A Second Act for “Sunrise, Sunset”

A Second Act for “Sunrise, Sunset”

By Peter Filichia on October 07, 2016

The Situation

Architect Daniel Sherman and Richard Skipper, the noted interviewer and Hello, Dolly! historian, celebrated the fifth anniversary of their wedding reception this week.

Not so incidentally, also marking a fifth anniversary was a new version of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

The reworked lyrics came courtesy of Sheldon Harnick, who in the early ’60s thought the song would be a good addition to his upcoming musical Fiddler on the Roof.

“And,” says Skipper, “the new version of ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ happened thanks to Reverend Joshua Ellis. Because Fiddler dealt with both family and changing traditions, the song was a natural for a new interpretation.”

The Buildup

Only weeks after New York’s state legislature approved the Marriage Equality Act in 2011, Ellis, an ordained InterSpiritual minister, was asked to officiate at the Skipper-Sherman wedding.

“Having been to many, many weddings in my life meant that I’d heard ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ at every one of them since Sept. 22, 1964,” says Ellis, citing Fiddler’s opening date on Broadway.

That a minister should know Fiddler’s debut may seem atypical, but from the mid-‘70s through the early ‘90s, Ellis was one of Broadway’s top press agents. He represented hit musicals (42nd Street, Into the Woods), plays (The Elephant Man, Nicholas Nickleby) as well as Lena Horne: “The Lady and Her Music.”

Adds Ellis, “I’ve joked that before Sept. 22, 1964, every Jewish wedding had two minutes and 40 seconds of silence as everyone was waiting for them to be filled by ‘Sunrise, Sunset.’”

(Take it from a Gentile: “Sunrise, Sunset” enjoyed the same popularity at Christian weddings.)

So Ellis felt bad that the song that composer Jerry Bock set to Harnick’s lyric would automatically be “colossally missing” from gay and lesbian weddings. Nevertheless, that was the fate of a song that begins “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?”

Ellis didn’t know Harnick, so he asked Gretchen Cryer and Jim Morgan for the lyricist’s contact information to see if he could coax a new lyric out of him. (The former has directed Ellis’ one-man show, Call My Publicist: The Starry Education of a Broadway Press Agent, which deals with his years in show business, while the latter is the producing artistic director of The York Theatre Company where Ellis has performed it.)

The Acceptance

Then came Ellis’s cold call to Harnick. “He told me what he had in mind,” says Harnick, “and I thought, ‘What an intriguing idea.’ He said that if I didn’t want to write new lyrics, the guys were willing to write their own, but I told him I’d be happy to do them. It was an easy change.”

“Sheldon was a first-class mensch about it,” Ellis says. “I didn’t have to arm-twist at all. He did say that he’d have to get permission from Jerry Bock’s lawyer, but he obviously did, for within 24 hours, I had his new lyric in my hand. And when I later asked him for one for lesbian weddings, he gave me that in a matter of hours.”

That wasn’t all. “Some time later, when I was in Jerusalem,” says Ellis, “I went on my iPhone and found that Sheldon had written and sent me two more: one for Gentile gay weddings and one for Gentile lesbian weddings. That made sense, because the original lyric does reference ‘a canopy for me.’”

The new lyrics have since been heard at countless weddings including that of Michael Johnston and David Zippel, the lyricist of City of Angels and The Goodbye Girl. Says Ellis, “And while these new versions were once heard only in 16 states, since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality for all 50 states in 2015, they’ve been heard far more often.”

The Recommendation

To access the first set of lyrics, visit www.callmypublicist.com. You’ll see and hear Jana Robbins, Broadway’s favorite Mazeppa, performing it at the Skipper-Sherman wedding. You’ll also hear the tumultuous response afterward. (And to see Call My Publicist on Saturday, Oct. 29 at 3:30 p.m. the Ziegfeld Society, visit www.theziegfeldsociety.com.)

Read more Filichia Features. 

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com. His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.