Outdoors in The Harnicks’ Museum

“It is as though two poets were taking a walk through the city side by side"
When Sheldon Harnick and his wife, Margery Harnick, are not working in the city — often on the streets and even in the subway — they are in East Hampton working at their weekend home. Margery Harnick Photos

   Erudite and warm, droll but unaffected, Margery and Sheldon Harnick are like many successful couples who call the South Fork their second home. Their faces may not be immediately recognizable to hoi polloi, but they are secure in their accomplishments and here to relax, saving their socializing for theater events in the city.
    Mr. Harnick is a Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning lyricist for musicals such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “She Loves Me.” Ms. Harnick is an actress and painter who recently added photography to her range of creative outlets.
    Spending a warm spring afternoon in their house full of air and light off Egypt Lane is like catching up with old friends or family members, but ones who have fascinating stories to tell.
    Some of their stories have been captured in a book: “The Outdoor Museum (Not Your Usual Images of New York),” published last month by Beaufort Books. It features Ms. Harnick’s photography with Mr. Harnick’s poetry. Excerpts from the book are on view at Guild Hall’s Boots Lamb Educational Center through July 29.
    The title says it all, but what it does not describe, Mike Nichols, the Broadway and film producer and director, elaborates on in the book’s foreword. A longtime friend of the Harnicks, he was struck by how the pairing of words and images reflected the balance of visions that imbues their marriage.
    “It is as though two poets were taking a walk through the city side by side, looking at different things and sometimes the same things through their different eyes and souls, humming different tunes in the same key, sometimes joining in complex harmonies,” Mr. Nichols wrote. “They see beauty in things that, once seen, will never again be seen in the same way.”
    It is surprising that the two — who have gone separately to Guild Hall’s clothesline art fair and arrived home with a work by the same artist, who finish each other’s sentences, and laugh appreciatively at each other’s jokes — have not collaborated professionally in the years since they first met on the production of “Tenderloin.”
    The play was the 1960 follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiorello!” in 1959. Both musicals employed the team of Mr. Harnick, his composing partner, Jerry Bock, and George Abbott, who co-wrote and directed both plays.
    Each remembers the moment the other caught his or her eye as if it were last year, not decades and two grown children ago. Mr. Harnick first noticed Ms. Harnick at her audition. “She had gorgeous blond hair down to her knees and sang wonderfully. Abbott got very excited and then found out she danced and acted. The principal roles were cast, but we put her in the ensemble and he kept finding things for her to do. He just fell in love with her.” Abbott ended up asking Ms. Harnick to replace the lead in “Fiorello!” at the end of its original run.
    Abbott was in his 70s, but Mr. Harnick was still in his 30s and eager to pursue the young actress. While Ms. Harnick had other suitors, Mr. Harnick caught her eye on the first day of rehearsals for “Tenderloin.” She walked in early. “I saw this cute guy with curly hair. I didn’t know who he was or what he did.” She found out he was the lyricist. “Then you and Jerry sang and went through the whole score for us and that was it.”
    In the course of performing the play, Ms. Harnick’s appreciation for Mr. Harnick’s gift grew. “To go out night after night and see your material was so inspirational when I was in ‘Fiorello!’ ” she said to her husband. “You get inside of the character so when I’m singing your songs it’s as if it were me. You become the character. I don’t know how to explain it better than that.”
    “See, that’s why we’ve been married as long as we have,” Mr. Harnick responded.
    “What I had to learn over the years,” he added, “was never to say I don’t like it,” when she showed him her paintings. “What I learned to say is ‘I don’t understand this yet.’ ” He recalled being at Mr. Bock’s house once, working in his studio. “Once we played his wife a song that she didn’t like and he said ‘Well, what do you know?’ ” That would probably be his response if Ms. Harnick said she didn’t like a song, he said.
    For almost as long as they have been married, the couple have been coming to East Hampton, starting in 1966 when Hal Holbrook took over for Alan Alda in one of Mr. Harnick’s projects, a production of three playlets called “The Apple Tree,” directed by Mr. Nichols. “Hal asked, ‘Would anyone like to rent my house in Amagansett for the time I’m in the show?’ We went to Meeting House Lane and fell in love with it.” They cleaned the house and added some warm touches and Mr. Holbrook asked if they wanted to rent it again.
    “He didn’t charge us a penny more,” Ms. Harnick recalled.
    With no sense of direction, Mr. Harnick said he was always lost in new places, “but I always knew where I was here. It just felt like home.”
    After a few false starts they found their current house. “We’ve been in here since 1968 when the house was finished. It was built by Bob Barnes. He made wonderful homes,” Ms. Harnick said.
    When their children, Matthew and Beth, were growing up, it was more difficult to come out every weekend, “but we never abandoned the house for more than a month or six weeks.” While others relax, they come to work. “We discovered that if we wanted to, we could become part of the party crowd or we could work, which is what we wanted to do. So we never got into the party scene,” said Mr. Harnick.
    Mr. Harnick is constantly writing — in a car, at home, or even in the subway if inspiration strikes. Ms. Harnick, who has studied with artists such as Jane Wilson, has been painting for decades. “I’ve always taken photographs as a start, but then I couldn’t stop taking photographs recently.”
    It is the abstract that attracts her to her photographic subjects, but also “structure and content and composition. I use it all the time. Whether abstract or not, those lessons stay with you.”
    The book is the culmination of four years of work and 300 photographs. Mr. Harnick’s poems were inspired by the images. A chapter on the city’s homeless population was particularly moving for them. Mr. Harnick, who recalled getting choked up the first time he read the poem inspired by those images, read the poem in his house and was moved once again.
    “Who are they?” it begins. He follows up with a list of questions, capturing what many people must think at some time. “Did they have skates? A bike? A pencil box? A best friend?” he asks of their childhoods. But he wants to know more. He questions their love and family lives and what their last home was like. “Did they have a job? A bank account? Dreams? What happened?” And the penultimate line, the one we have all asked at one time or another, “Could this happen to me?” It ends where it begins, “Who are they?”
    One of the more moving images is of a blind woman, whose drapery is reminiscent of the folds of a Renaissance Madonna, or a mourning St. John the Evangelist in Rosso Fiorentino’s “Deposition” from 1521. Ms. Harnick’s other images alternate from the poignant to the tragic, forcing us to recognize what is so easily passed by on the street and why we look away. She takes the pictures from far away and avoids including faces. Not sure how to approach her subjects or whether she is disturbing them, she goes to a nearby deli to buy a drink and a sandwich and quietly leaves the meal by them.
    One publisher did not want the chapter in the book. He found it too distressing, “but that’s New York,” Mr. Harnick said. They held out for another publisher.
    People have asked, “ ‘Where do you find all these homeless people?’ And I say, ‘Everywhere.’ So many people are so busy on their phones or whatever they don’t really see.”
    Other chapters focus on reflections, construction, cars, swans, and other frequently seen and ignored sights of the city, captured from Ms. Harnick’s unique perspective. She hits the streets with no agenda, with a camera in her pocket, waiting for inspiration. “Exciting things happen that I don’t know about until I get upon them.”
    While she is still taking pictures in the city, she has plans for a book of nature photographs in collaboration with their son, taken in and around East Hampton.
    Mr. Harnick, who is now working on a musical based on a play by Moliere called “The Doctor in Spite of Himself,” said he loved the freedom of working on verse not tied to the strict rhythmic meter of a song. Though he studied music at Northwestern University in Chicago, he has spent years independently reading the works of the great poets, classic to contemporary. When he realized his poem “Puddles” was shorter than the others in the book he asked himself “ ‘Do I dare do that?’ And then I thought, yeah, I dare.”

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