Thursday, November 4, 2010

Jerry Bock Died

Please excuse the diversion, but one of my personal songwriting heroes, composer Jerry Bock, died yesterday. It might seem like something of a cliché for a Jewish kid from the suburbs to choose the writer of Fiddler on the Roof as a major influence, but while I do think that's a great musical and it has become a landmark piece, it was over years of listening to his body of work, that I grew to love the songs Bock wrote with his partner, lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Moreso than Fiddler, I think the masterpiece of songwriting that they created is a show called She Loves Me which wonderfully uses songs to convey character and dramatic movement.

I know there are some lovers of musical theatre in the Sidewalk scene, but no one really talks about it all that much. While I certainly have my heroes in the rock and pop world, I've been hugely influenced by the great Broadway songwriters, and I think anyone seriously interested in the art of songwriting should go back and listen to some of these works. Bock and Harnick picked up the heritage that was established by writers like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Richard Rodgers who came before them. The songs of Fiddler have been so widely heard that at this point they almost seem like clichés themselves. But realize that when they were written there was no precedent for using the sounds of traditional Jewish music to shape and flavor the songs in a Broadway musical. A good example is "If I were A Rich Man," which starts in the key of C major but then brings in minor tonality that gives it that Eastern European flavor (before shifting into another key altogether). The songs in Fiddler feel organic, almost as if they sprang naturally from the characters who sing them. That ease must have taken a lot of work to obtain.

My explanation doesn't really do Bock's inventiveness much justice. I've just been flipping through a book that has some of his songs in it and I'm struck on each page by the fresh approach he took. His instincts for interesting, unusual musical choices was very strong. And most striking of all is how the choices come from and support the dramatic situation at hand.

Without context it can be hard to jump into listening to some of these Broadway musicals and get them right away, especially since sometimes you have to overlook a kind of brassy quality that some poeple find unappealing. But if you ever do have the motivation, try to check out some of the songs from She Loves Me and give them a little bit of a chance to grow on you. They are orchestrated with more subtlety than most shows anyway. In particular I love the sequence that includes the two songs "Where's My Shoe?" and "Ice Cream."

By the way, I don't get as star struck as I used to, but I do have a framed photo of me with Bock and Harnick from a time they appeared at a Library event I helped organize (you can look through Bock's manuscripts at the Library by the way!). Read about it here.


  1. You know Herb, I read this post as the Grateful Dead were on the radio singing Box of Rain. It reminded me that I think I've only been to Radio City Music Hall twice in my life- first as a kid to see Fiddler on The Roof, and later as a slightly older kid, to see the Dead play acoustic. This is a really good post, and I think you're right and I need to set some time aside to check out these songs from this tradition. Actually I think there are a number of artists on the scene who seem to come out of that musical theater tradition and its later incarnations. There's you. There's Peter Dizozza, Ching Chong Song, Susan Hwang...It probably is worth a study, since these very people have a certain unique approach, that makes them the edgy among the edgy.

  2. Thanks, JJ. One of these days I'll have to do a real treatise on show tunes, but if you really want to start with something--well, you probably already know a lot of Gershwin tunes, but that's a good place to start, since many of them have been done by contemporary performers. Ella Fitzgerald's recordings in particular are really good. And then there's Sondheim.....