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Jerry Bock in 1967 outside a theater where 'Fiddler On The Roof' was being performed.
Jerry Bock in 1967 outside a theater where 'Fiddler On The Roof' was being performed. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Fiddler on the Roof has been performed in dozens of languages, thousands of times since it was written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in 1964. The musical won nine Tony Awards and the film adaptation took home three Oscars.
Bock died early this morning at a hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., of heart problems. He was 81 years old. His death came a little more than a week after that of his Fiddler on the Roof collaborator, Joseph Stein. Stein wrote the book for Fiddler, adapting Sholem Aleichem's short stories about a Jewish family in 1905 Russia to the stage. Stein, Bock and Harnick were among Fiddler's nine Tony Award winners. Stein died October 24th at the age of 98.
Jerry Bock was a composer pretty much his whole life. He wrote music for shows as early as high school. He wrote his first full-length musical in college — Big As Life, about Paul Bunyan. It actually had a run in Chicago.
Bock always wanted to write both music and lyrics but his biggest success came with lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Their first show was a flop. But over the course of just 15 years, they created a string of hits beginning with Fiorello, which won them a Pulitzer in 1960. The musical about former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ran for almost 800 performances.
They followed that with Tenderloin, a comedy about vice in New York. Then they created what many consider to be their best score, for She Loves Me. It included such songs as the title tune plus "Vanilla Ice Cream" and "Will He Like Me?"
But Fiddler on the Roof was their smash. For the often melancholy music, Bock drew on the minor keys of Klezmer and Jewish prayer music. He told NPR in 2000 that he was deeply moved by Fiddler's astounding popularity.
"To have been fortunate to see it in various countries, in so many different ways — theaters that were dime-sized; orchestras that were under the stage — and yet coming through and reaching the people by the performance and by the show, those were things that were unimaginable," Bock said.
But selling the story to director Jerome Robbins did not go quite so swimmingly.
"Perhaps the most intriguing question that we were ever asked," said Bock, "not having been asked this before in all our professional career — the first question he asked was, `All right, what is the piece about?' We were dumbfounded because previously, on other shows, everybody assumed that everybody knew what the piece was about, and that's how we wrote it. But he was searching for something deeper. I think our first answer was, `Well, it's quite obvious. It's about a father with a family and he's off to marry three daughters,' etc., etc. And that wasn't good enough. And we hung out again and again and again trying to respond to that question, conference after conference after conference. And at one point, one of us took a guess and said, `Well, I guess it's about the dissolution of this community's life, the breakup of tradition,' and that seemed to capture his imagination, because he ended up with this wonderful vision of a circle at the beginning being splintered at the end. He said, `Now you must contribute to that meaning with every song, with every scene, so that it builds and becomes clear that the underlying principle of this show is that's what it's about.'"
Bock and Harnick did and their work connected with audiences on a massive scale. But it proved impossible to follow that kind of success. Bock and Harnick went on to collaborate on songs for a musical about Sherlock Holmes, Baker Street; another based in part on Mark Twain stories called, The Apple Tree; and The Rothschilds in 1970, another musical with a strong Jewish theme. It was to be their last.
Bock and Harnick apparently had a falling out over the director of the musical and Bock decided to strike out on his own. But for the past 40 years he appears to have written only one new song that reached the general public's ears. It was once again a collaboration with Harnick — the song "Topsy Turvy" for the most recent revival of Fiddler on the Roof.