LYNN NEARY, host:
From regional stages to Broadway, the works of composer Jerry Bock were crowd pleasers: "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiorello!" and "She Loves Me," were among his most popular musicals. Jerry Bock died last Wednesday at the age of 81.
Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.
JEFF LUNDEN: I was seven 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.
(Soundbite of musical, "Fiddler on the Roof")
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) If I were a rich man. Ya ha deeya, deeya, deeya, deeya, deeya, deeya dum...
LUNDEN: 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.
Bocks ballads, in particular, were beautifully crafted: melodic, simple, but never simplistic. Like this one, the bittersweet "Dear Friend," from his 1963 show, "She Loves Me."
(Soundbite of song, "Dear Friend")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Charming, romantic, the perfect cafe. Then as if it isn't bad enough, a violin starts to play. Candles and wine, tables for two, but where are you dear friend?
LUNDEN: And 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.
(Soundbite of musical overture, "Fiorello!")
LUNDEN: I only met Jerry Bock 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. And what struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is how hard those two men worked to create something which seems so effortless.
Mr. JERRY BOCK (Composer): As a general rule, we would write about three to one. Okay? So, for every song that finally got in the latest version, we would have written at least two or three to find that one.
LUNDEN: And it usually started with Jerry Bock at a piano with a tape recorder.
Mr. BOCK: Shel, heres a thought on the "Poor Jimmy" number, the nightclub number about Jimmy Walker.
(Soundbite of piano music)
LUNDEN: That "Poor Jimmy" number morphed into "Gentleman Jimmy," in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello!"
(Soundbite of song, ""Gentleman Jimmy")
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Whos that genial gentleman in the silk hat, gray spats, striped pants? Why thats got to be him, Gentleman Jimmy...
LUNDEN: Bock confessed to me that "Fiddler on the Roof" - their biggest Broadway hit - almost didnt make it to the stage. They played the score for several producers who rejected it.
Mr. BOCK: The problem was that once we finished our first draft, no one wanted to touch it. They thought it was very insular and parochial, that wed run out of an audience in six weeks and that it had no appeal to anybody but the Hadassah group.
(Soundbite of musical, "Fiddler on the Roof")
Unidentified Man #2: ...noodles to make and chicken to be plucked...
LUNDEN: It was director and choreographer Jerome Robbins who saw something in the material and Bock and Harnick got cracking.
Mr. BOCK: Robbins kept asking us, day after day, what is the piece about? He would not let us squirm away.
LUNDEN: Someone, neither Bock nor Harnick remembered who, said tradition. And "Fiddler on the Roof" found its voice.
(Soundbite of song, "Tradition")
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Tradition, tradition...
LUNDEN: "Fiddler" became one of the most successful musicals of all time. It ran for almost eight years on Broadway and has had over 25,000 productions all over the world since then.
Mr. SHELDON HARNICK (Composer): I loved working with Jerry. It was, I guess, the most felicitous collaboration. We really saw things the same the way.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.
(Soundbite of song, "To Life")
Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Here's to our prosperity, our good health and happiness. And most important: To life, to life, l'chaim! L'chaim, l'chaim, to life...
NEARY: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. Im Lynn Neary.
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