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In Memoriam: Composer Jerry Bock

Earlier this week, Jerry Bock (perhaps best known for Fiddler on the Roof) passed away, the day after he was honored with Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild. Below, Philip Lambert remembers the great composer.

By Philip Lambert

When Jerry Bock died on November 2, three weeks shy of his eighty-second birthday, the American musical theater lost one of its most expressive, gifted composers. With lyricist Sheldon Harnick, Bock wrote the scores for three of the most celebrated musicals in Broadway history, Fiorello! (1959), She Loves Me (1963), and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and for four other excellent shows during a fourteen-year partnership (The Body Beautiful, 1958; Tenderloin, 1960; The Apple Tree, 1966; The Rothschilds, 1970). His work stands as a testament to the value of musical craftsmanship, dramatic sensitivity, and artistic generosity on the Broadway stage.

After an apprenticeship in early television, and at Camp Tamiment, a summer camp for adults, in the early 1950s, Bock made his Broadway debut with three songs in a revue, Catch a Star! (1955). At that time he wrote mostly with Larry Holofcener, whom he had met at the University of Wisconsin. Bock and Holofcener also teamed with George David Weiss to create a star vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr., Mr. Wonderful in 1956. But when Bock began working with Sheldon Harnick in 1957 – they were introduced by a mutual friend, Jack Cassidy – his music began truly to blossom and sparkle. Bock and Harnick wrote hundreds of songs of infinite variety in support of disparate stories and characters. Feeding off each other’s formidable talents, the partnership thrived until an array of forces sent them their separate ways in the early 1970s. After that Bock mostly wrote his own lyrics for other new shows, including a very successful series of musicals for young audiences between 2000 and 2007, and music for a feature film (Sidney Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us, 1992). He also worked on personal, private songwriting projects during the last four decades, yielding autobiographical song cycles (Album Leaves, Trading Places) and thematic collections (Noblesse O’ Blues, Three/Four All).

Jerry Bock was the master of what Lehman Engel called the “musical costume.” He could dress up a song in any style, from the nineteenth-century parlor song (for Tenderloin) to the jazz shouter (in The Apple Tree). He would immerse himself in the style and culture of the story he was helping to tell and then transport the audience there with musical references and flavorings. In She Loves Me he took us to Hungary, in The Rothschilds to the power centers of eighteenth-century Europe. In his most successful show, Fiddler on the Roof, he drew from his own background and heritage to evoke a turn-of-the-century Russian shtetl. Of that experience, he said in 2008, “I simply could not stop the brood of melodies and harmonies that waited to be born.”

There was, in other words, no single Jerry Bock “style.” His style was simply an acute sensitivity to the dramatic requirements of the project at hand. He and Harnick would work tirelessly on each of their scores searching for perfect dramatic support, during development, rehearsals, and pre-Broadway tours, usually producing two or three times the number of songs a show required. They became generous, energetic collaborators, willing to do whatever was necessary to make a show better. Their proverbial trunks are filled with superior efforts that had to be set aside out of respect to dramatic needs, like “Where Do I Go From Here?” (Fiorello!), “Tell Me I Look Nice” (She Loves Me), and “When Messiah Comes” (Fiddler). Some of their most enduring creations, like “Little Tin Box” (Fiorello!), “Do You Love Me?” (Fiddler on the Roof), and “In My Own Lifetime” (The Rothschilds), were written on the road, in response to dramatic requirements they had sensed on a pre-Broadway stage.

No matter the circumstances of a show’s development, Bock’s scores display remarkable consistency and cohesion. In Fiorello! and Tenderloin he adopted clichés of period songs in multiple ways, overt and subtle. In She Loves Me he used little ideas from Hungarian music to flavor songs of disparate styles. A recurring musical motif in Fiddler is adapted and transformed in tandem with the development of the story. In 1970 Bock wrote a note to his orchestrator for The Rothschilds, Don Walker, in which he laid out his constructive plans for the show, telling a musical story of triumph over oppression to support the one on stage. He was a true craftsman, in the grand tradition of the most thoughtful, innovative minds on Broadway – Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, and Bock’s contemporary Stephen Sondheim.

He was also one of the last to extend the traditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein on the Broadway stage. Rather than taking the musical in some new artistic direction, as Sondheim did, Bock showed how sturdy and venerable the old traditions were, and how eloquently they could survive in the hands of expert practitioners. The musicals of Bock and Harnick, particularly She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof, represent the last great pillars in an edifice that Rodgers and Hammerstein had begun to erect in the 1940s, what some have called the “golden era” of the Broadway musical. Bock once fondly remembered an article from the Daily News in 1955, about his Broadway debut in Catch a Star!, in which Richard Rodgers was quoted expressing particular affection for a song by Bock. This, said Bock in 2008, was a “most treasured moment” in his early career. The torch had been passed.

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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