To Life! Celebrating Composer Jerry Bock
By Robert Simonson
Living participants in the original productions of She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds — as well as prominent Broadway revivals of those shows — gathered at the American Airlines Theatre on Jan. 24 to celebrate the life of the works' composer, Jerry Bock, who died at the age of 81 in November.
Austin Pendleton sang "Miracle of Miracles," a song he originated in Fiddler. Boyd Gaines delivered the title tune from She Loves Me, a praised Broadway revival for which he won a Tony Award for in 1994. Harvey Fierstein, the star of a 2004 Broadway rendition of Fiddler, lent his trademark croaking voice to "If I Were a Rich Man" and (with Sue Cella) "Do You Love Me?" And, perhaps most thrilling of all, Hal Linden, David Garfield, Alan Gruet, Paul Hecht, Tim Jerome and Chris Sarandon — all from the 1970 premiere of The Rothschilds — took the stage to zestily perform "Rothschild and Sons."
Hosting the ceremony was Bock's collaborator on all those classic shows, Sheldon Harnick. Harnick himself gave voice to one of Bock's most famous numbers, albeit one he wrote with a different partner: "Too Close for Comfort" from Mr. Wonderful. Another non-pro, Stuart Ostrow, the producer of The Apple Tree, also tried his hand at singing, offering a heartfelt, a cappella version of "Days Gone By" from She Loves Me.
"The master of melting, melodious music" is what Tony Walton, who designed the scenery on She Loves Me, called the composer. Ostrow described him as "the best informed man, on all the arts, I have ever known," a "warm presence," and an individual "always doing favors for others." Librettist Sherman Yellen, who wrote the book to The Rothschilds, said Bock was a rare combination of "true musical genius and genuine kindness."
Indeed, everyone who spoke evoked a man of seemingly unending positivism and a cloudless disposition, a person who lit up a room. A slide show of an ever-beaming Bock, always grinning with both uppers and lowers showings, bore this image out. So did an old audio recording provided by director Harold Prince of Bock introducing a song now know to all as "Sunrise, Sunset." On the tape, Bock cheerily described the tune as "unabashedly unsentimental" before unleashing a full-throated stream of "bum-bum-bums" and "ya-da-das."
Director Lonny Price, who directed a noted 1990 revival of The Rothschilds, said that, when casting a musical, he always asked actors to sing a Harnick and Bock song. "The best of our humanity comes out with their songs," he explained.
Prince recalled first noticing Bock when he saw his 1956 show Mr. Wonderful, a Sammy Davis, Jr., vehicle which the director admitted not liking much because it was "too obviously entertaining." After Prince saw Bock and Harnick's 1958 show The Body Beautiful, however, he invited the composers to write three songs on spec for the show that became Fiorello! "Four," corrected Harnick at the other end of the stage. "I choose to remember it as three," returned Prince.
After Fiorello!, which won a Pulitzer Prize, Bock and Harnick wrote Tenderloin, a musical Prince said was "about a guy who doesn't want you to have a good time in the theatre. So you didn't."
Joe Masteroff, the librettist for She Loves Me, remembered Bock telling him to just "write the show as a play." "It seemed every word I wrote inspired a song," said Masteroff, "because by the end that show had about 25 songs."
Richard Ticktin, who was Bock's legal representative for decades, told of a man who was shy of accepting honors and doing interviews. "To Jerry, to take an award was a denial of a central truth of the shows, which was the collaborative process which went into the creation of each musical."
The tribute ended with Linden returning to the stage to sing, with Harnick, the Rothchilds number "In My Own Lifetime."
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