Last fall was not a good time for fans of Fiddler on the Roof. In October, we lost its librettist, Joseph Stein, at the age of 98. In November, it was its composer, Jerry Bock, who departed this life at the younger age of 81. Thank goodness we still have lyricist Sheldon Harnick clicking his heels at age 86.
Those theatre lovers who would like to know more about the work of Bock and Harnick – with or without Stein – will find the newest volume in the Broadway Legacy series a welcome resource on the scores of the seven Broadway musicals they created together.
The subtitle of the book probably should be “The Musical Theater Scores of Bock and Harnick” since it is heavy on analysis of the scores themselves while giving short shrift to the story of the men, their partnership and their careers apart from each other. Still, a hefty treatment of The Body Beautiful, Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds and Fiddler on the Roof is welcome.
Philip Lambert, author of books on the music of composers as different as Charles Ives and Brian Wilson, takes on the seven musicals of Bock and Harnick one by one in six chapters covering 190 pages sandwiched between two introductory chapters on the pre-collaboration lives of the lyricist and the composer and a final chapter summarizing their separate careers following the dissolution of “Bock and Harnick.” You know you are in for tough sledding when the first paragraph of the first chapter includes the observation that their individual history is “a story not of unlikely coincidences but of parallel teleologies.” That’s “teleologies” as in “the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.”
Throughout the book, Lambert tells when and on what they came to collaborate and a bit about their collaborative style. However he gives us nothing on why they chose to work together, who else they considered working with or what projects they considered before selecting the ones they did turn into these great musicals. Nor does the book present any of Bock or Harnick’s memories of how they went from acquaintances to partners.
There are fascinating stories, nonetheless, and Lambert pulls the introductory material together nicely with a nifty summary: “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.” That’s about as simultaneously concise and detailed a description of the two men’s contribution to the collaboration as you could want.
And what musicals they created! With just their second attempt they created Fiorello!, based on the early career of New York Congressman and Mayor LaGuardia for which they took home not only the Tony Award for best musical in 1960, they won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well.
They followed that with the mildly-successful Tenderloin which had, among its other glories, one of Harnick’s most outrageously marvelous puns – in “Artificial Flowers,” a pastiche of turn of the century “pathetic ballads” which told of a poor young girl who starved to death as she worked in a sweat shop making paper flowers:
“With paper and shears / with wire and wax
She labored and never complained
‘Til cutting and folding / her health slipped away
And wiring and waxing, she waned.”
Next came She Loves Me which shows up on lists of best musicals of all time – most recently staying in the running until the final ballot for the New York Magazine’s panel of experts selection of “The Greatest Musical.” Lambert credits critic John Simon as the first to call She Loves Me a “perfect musical” and provides the quote from Simon: “The creators of She Loves Me have fashioned the perfect intimate musical (Perfect? Yes, damn it, perfect.)” The chapter on this musical is a fine example of why this book is best absorbed show-by-show with first listening to a recording of the score, then reading the chapter and then listening again to the score. You will be amazed at how much more you get from the second listen after reading the analysis of the score.
The apex of their career arc, however, is quite universally held to be Fiddler on the Roof which, when it closed, had not only broken the record for most performances of a musical on Broadway, it had broken the record for the most performances of any show, besting the presumably unbestable Life With Father! To Lambert’s credit, he does a good job of covering the contribution of Arnold Perl whose “Tevye and His Daughters” preceded Fiddler by seven years.
After a brief digression to discuss the musical The Canterville Ghost which Bock and Harnick created for ABC Stage ’67, the same television series that presented Sondheim’s Evening Primrose (when, oh when, will we get a DVD release of this and the other Stage ’67 musicals to put on our theatre shelf with Evening Primrose?) Lambert turns his attention to the troika of one act musicals produced under the title The Apple Tree and then to the pair’s final Broadway show, The Rothschilds. By this time, however, the author seems to have begun to run out of steam and his analysis of the score seems perfunctory when compared to earlier chapters.
Perhaps there is a lesson in that. If the author can run out of steam, think of what the reader can do. Take this book musical by musical and take a break in between each. Spending too much time with the volume can feel like drudgery. Rewarding drudgery to be sure but a slow plow nonetheless. There are many “I wish he’d explain such and such” moments, too many dead ends and no picture at all of the personalities behind the scores. Who are these people and why did they create these marvelous works? That, unfortunately, remains a subject for another book.