Composer Jerry Bock (b. New Haven, CT, 23 November 1928; d. Mount Kisco, NY, 3 November 2010) was a fixture on the Broadway scene for 55 years. With lyricist Sheldon Harnick, he composed scores to five Broadway musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most successful shows of all time.
Jerrold Lewis Bock grew up in Flushing, Queens, and though he came relatively late, at age nine, to the piano (his mother played by ear), he was something of a prodigy by the time he went to the University of Wisconsin. He was a whiz at improvising and writing songs, and while still at college wrote a musical, Big As Life, which was produced in Chicago. He spent three summer seasons at the Tamiment Playhouse in the Poconos, where scores of performers like Imogene Coca, Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, Carol Channing, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen honed their craft in their early years.
His lyricist at Wisconsin was Larry Holofcener, with whom Jerry Bock went to New York in 1955. Together they contributed songs to a revue, Catch a Star, and to Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiographical cabaret act, Mr. Wonderful (1956, 383 performances). They also collaborated on the Ziegfeld Follies of 1956, which opened in Boston but did not reach Broadway. Bock met Harnick two years later and began a partnership with him that would put both their names in lights and would last for twelve years. Their first project was The Body Beautiful, a non-contender of a musical that would close after only 60 performances.
In 1959, the team provided the music and lyrics to Fiorello! The musical not only won three Tonys® for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction, but was also awarded the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Two more musicals followed, Tenderloin (1960), which had modest success (216 performances) and Man in the Moon (1963), an evanescent fantasy with Bill Baird’s puppets (7 performances), before Bock and Harnick had another substantial hit. She Loves Me (1963) ran for 301 performances, earned four Tony® nominations including one for Best Musical, and snagged a Best Actor Tony® for Jack Cassidy. Meanwhile, the musical Never Too Late, which featured a cha-cha by Bock and Harnick, with choreography actually by Jerry Bock, was enjoying a 1007-performance run from 1962 to 1965.
Fiddler on the Roof (1964) cleared the field of Tony Awards® in 1965: Best Musical, Best Composer, Best Lyricist, Best Actor (Zero Mostel), Best Featured Actress (Maria Karnilova), Best Costumes (Patricia Zipprodt), Best Choreography (Jerome Robbins), Best Direction (Robbins again), Best Producer (Harold Prince), Best Author (Joseph Stein). And it went on winning: in 1972 it got another Tony® for becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history; the 1971 London West End production of Fiddler catapulted the actor Topol to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic; productions of Fiddler have continued to be staged all around the world; and “Sunrise, Sunset” is standard at countless weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs.
Bock and Harnick would collaborate on two more shows. The Apple Tree (1967) earned Tony® nominations for Alan Alda, Mike Nichols, and Bock and Harnick, and won a Tony® for Barbara Harris as Eve. The Rothschilds (1970) brought Hal Linden a Tony® for Best Actor in a Musical and Keene Curtis a Tony® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Bock, too, got another Tony® nomination, but The Rothschilds marked the end of the Bock/Harnick partnership as the result of a squabble over firing the show’s first director. Alan Jay Lerner remarked that Bock’s departure from show business was “a loss of talent the theatre can ill afford.” Thereafter, Bock contributed a handful of songs and incidental music to Broadway shows, but most of his music graced the boards only in revivals and compilation shows (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Barbara Cook’s Broadway, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life).
Early in 2010 Bock and Harnick, forgetting all the old wounds, reunited to write a new song, “Topsy Turvy,” for yet another Fiddler revival. Jerry Bock won an Emmy in the same year for “A Fiddler Crab Am I.” He has been in the Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1972.
Bock died of heart failure in November 2010 only two days after receiving, with Harnick, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild. He is survived by his wife, Patricia, whom he married in 1950, by their children, Portia and George, and a granddaughter, Edie Mae Shipler. The score to a new Jerry Bock musical, Counterpoint, awaits production.