While reading about the death of composer Jerry Bock this morning, I was simultaneously listening to show music on shuffle. I kept reading through the numerous obituaries and tributes online and suddenly one of his songs would pop up (both with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and without). From “The Sabbath Prayer” to “When Did I Fall in Love?” to “Three Letters” to “Pleasure and Privilege” to “Gorgeous,” etc and so forth; it seemed almost like clockwork that every three or four songs there was someone singing a song written by Mr. Bock.
Bock and Harnick wrote what I consider my favorite musical comedy, She Loves Me, which I only talked about at length only a couple weeks ago. While both men have written many different scores with different people, it is their collaboration for which both will be remembered. When I put together my playlists for itunes, I go through every album of mine and pick the songs I want to hear repeatedly. There are some albums where I find I can’t pick just one, so I put the whole thing into the mix. I didn’t realize it at the time, but today while listening to my music and reading various obituaries and tributes to the composer, I realized that I had put every single original cast album of Bock and Harnick musicals into my “Broadway Favorites” playlist.
It seems so strange to be seeing these names coming up so often in obituaries over the last two weeks. First, the death of Tom Bosley brought Fiorello! back into the forefront as fans – and Bosley’s friend and colleague Henry Winkler – fondly recalled the star’s Tony-winning performance in the show. Then just ten days ago, 98 year Joseph Stein, the librettist of Fiddler on the Roof passed away. I’ve been listening to the Bock and Harnick shows over the last couple of weeks as a result, so I was surprised when I heard the news this morning. Mr. Harnick survives his collaborators.
Fiddler is their ultimate legacy, with world-wide universal appeal and constant revivals, and a beautiful, klezmer-kissed score whose selections live on in the world of the show and also at various weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. However, for as much as I love that show I am astounded by the entire output of these two men. Every one of their scores is worth hearing again and again, for the craftsmanship and the heart.
Over the course of the day, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on all of their shows and overall contribution to musical theatre. Together, Bock and Harnick were among the best of the best. Their scores were always written with the motivations of plot and character first and foremost. When She Loves Me was playing out of town, Jack Cassidy was hitting a home run in the second act with his farewell number “My American Drugstore.” You’d think that would be the end of it. But Bock and Harnick, along with librettist Joe Masteroff and director Harold Prince, felt that it wasn’t right for that moment. Instead, they wrote a more personal character-based number called “Grand Knowing You” which did ultimately serve the character of Kodaly – and it still brought down the house. Cassidy would win the production’s sole Tony award.
What’s interesting to me is that while it’s easy to identify a Bock and Harnick show, each one has its own distinctive voice. The Apple Tree, in a way, best exemplifies my point: the show is made up of three separate (if thematically linked) musicals- “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Lady and the Tiger” and “Passionella.” Bock and Harnick, along with orchestrator Eddie Sauter, gave each act its own sound. Fiorello! and Tenderloin, both New York musicals, evoke their respective eras (1910-20s, 1890s respectively) without sounding too much alike. While Tenderloin failed, and contained the same creative team as the Pulitzer Prize winning Fiorello!, it isn’t without merit (“Artificial Flowers” is a delight and I esp. love the way-of-the-world act one finale “How the Money Changes Hands”).
Another line that has been running through my head all day comes from a more recent musical, [title of show]. In the number “Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” the characters sing “When Bock and Harnick were writing Tenderloin, they were taking a risk to write a show about whores.” They were right. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick may not have revolutionized the musical in the way that Sondheim or Kander and Ebb did with concept shows, but together they were masters of the art, with an undeniable gift for melody, wit and panache.
Their collaboration came to an end during The Rothschilds with a massive falling out over the firing of the original director for Michael Kidd. The duo made amends, but only collaborated one more time – for “Topsy Turvy” which was interpolated into the 2004 revival of Fiddler (replacing “The Rumor”). I have to admit, I do sometimes wonder what sort of charming musicals we’ve missed out on as a result of their rift, but I am most grateful for the high quality of their output.
The team hadn’t written a musical in 40 years, but even in that the decades that have followed, they’re still known mostly for their 13 year collaboration. Somewhere in the world right now, Tevye is having a conversation with God. She Loves Me has never been a major commercial success on Broadway, but it’s a beloved favorite of many and is performed with great frequency (and should come back to Broadway sooner than later). Broadway has seen revivals of these two shows, as well as The Apple Tree. The first musical presented by City Center Encores! was Fiorello! They are immense talents, and for me, the world is a little less cheery today that Bock’s musical voice, with its seemingly unending range, has been silenced.
I’ll tell you one thing – those original cast albums will never leave my playlist.