Childhood Memories Of Jerry Bock

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Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the score for Fiddler on the Roof, attend an after-party in New York City in 2006. Bock died Wednesday at 81. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Broadway composer Jerry Bock died Wednesday at the age of 81. Among his shows were Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and She Loves Me. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

I was 7 years old, when my mother packed me into our old Chevy and drove to the National Theatre in downtown Washington, D.C., so we could see the touring company of Fiddler on the Roof. It was magical.

But it took me a while before I knew the names of the men who wrote the score: Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. And, as I started to fall in love with musicals, as a composer myself, I really fell in love with the intelligent and deeply emotional shows by Bock and Harnick.

Bock's ballads, like the bittersweet "Dear Friend" from his 1963 show She Loves Me, were beautifully crafted: melodic, simple, but never simplistic

Whether Bock was writing music about a Jewish community in a shtetl in Russia in the late 19th century — like he did for Fiddler on the Roof — or New York of the 1920s and '30s — like he did for Fiorello! — the style was always pitch perfect.

I met Jerry Bock only once, in 1994, when I was producing a documentary about Sheldon Harnick, and we spent an hour in his Manhattan apartment, discussing the craft of writing songs for Broadway shows. What struck me then — and continues to strike me now — is how hard those two men worked to create something that seems so effortless.

"As a general rule, we would write about three to one, OK?" Bock told me. "So, for every song that finally got in the latest version, we would have written at least two or three to find that one."

And it usually started with Jerry Bock at a piano with a tape recorder.

For instance, a song that started out as "Poor Jimmy" morphed into "Gentleman Jimmy" in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello!

Bock confessed to me that Fiddler on the Roof — their biggest Broadway hit — almost didn't make it to the stage. They played the score for several producers who rejected it.

Jerry Bock

Bock, seen in 1967, says Fiddler on the Roof almost didn't make it to the stage. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Evening Standard/Hulton Archive

"The problem was that once we finished our first draft, no one wanted to touch it," Bock recalled. "They thought it was very insular and parochial, that we'd run out of an audience in six weeks and that it had no appeal to anybody but the Haddasah group!"

It was director and choreographer Jerome Robbins who saw something in the material and Bock and Harnick got cracking.

"Robbins kept asking us, day after day, 'What is the piece about?'" Bock told me. "He would not let us squirm away."

Someone — neither Bock nor Harnick remembered who — said "tradition." And Fiddler on the Roof found its voice.

Fiddler became one of the most successful musicals of all time. It ran for almost eight years on Broadway and has had more than 25,000 productions all over the world since then.

"I loved working with Jerry," Harnick said. "It was, I guess, the most felicitous collaboration; we really saw things the same the way."



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