When Michael Ballam, the acclaimed opera singer and founder of Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, was preparing for the festival’s 2013 production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” he wanted to find the perfect man to play the patriarch, Tevye. Who better to turn to for a recommendation than his friend Sheldon Harnick — the very man who penned the now classic words to “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and the rest of the 1964 musical’s beloved tunes.
To Ballam’s surprise, Harnick insisted that Ballam play Tevye.
Ballam said he didn’t initially think he could possibly be the right fit for the part — he didn’t look or sound anything like the men who had traditionally been cast as Tevye, to which Harnick replied, “You have three daughters. You have a relationship with God like nobody I’ve ever known. That’s Tevye. I want you to play it by just telling the story with no affectations. Just tell the story.”
“That’s how he’s been in everything I’ve worked with him: It’s about the story, not about show-stopping numbers and pizzazz,” Ballam said. “It’s about conveying a message.”
That’s the main lesson Harnick says he’s gleaned from his decades-long career on Broadway.
“In addition to trying to have the best score you possibly can, you also have to have a good dramatic story, and that story has to be told quickly and economically and with all the excess fat removed,” said the 93-year-old Tony Award-winning lyricist in an interview with the Deseret News.
Allowing the story to shine is at the core of UFOMT’s revival of “Rex,” a musical with lyrics by Harnick, music by Richard Rodgers and book by Sherman Yellen, which opens as part of the Logan festival’s 25th anniversary season on July 6.
The musical, based on the life of King Henry VIII of England, premiered on Broadway in 1976 but was not as well received as the production team had initially hoped.
“They could see it wasn’t quite what it needed to be for a long run, so their intent was to pull it, work on it, reopen it again, but Rodgers died,” Ballam said. “He was gone before there was time to ever redo it.”
“Rex” was Rodgers' second to the last musical before he passed away in 1979, according to the Rodgers and Hammerstein website, and the only time Harnick ever worked with the musical theater legend who was behind works such as “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I.”
“I became enormously fond of Richard Rodgers, not only as an artist but as a man,” Harnick said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and I thought he was a very brave man and a very honest man. I loved him.”
The musical became part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein archive and was rarely performed. Then, a few years ago, Ballam approached Harnick with the idea to rework the show.
“Any time there’s a possibility of a production of any of my shows, I’m eager to get it on because I love to see them produced. That’s what they were written for,” Harnick said. “Here was a possibility of a production that I knew would be a good production with a good Henry VIII, Michael (Ballam), so I was all in favor of it.”
Ballam hired director Maggie Harrer, and she, Harnick and Yellen workshopped a revised version of “Rex” at UFOMT in 2013 while Harnick was in Logan coaching Ballam on his role as Tevye. The team took the feedback they received during the staged reading and have created a revised, full production for this year’s festival.
“It was a beautiful production (when it opened on Broadway), but we had made a lot of mistakes with it,” Harnick said. “(Now) we’ve got a shorter script, a tighter script, and we think the entire show is better. It’s one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to seeing the production in Utah because I think it’s so much better than when it was done on Broadway.”
Harnick and Yellen have been heavily involved with rehearsals for “Rex” by Skyping with the cast and crew daily and providing feedback, an opportunity Ballam doesn’t take lightly.
“Sheldon (Harnick) is the last one of them all. He knew Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Ballam said. “He’s the last of that era of the gold age of musical theater. … It’s just astonishing to have someone who was there when ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Carousel’ were premiered and to have him still around to talk and create with us.”
In addition to “Rex,” UFOMT’s 25th anniversary season also includes productions of “Madama Butterfly,” “The Music Man,” “Pirates of Penzance,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Seussical,” as well as seminars, concerts and other special events, including a tribute to Harnick on July 19.
If you go …
What: Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre
When: Through Aug. 9, dates and times vary
Where: Ellen Eccles and Utah theaters in Logan
How much: $13-$77 for stage productions; $11-$41 for concerts; prices vary for special events
Note: “Rex” will be performed in the Utah Theatre July 6, 10, 15, 20 and 28 and Aug. 3 and 7