Sheldon and Margery Harnick sign copies of "Koi" at BookExpo
Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Sheldon Harnick will forever be known as the lyricist with composer Jerry Bock for the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. But his appearance with wife Margery Gray Harnick at the recent BookExpo at the Javits Center signified that he may well be on his way to a noteworthy side career.
The Harnicks were there to autograph copies of their new book Koi: A Modern Folktale, featuring text by Sheldon and photographs by Margery and their son Matt Harnick, to be published by Beaufort Books on June 21. It's their second book together, following The Outdoor Museum (not your usual images of New York), which came out in 2012 with a foreword by Mike Nichols.
The new book follows the collaborative template set by The Outdoor Museum, which included over 100 atypical New York photographs taken by Margery and set to 11 witty poems by Sheldon that he read on an accompanying CD.
"Both books were her idea," said Sheldon. "My words were prompted by her photographs."
Margery noted that The Outdoor Museum, while about New York, presented "not the usual images. Rather, it showed "homelessness, subways, puddles—not just the landmarks."
Yet they were still artful. In fact, Sheldon, she said, looked at her pictures and wrote "beautiful poetry—each in a different style."
"I said, 'Put down the camera and make supper!'" Sheldon joked. "But I loved the pictures."
That first book resulted when Margery, who is also a painter and an actress, walked about the city "seeing things that looked like paintings—like the reflections of buildings in puddles that didn't entirely look like buildings."
"I couldn't believe it when Sheldon wrote the[book's] homeless section," she said. "I started crying!"
"And I started crying!" interjected Sheldon. "It's such a beautiful book."
The Outdoor Museum was three years in the making, said Margery.
"I always take my camera with me—not knowing what I'll photograph. But it has to be something that sings to me—like a homeless person who was between two barrels on 57th Street. A woman walked by and didn't even turn her head!"
Margery's idea for Koi came about while visiting with her daughter Beth in Malibu and taking photos of the colorful Asian fish in her friend's koi pond. Both Margery and Sheldon then became interested in koi and their history, and discovered that there are many legends behind the fish, many symbolic of overcoming diversity and fulfilling one's destiny.
Inspired again by his wife's stunning photography, Sheldon decided to conceive his own variation of the koi legends, in which the koi, on account of the pleasure that their beauty provides human beings, are rewarded by the gods by being transformed into "majestic and fearsome" dragons. Matt Harnick's photos, then, are of sculptures of koi transitioning from fish to dragon.
Because of the koi's origination in Asia, Harnick decided to put his text in haiku form.
"I keep saying 'haiku,' she keeps saying 'gesundheit!'" said Harnick. "But real haiku are more imagistic, whereas mine are more narrative."
Alan Alda, who appeared in the 1966 Bock-Harnick musical The Apple Tree, wrote the foreword for Koi: A Modern Folktale.
"I think Sheldon's songs and lyrics occupy a special circuit in all our brains," wrote Alda. "So many of his songs urge us on, just as the gods urge on the koi, first to engage in the pleasures of life but also to be mindful of protecting and sustaining life itself."
The Harnicks now hope for a third book collaboration to follow Koi, even though Sheldon had never written very much poetry before.
"Every time I had an idea for a poem it turned into a song," he said. "But writing poems and songs require the same discipline: It's economical verse, though here [in the haiku of Koi] it's just limited by the number of syllables."
And not to worry that his new success with poetry will hinder his songwriting.
"He's still writing songs," said Margery. "Every day he works."