Sheldon Harnick, a Broadway lyricist whose creative partnership with composer Jerry Bock led to some of the most enduring scores in American musical theater history, notably “Fiddler on the Roof,” died June 23 at his home in Manhattan. He was 99.

His publicist Sean Katz confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

Starting in the late 1950s, Mr. Harnick and Bock spent a dozen years at the summit of Broadway songwriting teams. They collaborated on five shows that drew Tony Award nominations for best musical: “Fiorello!,” “She Loves Me,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Apple Tree” and “The Rothschilds.”

They began working together in 1958 for “The Body Beautiful,” a short-lived musical comedy about a boxer. Commercially, it took a beating. But it drew the notice of two forces in show business, director George Abbott and producer Harold Prince, who brought the young team onboard for an ambitious new musical about Fiorello H. La Guardia, charting the political rise of the charismatic New York mayor.

Their career was made with the 1959 musical “Fiorello!,” which starred Tom Bosley and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama — and shared the Tony for best musical along with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The Sound of Music.” They were suddenly in heady company, and “Fiorello!” ran on Broadway for two years.

One of Mr. Harnick’s key traits was his ability to work fast on a deadline. The wry, cynical song “Little Tin Box” was written while “Fiorello!” was in tryouts out of town, and it proved to be one of the most admired songs in the score. “I found out I could write under pressure,” Mr. Harnick said in 2014. “That turned out to be very important.”

In 1960 the Bock-Harnick musical “Tenderloin,” starring Maurice Evans, centered on a clergyman trying to clean up a rough district in 1890s Manhattan. Reviewing a 2000 production, the New York Times remarked on “a wicked Harnick lyric describing an innocent girl’s delicious descent into bawdiness (‘She’s the picture of happiness/Now that she’s mastered a trade’).”

“She Loves Me” (1963), starring Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey, was a confection about two bickering perfume shop employees who do not know that they are, in fact, anonymous romantic pen pals. The musical, featuring such songs as the warm ballad “Ice Cream,” was based on a play by Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo that also inspired Hollywood movies such as “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and “You’ve Got Mail” (1998).

The show that ultimately provided Mr. Harnick and Bock with their most resounding success came from an unlikely hitmaking source: the Yiddish stories of Sholom Aleichem focused on the tribulations of Tevye, the dairyman living in a shtetl in czarist Russia.

Tevye, played by Zero Mostel, struggles to maintain his Jewish traditions despite the challenges presented by his carping wife, their willful daughters and the pressures of the changing world.

To mount a big-budget musical around Tevye was deemed a risky proposition. Some thought it would be too ethic to appeal to the general public. Others criticized the show for transforming the misfortunes of shtetl life into the language of song and dance.

As it turned out, the show was met with near-universal embrace. Mr. Harnick told the Times in 2015 that its appeal stemmed from the story “about how our protagonist deals with those very painful changes. We identify with that in a very human way.”

“Fiddler” ran on Broadway from 1964 to 1972 and spawned many popular songs, including “Sunrise, Sunset.” Mr. Harnick was often praised for his easy wit and unforced sense of character, qualities most evident in the number “If I Were a Rich Man.”

“All day long I’d biddy biddy bum/If I were a wealthy man,” Tevye sings.

By the time the musical closed, it was the longest-running show in Broadway history, a distinction eclipsed years later by “Grease,” “A Chorus Line” and other musicals. “Fiddler” won 10 Tony Awards, including best composer and lyricist, and has been performed countless times in regional, stock and high school theaters. The 1971 film, starring Topol as Tevye, was nominated for a best-picture Academy Award.

“There’s storytelling through the songs,” said Alisa Solomon, author of “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’” Solomon cites “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”: “Something changes in those girls in the course of that song; they come to understand something. And the wordplay is so delightful: ‘Playing with matches a girl can get burned.’ The punning is a lot of fun. I think it’s a perfect song.”

The musical tapped into the Jewish roots of each of the show’s major contributors, including scriptwriter Joseph Stein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. “It was that important to all of us,” Mr. Harnick told The Washington Post in 2014. “It was all of our growing up experiences.”

Sheldon Mayer Harnick, the son of a dentist and a homemaker, was born in Chicago on April 30, 1924.

He studied violin as a child and then at Northwestern University, which he attended after three years with the Army during World War II. As a soldier he specialized in aircraft radio repair and did not see combat. But he later quipped to the Times, “I do have a bayonet wound, but it came from trying to open a can of peanuts with my bayonet.”

At Northwestern, Mr. Harnick wrote songs for campus revues and was especially piqued by lyric writing when his college friend Charlotte Rae, an aspiring actress, brought him the cast album to “Finian’s Rainbow,” a musical comedy with a topical edge about racism.

The songs were about serious subjects, but the words, by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, were “so imaginative and so playful,” Mr. Harnick later told The Post. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ That literally changed my life.”

After graduating with a music degree in 1949, Mr. Harnick moved to New York City and wrote for sketch comedy revues. His song “Boston Beguine,” sung by Alice Ghostley, became a standout of “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952.”

Mr. Harnick’s first two marriages, to Mary Boatner and actress, writer and comedian Elaine May, ended in divorce, the second lasting only a year. In 1965, he married Margery Gray, an actress and photographer.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son from their marriage, Matthew Harnick; a stepdaughter whom he adopted, Beth Dorn; and four grandchildren. Mr. Harnick’s younger brother Jay, creator of the touring children’s theater troupe TheatreWorks USA, died in 2007.

Mr. Harnick’s partnership with Bock barely survived the 1960s. They wrote three songs for the musical “Baker Street” (1965), about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, then opened “The Apple Tree” (1966), which was adapted from Mark Twain’s writing.

The next Bock-Harnick musical, “The Rothschilds” (1970), about the founding of the European banking dynasty, was their last. It ran for more than 500 performances, but the director had been fired and the songwriters disagreed vehemently about that decision. Bock ended the partnership for good, although they eventually reconciled as friends. He died in 2010.

Mr. Harnick’s interests and collaborators shifted over the next decades. He created English versions of operas and oratorios. With Rodgers, he wrote a musical about Henry VIII called “Rex” (1976) that closed on Broadway after two months. He later teamed with “Sesame Street” songwriter Joe Raposo to create a stage musical of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” still performed regionally around the country.

Mr. Harnick, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972 and received a special Tony for lifetime achievement in 2016, said one of his favorite songs turned out to be one of his most personal.

“Fiddler” was in Detroit during a tryout period, and Mr. Harnick said, “I thought it would be funny to start a song with Tevye saying, ‘Do you love me?’ and [his wife] saying, ‘What?!’ ” Listening to Mostel and Maria Karnilova sing “Do You Love Me?” several days later, Mr. Harnick understood he had written about his own Depression-era parents.

“I once had a conversation with [playwright] Edward Albee where he said we all owe a debt to our subconscious,” Mr. Harnick said in 2014. “We don’t know what we’re doing half the time.”

correction

A previous version of this obituary incorrectly reported the year “Fiorello!” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The musical was released in 1959, but it won the prize in 1960. The article has been corrected.



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