DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Jerry Bock, who wrote the music for such Broadway hits as "Fiorello," "She Loves Me" and "Fiddler on the Roof," died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 81.
Today, to pay tribute, we'll listen back to an interview Terry recorded with Jerry Bock and his songwriting partner, lyricist Sheldon Harnick. They spoke in 2004, the year a new revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" was being produced on Broadway. It starred Alfred Molina as Tevye, the role originated by Zero Mostel. The original production of "Fiddler" opened on Broadway in September, 1964 and ran for 3,3242 performances. Here's how Zero opened that show.
(Soundbite of song, "Tradition")
Mr. ZERO MOSTEL (Actor): (As Tevye) A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy.
You may ask: Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka's our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.
Unidentified People (Actors): (As characters) (Singing) Tradition, tradition, tradition. Tradition, tradition, tradition.
GROSS: Jerry Bock, when you were writing the music for "Fiddler on the Roof," how Jewish did you want the music to sound? How much did you want it to sound like klezmer music, and how much did you want it to sound like Broadway music?
Mr. JERRY BOCK (Composer, "Fiddler on the Roof"): It never entered my mind in either case. I knew the ambience was going to be Russian and that it took place in a shtetl, but I had no compulsion to research either early klezmer or particularly Russian music at the turn of that century or just before the turn of the century.
What happened was that for some inexplicable reason, the music that I hadn't been able to write with all our shows was something that I had silently deposited in my creative mind. And the opportunity to now express myself with that kind of music just opened up a flood of possibilities for me.
GROSS: So let's hear Zero Mostel from the original cast recording, doing "If I Were a Rich Man."
(Soundbite of song, "If I Were a Rich Man")
Mr. MOSTEL: (As Tevye) Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize of course that it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either. So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?
(Singing) If I were a rich man (unintelligible) all day long I'd (unintelligible) if I were a wealthy man. I wouldn't have to work hard, (unintelligible). If I were a bitty-bitty rich (unintelligible) man.
I'd build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen right in the middle of the town, a fine tin roof with real wooden floors below. There would be one long staircase just going up and one even longer coming down and one more leading nowhere just for show.
I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks for the town to see and here, squawking just as noisily as they can. And each loud (makes animal noises) will land like a trumpet on the ears, as if to say here lives a wealthy man.
If I were a rich man (unintelligible), all day long I'd (unintelligible), if I were a wealthy man. I wouldn't have to work hard, (unintelligible). If I were a bitty-bitty rich, (unintelligible) man.
I see my wife...
GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, the yiddle-deedle-diggi-diggi-do(ph) part, did you actually write out the syllables that you wanted Zero Mostel to sing?
Mr. SHELDON HARNICK (Lyricist, "Fiddler on the Roof"): Well, it wasn't that I necessarily wrote them for Zero, but what happened was this: When Jerry played me the music he wrote, he did the whole song in that kind of a Hassidic chant. And we decided that it would be great fun to preserve part of the chant and not just to write wall-to-wall lyrics for the song.
But my problem was I don't come from a background where I was comfortable chanting in that fashion, and I thought, okay, I'll have to create some kind of syllables which give the effect of that kind of chanting. And I came up with the diddle-deedle-diddle-digga-digga-deedle-diddle-dum, which I thought was kind of fun and sounded a little like the chanting.
But when we played the song for Zero, he said: I come from a background, I don't want to do the syllables you've written. Is it okay with you if I do it the way I think it should be done? And I said absolutely. I said: I can't sing it that way.
So Zero did it with his stylistically, it sounded quite...
Mr. BOCK: Authentic.
Mr. HARNICK: Authentic, yeah. So when I perform the song, I have to do it with the syllables because that's the only way I can sing it.
Mr. BOCK: By the way, if Sheldon had said no, absolutely not, you must do the lyric, he would have done it his way anyway.
Mr. HARNICK: Right.
GROSS: Was he hard or easy to work with?
Mr. HARNICK: He was...
Mr. BOCK: Both.
Mr. HARNICK: In terms of music, he was - although he was not a singer, he was extremely musical so that in that sense he was very easy. And as a matter of fact, he did me a huge favor.
After he started to learn "If I Were A Rich Man," I got nervous about it because I thought most of the song is rather droll, and then I went for a serious ending. And I began to worry whether I should change the ending and make the ending droll also.
So I suggested that in a conference we had one day. I think Hal Prince was there and Jerome Robbins and Zero. And Zero looked at me, he said Sheldon, he said, don't change the ending. If you want to this is the man. He said the jokes in the song are terrific, but this is the man that you've described, the man who wants a seat by the Eastern Wall, who wants to be able to pray. This is the real Tevye. So he we kept the ending, and I'm glad we did.
Mr. BOCK: I'm glad too.
GROSS: Now, I want to go to another song, and that is "Do I Love You."
Mr. BOCK: "Do You Love Me."
GROSS: Yeah, "Do You Love Me."
Mr. HARNICK: No, no, do you love me?
Mr. BOCK: We're very flattered.
GROSS: Do you love me, do I love you, yes.
Mr. BOCK: Will you please answer that question?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And this is a song, you know, all of Tevye's daughters, like, they want to fall in love. They don't want their father Tevye to decide who they're going to marry. They don't want the matchmaker to decide it. At this point they want to fall in love, and at least one of them already has, and she wants to marry the man she loves.
And this is leading Tevye to wonder, well, what about his relationship? Does his wife love him? What is love? And he sings this song. And it's a lovely song. Sheldon Harnick, can you talk about the lyric?
Mr. HARNICK: Yes. During rehearsal, when we were in New York, I began to feel that there was a song that would develop out of Tevye's saying do you love me. I always thought when Golde would say: Do I what? Because that was love was not something that people married for, generally, in those days. They married for security. They married for economic reasons, you know, companionship, but not love.
So when I pictured her saying do I what, I thought that's very funny, but I couldn't figure out where the song went from there. And when we got to Detroit, our pre-Broadway tour, I used to take long walks every day and try and figure out what they would say. And the lyric came very slowly and in a kind of unconventional form.
When I finally finished it, after about a week, I gave it to Jerry, very uncertain about what I had, and I said: I know that it's, it looks more like a scene than a song.
So do what you can with it, and if I have to rewrite the lyric, I will. And I was absolutely delighted when Jerry set the lyric exactly as I gave it to him.
Mr. BOCK: I just wanted to add very quickly, Terry, that the difference between Zero's "Do You Love Me" and Alfred's is astonishing. Zero did get laughs. He approached it as almost a kind of incredulous question to ask and took advantage of every humorous possibility.
Alfred does it most sincerely in terms of a true and real question. He wants to know the answer, and as a result it's a very moving moment, rather than a humorous one in this current production.
Mr. HARNICK: Yeah, and while we're on that subject, I just have to put in a word that our Golde, Randy Graff, is in her own way she's as wonderful as Fred Molina is.
Mr. BOCK: Yes.
GROSS: Well, let's hear Alfred Molina and Randy Graff from the new cast recording of "Fiddler on the Roof." This is "Do You Love Me."
(Soundbite of song, "Do You Love Me")
Mr. ALFRED MOLINA (Actor): (As Tevye) (Singing) Golde, do you love me?
Ms. RANDY GRAFF (Actor): (As Golde) (Singing) Do I what?
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) Do you love me?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you're upset, you're worn out. Go inside, go lie down. Maybe it's indigestion.
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) Golde, I'm asking you a question. Do you love me?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) You're a fool.
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) I know. But do you love me?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) Do I love you?
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) Well?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) For 25 years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After 25 years, why talk about love right now?
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) Golde, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared.
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) I was shy.
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) I was nervous.
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) So was I.
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other. Now I'm asking: Golde, do you love me?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) I'm your wife.
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) I know. But do you love me?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) Do I love him? For 25 years I've lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, 25 years my bed is his. If that's not love, what is?
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) Then you love me?
Ms. GRAFF: (As Golde) (Singing) I suppose I do.
Mr. MOLINA: (As Tevye) (Singing) And I suppose I love you too.
Ms. GRAFF and Mr. Molina: (As Golde and Tevye) (Singing) It doesn't change a thing, but even so, after 25 years, it's nice to know.
BIANCULLI: Alfred Molina and Randy Graff from the 2004 revival of "Fiddler on the Roof." Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick spoke to Terry Gross in 2004. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who collaborated on the musicals "Fiorello," "She Loves Me" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Jerry Bock died of heart failure this week at the age of 81. Here's "To Life," from the original cast recording of "Fiddler on the Roof."
(Soundbite of musical, "Fiddler on the Roof")
(Soundbite of song, "To Life")
Unidentified People (Actors): (As characters) (Singing) Here's to our prosperity, our good health and happiness, and most important: To life, to life, l'chaim(ph), l'chaim, l'chaim, to life.
Here's to the father I tried to be, here's to my bride-to-be, drink l'chaim, to life, to life, l'chaim, l'chaim, l'chaim, to life. Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us. Drink l'chaim, to life.
God would like us to be joyful, even when our hearts lie panting on the floor. How much more can we be joyful, when there's really something to be joyful for?
To life, to life, l'chaim, to Tzeitel, my daughter - my wife. It gives you something to think about, something to drink about, drink l'chaim, to life.
Le Morta. Yes, Lazar Wolf? Drinks for everyone. What's the occasion?
GROSS: This is the only song that actually has a Yiddish word in it, l'chaim, which is a toast to life. So Sheldon Harnick, when you were writing the lyrics, it seems to me you intentionally avoided using anything Yiddish, with the exception of this song.
Mr. HARNICK: Well, there is one other song. "The Dream" uses the word mazel tov.
GROSS: Oh, that's true, a blessing on your head, mazel tov, mazel tov.
Mr. HARNICK: Well, there was a reason for that. Not too long before we went into rehearsal, I went to see a comedian named Lenny Bruce. I'd heard that Lenny Bruce was controversial because he used a lot of profanity and obscenities in his act, and I was curious.
So I went to see him, and it turned out that the obscenities and the profanities were all done as characters that he portrayed and - so that they sounded like things those particular characters would actually say.
And I wasn't disturbed by the profanity or the obscenity at all. What did disturb me was that when he wasn't doing the characters, and he was just talking, he would throw in Yiddish words. And they would elicit laughter from a few people here and there, but many of the other people in the club turned to each other and said: What'd he say? What'd he say?
So I thought: It'll be probably useful to use a couple of Yiddish words in our show, in the dialogue and in the lyrics, just a couple for flavoring. But if anyone laughs when they're used, then they come out. And also, when they're used, they have to be used in a way that the audience will know what they mean.
So of course in "To Life" there's an explanation that goes along with...
Mr. BOCK: You defined it.
Mr. HARNICK: Right: To life, to life, l'chaim. L'chaim nobody can miss that. And the word mazel tov is usually used in a setting where it's pretty clear that it means congratulations, you know.
Mr. BOCK: Yes, good fortune.
Mr. HARNICK: Unhappily, after the show was running, the original show was running, our dear star Zero would occasionally go into a matinee and use more Yiddish than we ever could have dreamed of in certain performances to sort of make him a confidante of what he thought that kind of audience was.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARNICK: We all thought that was naughty, to put it mildly.
GROSS: Well, we're almost out of time here. I have to ask you the "Sunrise, Sunset" question. It's a song that became a terrible clich� for quite a while because everybody was doing it at those emotional moments when your child is finally grown up.
Mr. HARNICK: My favorite clich�.
GROSS: Exactly, and probably one of the most lucrative clich�s too. Did you ever think when you were writing it the kind of life the song was going to have?
Mr. HARNICK: No. Jerry had written the music first. He sent it to me on a tape, and I thought, gee, that's a lovely song. I think that would be perfect to sing at the wedding.
And as I've said in an interview previously, the lyric kind of crystallized on the melodic curve of the song. When we finished it, Jerry was living in New Rochelle at the time, we called his wife down to the studio and we played it for Patty. And when we looked at her at the end of the song, she was crying.
Mr. BOCK: She had tears in her eyes, yes.
Mr. HARNICK: And then I played it for my sister shortly after that, and she was crying. And we thought, ooh, this song probably, this has more effectiveness than we imagined.
Mr. BOCK: Mind you, we didn't that they were tears of joy or that's awful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Jerry Bock, what did you listen to when you were writing this show? Did you listen to much music?
Mr. BOC: Not really. Somehow, as I said, I had unknowingly, unwittingly stored a lot of the sound of it without having been able to express myself with it.
I love Russian music. I love Romanian music. Minor is my major key.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOCK: And so with all that in mind, it just I think Sheldon and I probably wrote maybe three to one. For every song that was used, we wrote at least three, and if we were asked to write 10 or 15 more, we probably could have because it was the kind of show that allowed us to express ourselves as we had never expressed ourselves before.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much not only for talking with us, but thank you for all the great songs you've given us. Thank you so much.
Mr. HARNICK: Oh, thank you.
Mr. BOCK: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. As a writing team, their Broadway musical credits include "Fiorello," "She Loves Me," and one of the most popular musicals in history, "Fiddler on the Roof." Jerry Bock died this week of heart failure at age 81. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.