) How are you this glorious day? Have you seen a lovelier morning?

DANIEL MASSEY AND NATHANIEL FREY: (As Georg and Sipos, singing) Never.

BAXLEY: (As Ms. Ritter, singing) It's too nice a day to be inside shoveling soap. I have no more energy whatsoever. Does anybody mind if I take the day off?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Sheldon Harnick, Scott Ellis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on this new production. I so thoroughly enjoyed it. So let's start with the opening song that we just heard, and then we'll kind of pull back and talk about this new revival. Sheldon Harnick, what was your job with the opening song that sets the scene for the whole show?

SHELDON HARNICK: It was to set the style of the show, which is an intimate show, and to introduce the people who worked in the shop as economically as possible. And also, because this was not a huge show with a lot of big numbers and it was an intimate show stylistically, it seemed useful to introduce the audience to that at the very top of the show.

GROSS: And, Scott, in directing the opening number, as we're getting introduced to each person, the way you've directed it each kind of person enters from a different part of the stage and sings their few bars. And it - just, like, the timing is so beautiful. Can you talk about what you tried to do in the opening number in terms of the direction?

SCOTT ELLIS: So as Sheldon just said, it's such a beautiful opening because it does introduce all the characters. And staging-wise, the set is the perfumery and then with - the outside of the world is Budapest. So I just decided to use as much of the environment as I could to introduce each character, including going down the aisles. So it sort of gives them each a special sort of moment to be introduced and for an audience to see it.

GROSS: So I want to change the mood a little bit and play one of the ballads from the show. And this is just a beautiful song. It's perhaps my favorite song from the show. It's called "Dear Friend." Would one of you like to set up where this song fits into the show?

HARNICK: What it is - the show is about these two people, Amalia and Georg, and through a kind of Lonely Hearts Club arrangement they have started writing to each other. And through...

GROSS: Anonymously.

HARNICK: Anonymously. And they don't know what each other looks like, they don't know their real names. But through their letters, they have become very close. They believe that they're in love with each other. And finally, they arrange to meet. They're going to meet at a very romantic Hungarian cafe - this is at the end of the first act - but because of plot complications, Amalia goes to the cafe but Georg doesn't. He's been fired, and he thinks it's no way for him to go and meet her when he's depressed.

So she is sitting there for two hours waiting for her dear friend - in their letters to one another, they signed them dear friend instead of their names. She's waiting for dear friend to show up, and he doesn't. So she sings this song, "Dear Friend." And I tried to express what she would be feeling in that song, her heartbreak - her potential heartbreak because she's left alone and he never shows up.

GROSS: And I should mention - so that he could spot her in the crowd, she's carrying, as she promised that she would, a copy of "Anna Karenina" with a rose in it...

HARNICK: That's right. That's how he's...

GROSS: ...Which she refers to in the song.

HARNICK: Yeah.

GROSS: So this is the fabulous Barbara Cook from the original cast recording singing the Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock song "Dear Friend," and this is from "She Loves Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR FRIEND")

BARBARA COOK: (As Amalia, singing) Charming, romantic, the perfect cafe. Then as if it isn't bad enough, a violin starts to play. Candles and wine, tables for two, but where are you, dear friend? Couples go past me. I see how they look so discretely sympathetic when they see the rose and the book. I make believe nothing is wrong. How long can I pretend? Please make it right. Don't break my heart. Don't let it end, dear friend.

GROSS: That's Barbara Cook from the original cast recording of "She Loves Me." A new revival of the musical opens Thursday. With me is Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to this 1963 Broadway musical, and Scott Ellis, who directed this new revival for the Roundabout Theatre. He also directed the 1993 revival of "She Loves Me."

So I think we all agree that that is just a beautiful song. And, Sheldon Harnick, my favorite part of that lyric - and I just love this for its just, like, honesty and simplicity and plainspokenness - is please make it right. Don't break my heart. Don't let it end, dear friend. And, you know, we were talking about how "She Loves Me" and "Fiddler On The Roof" are playing in revival at the same time on Broadway.

"Fiddler On The Roof," I think the lyrics are much more kind of complicated and more intricate rhyme schemes. And this just has this just, like I said, plainspokenness. Perfect though, you know? Spare, every word perfect.

HARNICK: What was interesting, I mean, listening to Barbara right now is that I think every song in the new revival is played faster.

ELLIS: It's so funny you're saying that 'cause that is - that's exactly what I was thinking about. Everything in that original was so much slower. I'm not saying - it's just interesting.

HARNICK: Yeah.

ELLIS: And I've not listened to the original cast album in years. I mean, I probably - I haven't listened to it in 23 years. I listened to it when I did the original - but it is so fascinating - and I will also say when Sheldon would come into rehearsals, which I was always thrilled when he did, his one (laughter) note was always, slow it down.

Slow it - I'd want a little bit more of a fast pace and I liked the - but Sheldon - and by the way, Sheldon was right. We do not do it as slow as this. But we did slow down things once you start - came into rehearsals.

BIANCULLI: Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics for the musical "She Loves Me." Scott Ellis is the director of the revival now on Broadway. We'll continue their conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and director Scott Ellis. Their current Broadway revival of the musical "She Loves Me" will be streamed live next Thursday by BroadwayHD.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: When you were working on this new revival, Scott, and also on the '93 revival of "She Loves Me," how closely did you work with Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist, who's joining us today? And what did you want to know from him? I mean, you're so lucky to be doing this fabulous revival and having the lyricist available to talk with.

ELLIS: The first time I did it - and remembering that I was not that experienced, it was my first Broadway show - but what I do remember with all of them, all three of them - and Jerry was alive at that time - it was a terrific collaboration. And they showed me a great deal of respect. I just remember even at that time in my life thinking, wow, these incredibly talented, you know, successful writers are actually just sitting down and we're collaborating.

GROSS: What did they tell you that you wouldn't have known just working on your own?

ELLIS: We have a really good example of what happened at this revival. Sheldon came in during rehearsals when we were in the rehearsal room and watched some of the numbers and the scenes and he'd give a few notes. And it was all great, it was fine. Joe came in. He had not been in the rehearsal...

GROSS: This is Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book.

ELLIS: Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book. And he had not been in. So I said please come in while we're tecking (ph). So he sat down, and we did a scene and then we did a number, "Tonight At Eight," where Georg is talking about meeting this dear friend for the first time.

And so I was like OK, I'm sort of happy with how things are going. And (laughter) it's over with so that's good. I go up to Joe, and I said yeah, so, Joe, you know, what do you think? And again, this is someone that I've worked together and trust. And he looked at me, he says that doesn't work.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIS: And I was like, what? I can still get crushed in a second. I said what, Joe? He said, well, I'm sorry I'm saying that, you know, but it's just a gut thing that that's not correct for that character. I was like OK, Joe, what do you mean? I'm thinking Joe, I've done this. You know, I did - I understand this piece. And what he said was so 100 percent right. I had allowed Zach, as we were exploring Georg and the character - and he was - Zach was exploring being a little goofier in this song. And he was - he sort of fell on the floor and he was - sat on the counter and he twirled. And he did a lot of stuff.

And Joe said very simply - he said he wouldn't do that in the shop. He respects and loves this shop too much to get on the floor, to spin on that counter that he polishes all day. And I thought oh, my God, you are exactly right. And we changed the whole thing.

GROSS: Well, since you mentioned the song "Tonight At Eight," I thought we should hear it. And we do have a little snippet from the new revival. So we can hear that with the actor who you were talking about, Zachary Levi. And so this is the song "Tonight At Eight," when he's getting ready to meet this person who he basically found through a personal ad, and they've been corresponding anonymously. And he's planning to actually meet her tonight at 8. He's nervous and excited. Here's Zachary Levi from the new production of "She Loves Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONIGHT AT EIGHT")

ZACHARY LEVI: (As Georg Nowack, singing) I wish I knew exactly how I'll act and what will happen when we dine tonight at 8. I know I'll drop the silverware but will I spill the water or the wine tonight at 8? Tonight I'll walk right up and sit right down beside the smartest girl in town and then it's anybody's guess. More and more I'm breathing less and less, less. My imagination, I can hear our conversation taking shape tonight at 8. I'll sit there saying absolutely nothing or I'll jabber like an ape tonight at 8. Two more minutes, three more seconds, 10 more hours to go. I'll know when this is done if something's ended or begun. And if it goes all right, who knows? I might propose tonight at 8.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's Zachary Levi in the new production, the new revival of "She Loves Me" on Broadway. My guest, Sheldon Harnick, wrote the lyrics to that show as well as the lyrics for "Fiddler On The Roof," which is also in revival on Broadway. Also with us is Scott Ellis, who directed this new Roundabout production of "She Loves Me" and did the Roundabout revival in 1993. The original show was from 1963. So, OK, one of my favorite lines from the song we just heard - more and more, I'm breathing less and less...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...His description of his anxiety. Do you remember writing that, Sheldon?

HARNICK: I remember almost getting killed writing that. That was one of the pieces of music on one of the tapes that Jerry sent me. And when I heard that, that kind of - to me, it always sounded kind of French. (Humming) I just couldn't wait to put lyrics to it. I knew that it should be for Georg, and I started to work on it. And I find that what helps me to write is when I walk. We have a swimming pool out in the country, and also I swim. And that helps for some reason to stimulate lyrics.

So I'm walking and I'm singing to myself (humming) and working of the lyric. And all of a sudden, I hear this loud horn. And I turn around and I'm 2 inches away from a huge truck. I was crossing the street and I was working on the lyric and I'm paying no attention. And this guy slammed on his breaks and honked his horn. And he looked at me, and he swore at me. And I looked at him, I said it's OK, it's OK, I got the lyric.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIS: And the rest is history.

GROSS: That's hysterical.

BIANCULLI: Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics for the musical "She Loves Me." Scott Ellis is the director of the revival now on Broadway. We'll continue their conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and director Scott Ellis. Their current Broadway revival of the musical "She Loves Me" will be streamed live next Thursday by BroadwayHD.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, I know you had hoped that this would be a big hit when it opened in 1963 - I mean, everybody who works on a musical hopes it's going to be a hit.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And although it's now acknowledged as, like, you know, a jewel of a musical, a perfect musical, it closed in nine months and...

HARNICK: Oh, it was a heartbreaking experience. We opened, and we got very good reviews. And I thought to myself, fine, we're going to be - we'll have a two-year run for sure. But after six months, business began to fall off. And sure enough, by the time - by eight and a half or nine months later we closed. And I think we lost - if I remember right, the producer lost his entire investment.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

HARNICK: So the show had closed. I was so upset that at The Grammys I didn't go because I thought, well, we're going to lose again and I don't want to be heartsick again. But at The Grammys, the show won for best new show album. At any rate, a year went by without any productions. And all of us who had been associated with it loved it, so we were all heartsick.

And then there was a production at Bucks County. The cast wrote a letter to Joe Masteroff and Jerry Bock and me. And the letter said we don't understand why this didn't work on Broadway. Our audiences love it. And that's the way it was up until Scott revived it in 1993. And that production got love letters from the critics.

And the following year, we had 60 productions, all because of Roundabout and Scott Ellis - extraordinarily gratifying.

GROSS: Scott, that must make you happy.

ELLIS: Oh, please, that's, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIS: ...What else do I want to hear, you know? It's thrilling.

GROSS: So the show was not a hit. It closed in nine months. But there was a big hit song that came out of the show, the title song "She Loves Me." Jack Jones had a big hit of it. And I will confess here that when I was growing up I really did not like that version of the song. I...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I started to love the song when I heard the cast recordings. So let's hear "She Loves Me" and let's play the 1993 revival version that Scott Ellis directed. Boyd Gaines, who sings the role on this, won a Tony Award for his performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES ME")

BOYD GAINES: (As Georg Nowack, singing) She loves me and to my amazement I love it knowing that she loves me. She loves me - true, she doesn't show it. How could she when she doesn't know it? Yesterday, she loathed me, but now today she likes me. And tomorrow, tomorrow, oh - my teeth ache from the urge to touch her.

I'm speechless for I mustn't tell her. It's wrong now, but it won't be long now before my love discovers that she and I are lovers. Imagine how surprised she's bound to be. She loves me. She loves me. I love her. Isn't that a wonder?

GROSS: That's Boyd Gaines in the 1993 revival of "She Loves Me." My guests are Scott Ellis, who directed that revival and the new revival on Broadway. And also with me is Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for this musical "She Loves Me." And he wrote the lyrics to "Fiddler On The Roof," which is also back on Broadway.

So let's talk about this song, Sheldon Harnick. It's sung by the leading man when he realizes that he and this woman, who have been anonymously corresponding through a "Miss Lonelyhearts" kind of arrangement, are actually falling in love. And he knows who she is but she doesn't yet know that he is the person she was anonymously corresponding with. Anyways, so one outstanding line in this is my teeth ache from the urge to touch her. Have your teeth ever ached like that?

HARNICK: Well, that's something that happens...

GROSS: Yeah.

HARNICK: Yeah, that's something that happens to me throughout my life. When I've seen a particularly pretty girl, for some reason my back teeth are very sensitive. And so I put that in the lyric. I thought it works for me. Maybe...

ELLIS: (Laughter) Maybe it'll work for other people.

HARNICK: Right. Of course, now I don't have those teeth anymore. Wherever they are, when they see a pretty girl, I'm sure they hurt.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So in the new revival, Jane Krakowski is cast as the second leading lady. So she's more of, like, the comic leading lady. And I think she has a lot of fans from "30 Rock" who would be curious to hear how does she sound in the context of a Broadway musical? We happen to have a short clip of her singing a song called "A Trip To The Library." Sheldon Harnick, I'm going to ask you to describe the context for this song.

HARNICK: Ilona, the character, she keeps falling in love with the wrong men, and they treat her like dirt. And finally, she says no more. I'm not going to let this happen anymore. And she goes for a walk, and without meaning to, she wanders into a library in Budapest. And she is just a little hysterical just staring at all these books and wondering and just feeling lost. And suddenly, this stranger begins to talk to her. He says - in effect, he's saying, are you all right, you know? And she looks at him and she realizes he's being kind to her.

And this is something she's so rarely experienced that it's a brand-new experience. And she is telling this experience to one of the other clerks, Sipos, who works in the shop, the fact that she's met this very nice man and how unusual that is. And that's what's happened as she says she now understands the magic of books, the fact that she's gone into the library and it's led to a good relationship.

GROSS: So this is a very short clip that we have from the new revival of "She Loves Me," and this is Jane Krakowski singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TRIP TO THE LIBRARY")

JANE KRAKOWSKI: (As Ilona Ritter, singing) And there was this dear, sweet, clearly respectable, thickly bespectacled man who stood by my side and quietly said to me, ma'am, don't mean to intrude, but I was just wondering are you in need of some help?

I said no - yes, I am. The next thing I know, I'm sipping hot chocolate and telling my troubles to Paul, whose tender brown eyes kept sending compassionate looks. A trip to the library has made a new girl of me, for suddenly I can see the magic of books.

GROSS: That's Jane Krakowski from the new revival of "She Loves Me." My guest Scott Ellis directed the revival. Also with us is Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to this 1963 musical. And he also wrote the lyrics to "Fiddler On The Roof," which is also revived now on Broadway.

So, you know, Sheldon Harnick, what you think of the show. You know what you think of this particular revival of the show. Are you going to care what the reviews say?

HARNICK: I'm thin-skinned enough, so I regret to say I will care. I shouldn't and particularly because we've had now - what - about four weeks of previews on this, "She Loves Me." And the consensus of everybody who's seen it is that it's gorgeous.

So they should get good reviews. As Scott and I said, you never know whether the critics are going to see it in the same way. But if the reviews are mean or if they're mean-spirited, I will be very upset, very hurt by it.

GROSS: Well, I want to congratulate you both on this revival of "She Loves Me." My guest Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics to "She Loves Me" and he also wrote the lyrics to "Fiddler on the Roof," which is playing right across the street from "She Loves Me" in a revival. And also with us has been Scott Ellis, who directed this new revival, this new Roundabout Theatre production of "She Loves Me." He also directed Roundabout's 1993 revival. Thank you both so much.

HARNICK: Thank you, Terry.

ELLIS: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Sheldon Harnick and Scott Ellis spoke with Terry in March, shortly before opening night. The day after "She Loves Me" opened, Scott Ellis married his partner. And Sheldon Harnick needn't have worried about the opening night reviews. The New York Times said the show was rapturously revived. Variety said the show is so charming you kind of wish it would follow you home. A performance of "She Loves Me" will be streamed live next Thursday on the BroadwayHD website.

On Monday's show, Barbara Cook talks about going from Broadway ingenue to sophisticated cabaret signer. She was in the original Broadway productions of "The Music Man" and "She Loves Me" and in "Candide" and "Carousel." Along the way, she struggled with anxiety and alcoholism. She's written a new memoir and is still performing at the age of 88. Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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