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“Fiddlers” to Take a Bow

By Philip Lambert

They never had the marquee allure of Rodgers and Hammerstein. They didn’t enjoy the longevity of their contemporaries Kander and Ebb, who wrote songs for shows like Cabaret and Chicago for almost forty-two years. But they are one of Broadway’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful songwriting teams, and on November 1, 2010, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick will be honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Dramatists Guild, at a ceremony in New York.

It may be difficult for Bock and Harnick to find room for the new statuettes on their mantels, which are already crowded with Tony Awards (for Fiorello! in 1960 and Fiddler on the Roof in 1965), a Pulitzer Prize (Fiorello!), New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards (Fiorello! and Fiddler), and a Grammy (She Loves Me, 1963), among other honors. But the new award has the extra appeal of recognizing all of their work, not only the prize-winners but also their other Broadway shows – The Body Beautiful (1958), Tenderloin (1960), The Apple Tree (1966), and The Rothschilds (1970) – as well as the shows they wrote with other partners before they met in 1956 (such as Bock’s score for Sammy Davis, Jr.’s Broadway debut, Mr. Wonderful, in 1956), and the work they have done since they went their separate ways in 1970 (including Harnick’s lyrical contributions to Richard Rodgers’s penultimate musical, Rex, in 1976). They have taken their rightful places in the Broadway pantheon.

What were the secrets of their success? Indeed, what are the requirements for any successful songwriting team? Personal compatibility is a plus, of course, but not essential, as Gilbert and Sullivan proved. It’s a matter of debate whether George and Ira Gershwin wrote great songs together because of, or in spite of, their familial bond. And then there are the examples of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim, avoiding the issue entirely by writing both music and lyrics. But Bock and Harnick were, and still are, close friends. Their personalities complement each other, from opposite ends of a dispositional spectrum. As Harnick, the self-described pessimist, said in 1971, “Between us, we help bring the other either down to earth, or up to earth.” And it surely helped that each partner was well-schooled in the task of the other. Bock has always had a flair for verse and has served as his own lyricist on many occasions (including a very successful series of musicals for young audiences in 2000–07). Harnick is a classically trained violinist who has written both music and lyrics at various times throughout his career (for instance, the early revue numbers “Boston Beguine” [1952] and “Merry Little Minuet” [1953], and the more recent full-scale musical Dragons [1973–2006], for which he wrote book, music, and lyrics).

Most importantly, and most elusively, Bock and Harnick mastered the art of collaboration, of being productive members of complex creative teams. Working with book writers such as Joseph Stein and Joe Masteroff, and with directors such as Jerome Robbins, Harold Prince, George Abbott, and Mike Nichols, they learned to listen, to adapt, to evolve. They became experts in reading and shaping audience reactions, in knowing where and how music can enhance drama. They learned that a song is only as good as its dramatic context, that their best efforts in the studio might fall short on the stage and need to be replaced by something entirely new. They have estimated that they wrote two or three songs for every one that eventually made it to Broadway. Harnick has fondly quoted an old adage: “Shows are not written; they are rewritten.”

Their adaptability extended to their working methods as well. Many of their songs began with a wordless melody by Bock, awaiting Harnick’s lyrical overlay, in the manner of Rodgers and Hart. But they could just as comfortably begin with a complete Harnick lyric inspiring Bock’s music, following the model of Rodgers in his work with Hammerstein. They could also exercise creative give-and-take, toiling together in the same room, à la Kander and Ebb. As a song developed, and as a show developed, during rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts, the process could be complicated by creative input from many directions. No matter the circumstances, the drama always came first, the parts in service of the whole.

Why, then, after fourteen years of theatrical prosperity, did Bock and Harnick stop writing shows together in 1970, with Fiddler on the Roof still going strong in its record-setting Broadway run? We can never know for sure, and the songwriters themselves have been understandably circumspect in their public comments about their creative separation. But it’s clear that both wanted to move in new directions, Bock towards writing his own lyrics exclusively, Harnick towards expanding his artistic options in the direction of opera. The partnership had run its course. They remained close and have welcomed opportunities to rub shoulders again and again in the decades since, to oversee overseas premieres, national and international tours, and Broadway revivals. The recognition they will receive from the Dramatists Guild on November 1 will bring them together once again to celebrate their history and their legacy.

Postscript: Joseph Stein (1912–2010)

As Bock and Harnick reflect on their lives in the theater at the Dramatists Guild ceremony, they will no doubt be thinking of the third member of their most successful creative team, Joseph Stein, who passed away on October 24 at age 98. In 1960, when Stein, Bock, and Harnick began developing an idea that would eventually blossom into Fiddler on the Roof, they were renewing the collaboration behind their first Broadway show in 1957–58, The Body Beautiful. (Stein and Bock, pre-Harnick, had worked together even earlier, on Mr. Wonderful in 1955–56.) Over a four-year period, including time off to adapt Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel Enter Laughing for a successful Broadway run in 1963–64, Stein produced multiple drafts of a libretto weaving four of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories together into a cohesive drama. Many assumed that Stein had the easy part, of simply deciding which portions of Aleichem’s text to extract and place in an actor’s mouth, but he found in fact that the original text had a “literary” quality that did not work on stage. Many of the most familiar and colorful aspects of Tevye’s character, for example, were actually original contributions by Stein. His creation of this role, iconically realized by Zero Mostel, and the rest of his work on Fiddler became key components of the show’s success, the ideal dramatic context for Jerome Robbins’s choreography and Bock and Harnick’s music.

I had the good fortune to speak with Joseph Stein about his work on Fiddler in November 2009. He proudly acknowledged his contributions to the show’s success, but he also spoke of special, ineffable qualities that transcend the work of any single individual. He recalled a phone conversation he had with Jerome Robbins shortly after Fiddler opened in September 1964:

He said, “Joe, did you get this strange reaction from your friends about this show? Of course, they all like it, and they say they think it’s a good show, and all of that.” And then he said something that is very true: “Their reaction is almost religious.” And I said, “Yes that’s true. People say that it’s not like just another Broadway show. It touches my heart, my pride. I laughed, and I felt very strangely moved in a religious way.” Friends kept calling and reacting to the show in that way – they were unique kinds of congratulations. And so I think it is kind of special.

Today the show retains its mystical aura for audiences everywhere, keeping alive a vision that Joseph Stein helped realize fifty years ago.

Philip Lambert is author of the forthcoming book To Broadway, To Life! – The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick, as well as Inside the Music of Brian Wilson and The Music of Charles Ives. He is Professor of Music at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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