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'A Revealing Window'

April 21, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

I wonder whether the great mass of people who have seen one version or another of Fiddler on the Roof since it premiered on Broadway in 1964 would know, if asked, who wrote the work. Fiddler was and continues to be one of the most popular shows in theater history, and is performed every season -- if not quite on Broadway -- then somewhere or other throughout the world.

So, who was it that wrote it? And did they ever write anything else?

Musical comedy aficionados would have no problem answering, but members of the general public might hesitate. That's why Oxford University Press has done the world of entertainment -- and those interested in such matters -- a service by publishing To Broadway, to Life!: The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick by Philip Lambert.

OK, so that's Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, to be exact, who had a fruitful working relationship (it lasted 14 years), even before Fiddler was just an idea germinating in several creative minds. The team wrote what many consider the most perfect musical ever penned -- and it's not Fiddler. That would be She Loves Me, which premiered in 1963, with the fabled Barbara Cook at center stage, and is based on the great Ernst Lubitsch Hollywood classic Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

As far as Fiddler goes, the duo wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, to match Joseph Stein's libretto (unfortunately, Bock died last November at age 81, just 10 days after Stein); and in the original production, the endlessly inventive Jerome Robbins directed the irrepressible Zero Mostel in the central role based on Sholem Aleichem's immortal character Tevye the milkman. The show seemed to run forever, no matter who was delivering the goods (3,200 performances between 1964 and 1972, and was, for a while, the longest running show on Broadway until some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's extravaganzas knocked it off its pedestal).

The duo created five other shows besides Fiddler and She Loves Me; their final effort was The Rothschilds in 1970, a work that gave Hal Linden his breakthrough role (it led directly to his TV success in Barney Miller).

The Rothschilds managed to overcome a set of mixed reviews, but in the end, it was only a modest success, even if you didn't compare it to the mega-phenomenon that wasFiddler; and yet that wasn't why it was the team's last collaboration. They quarreled over some production details (according to author Lambert, there was lots of bad feeling as the musical germinated, most of it generated by producer Hillard Elkins' back stage skullduggery); still, the bad feeling between the team continued after the show opened and grew so acrimonious that they never worked together again. Bock and Harnick were both in their 40s at the time.

Traits and Trends

But I'm getting way ahead of myself -- and way ahead of biographer Lambert, who helped provide all the above details.

Bock and Harnick didn't meet until 1956, though each had worked with other collaborators -- and had some success -- before they were brought together by actor Jack Cassidy (who later wound up in the cast of She Loves Me). Bock, in fact, had had a certified Broadway triumph with Mr. Wonderful, which starred Sammy Davis Jr. and had a libretto co-written by Joseph Stein. Bock worked with a lyricist named George David Weiss, and the show, according to Lambert, produced two certifiable hit songs, the title number and "Too Close for Comfort."

The latter, Lambert points out, deserves its place in the canon of popular songs, but was actually extraneous to the musical's plot and almost got cut during previews. Most important of all, the process of creating the show was fraught with personal conflicts, according to the biographer, leaving Bock at the end without a clear sense of his professional future. He was ripe to meet an already tried and accomplished lyricist like Harnick.

As Lambert writes: "Although still at embryonic stages of their careers when they first met in 1956, Harnick and Bock had already displayed traits and trends that would become their calling cards -- the stylistic fingerprints of essentially all their subsequent work. Harnick emerged as a master lyric craftsman with an eye for detail, an ear for musical speech, a taste for unusual rhymes, and a nose for offbeat humor, often delivered with a touch of social consciousness. Bock had proven to be a prolific inventor with a seemingly endless supply of original, fertile musical ideas, a mastery of the complexities of style, and a focus on challenging conventional creative boundaries. As their sensitivity to drama grew in the 14 years of their partnership, and as they became expert practitioners in the art of collaboration, they would ultimately reach a rarefied place in the pantheon of Broadway songwriting teams."

And with only their second try -- their first being The Body Beautiful, a musical about boxing that never coalesced -- they solidly hit the mark. Fiorello!, based on the life and times of beloved New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, not only was a certified smash, it also went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The creative team included librettist Jerome Weidman, author of the novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and director George Abbott, who was famous for a string of hits. Tom Bosley, who went on to TV success in Happy Days, had his first big role playing the mayor.

Lambert provides background for each of the shows, detailing how they were put together piece by piece, concentrating on the libretto and the songs, and how the productions evolved once the ideas of the set and costume designers, the lighting people and the director were added to the mix. Some of it might seem a little too detailed for the general reader, but for the most part, the stories are told with flair and demonstrate how strenuous it can be juggling all of the outsized egos that go into creating a Broadway musical.

No Bock and Harnick show was ever without its strain, but something really shook loose once The Rothschilds was up and running. As Lambert tells the story, in the post-production period, the two men, though they continued to show a united front to the outside world whenever they gave interviews, were being "drawn increasingly apart" during the early 1970s.

Continues Lambert: "They had stopped discussing new project possibilities, stopped thinking as a team. 'Jerry and I were furious with each other and really didn't speak for years,' Harnick reflected in 1990. 'For a while the feelings between us were very bad.' They have acknowledged no defining moment of separation, no tempestuous meeting or icy phone call that became a critical turning point, just a gradual parting of the ways. 'Jerry and I kind of drifted apart and never managed to drift back together,' Harnick told an interviewer in 1985. More than two decades later, Bock remembered it the same way: 'It's not that we said we would never work together again. We just needed to take some time away from each other.' "

But the years swept by, and there never was another Bock and Harnick musical on the horizon. They worked on numerous projects, either alone or with different collaborators, and yet nothing had quite the dazzling success of much of what they produced together.

As Lambert writes in summing up what the Bock-Harnick partnership meant: The two "ultimately mastered the art of songwriting, but just as importantly became expert collaborators, productive members of complex creative teams. It helps that they were temperamentally compatible -- not alike, just compatible, and in fact on opposite ends of a dispositional spectrum, by their own estimation. Harnick, the self-described pessimist, pinpointed their secret in an interview with Max Wilk in 1971: 'Between us, we help bring the other either down to earth, or up to earth.' On some charmed combination of harmonious temperaments with comparable talent and shared ambitions, the team thrived for more than a decade. The story of their successes and their challenges, the highs and lows of a 14-year alliance, opens a revealing window into one of Broadway's most important collaborations, and into the world of the musical theater of a certain time and place."

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