Remembering Bock and Harnick
By Peter Filichia —
As October ends, let’s stop to remember a stellar Broadway songwriting team whose last two shows celebrated anniversaries this month.
Forty-four years ago on Oct. 18, 1966, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s The Apple Tree opened. Forty years ago, on Oct. 19, 1970, their musical version of The Rothschilds debuted.
Sad to say, there’s never been another new musical from the pair that had written seven shows in twelve years. Granted, their first one, The Body Beautiful, merely ran sixty performances. But the other six averaged 921 performances each.
Of course that figure was immeasurably helped by Fiddler on the Roof, which in 1971 became Broadway’s longest-running production at 3,342 performances. And even though Bock and Harnick endured relatively short runs with Tenderloin (216 performances) and She Loves Me (only 302 performances, despite its being a masterpiece), their three others — Fiorello! (796), The Apple Tree (463), and The Rothschilds (507) — had healthy runs.
Throughout the years, many hoped for a miracle of miracles and that Bock and Harnick would reunite. But it didn’t happen until 2004, when they decided to write a new song for a Fiddler revival: “Topsy-Turvy” for Yenta the Matchmaker. If it turned out to be anyone’s favorite Bock and Harnick song, I’ve never heard anyone say so.
But we still have cast albums of their last two October shows. Let us count the ways in which they’re terrific, starting with The Apple Tree’s orchestrations by Eddie Sauter. No matter what musical Sauter did – from Superman to 1776 – he found a unique sound for it. Here he found three: pastoral for Mark Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, mock-heroic for Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger? and whimsical for Jules Feiffer’s Passionella.
Barbara Harris as Eve sang about her delight of being “Here in Eden” in which there was a nice bit of foreshadowing: “I find the apples especially exciting.” When Eve met Adam (Alan Alda), she sang about her “Feelings,” set to a nifty Bock melody that was flush with anxiety. In “Eve,” Harnick had Adam sing that she was “intrusive” and “a nuisance” – but was careful to include a B-section where he described her as “beautiful,” too. How soaring Bock’s melody was there, too.
Harris had, in a manner of speaking, a Duet for One. She sang “Friends” to another human — no, not Adam, but a woman in the pond as she leaned over it. We recognized it as her reflection, but Eve wouldn’t for a while. When she got waylaid by a serpent (Larry Blyden), he sang about “Forbidden Fruit” – and told about the benefits from “just an apple a day.”
After Adam and Eve were evicted, they suddenly had a third creature to contend with. “It’s a Fish,” Adam determined because “it surrounds itself with water almost every chance it gets.” Or maybe it isn’t a fish, Adam decided, for “on occasion it says ‘Goo.’” What fun Harnick had in letting us catch up with him! And given that musical theater songs are ideally designed to advance the action, Harnick did it superbly in the song’s final line: Adam noted “I’ll be damned if she didn’t find another” of these creatures, taking us forward nine months in only eight words.
Harnick started out sentimentally when Eve delivered a haunting Bock melody to her beloved baby: “Go to Sleep” she sang — before Harnick got in an unsentimental good joke: “Whatever You Are.” But unlike some mothers, Eve didn’t neglect her husband. “What Makes Me Love Him?” she asked in a melody that almost qualified as a lullaby, too.
For The Lady or the Tiger? Larry Blyden played a narrator-like Balladeer who sang “I’ll tell you a truth.” Bock purposely made that second note as dissonant as could be for a nice comic and droll parody of country music.
Barbara loved Sanjar (Alda), but her father the King didn’t. The lovers discussed eloping and settling “In Gaul.” Sang Sanjar, “They tell me it’s divided in three parts” – a line that’s still very funny to those with a knowledge of Latin.
Barbara’s “I Got What You Want” meant she has information that Sanjar needed to know. Notice how Harnick offered plenty of double-entendres without making a single one of them vulgar. Bock served up a melody that was carnal as could be for a woman who knew what she wanted, too.
Onto Passionella, in which Ella (Harris) was a chimneysweep who wanted to be a movie star. How much? As she sang, “I’d be so grateful that after preem-yares, I’d sweep out the theater and fold up the chairs.” (P.S.: She got her wish — and an enormous bosom to boot.)
For a Broadway baby who was in his 40s, Bock showed he could write in a dissonant, wrath-of-God Bob Dylan-ish way in “You Are Not Real” for Ella’s biker boyfriend Flip. When the show tried out in Boston, the song had a lyric that was eventually (and inexplicably) dropped: Flip sang that he went to Graumann’s Chinese Theater — where he saw, “hand-prints, and foot-prints, and other prints, too. Then I saw two deep holes, and I knew it was you.”
The Rothschilds began with a stirring overture wonderfully orchestrated by Don Walker. We were taken to 1772, when Jews in Frankfurt were required by law to bow low to any Gentile — even children. So little boys taunted Mayer Rothschild with “Jew, do your duty,” forcing him to take off his hat and bow to them. But to Mayer, what was worse was living in a ghetto surrounded by a tall wall, whose gate was locked every night so that the Jews couldn’t “contaminate” the Gentiles. Mayer decided to change all that, knowing that he could only succeed if he built a large fortune that would make him a monied player in world economy. He did just that, and fewer than fifty years later, Gentiles were bowing to the Rothschilds. (Credit to bookwriter Sherman Yellen, too, for writing a most dramatic libretto.)
But first, he had to convince his missus. “My wife will never have to see apologetic looks in her husband’s eyes,” he vowed. The world is littered with stories of women who are never satisfied with their homes and/or status in life, but here Gitele Rothschild was very happy in “One Room,” while her husband wanted, as a powerful later song goes, “Everything.” Success in business is always worth singing about; hence the rollicking “Rothschilds and Sons.”
There was a marvelous moment in “Sons,” when Mayer was instructing his four young lads how to do business. He started to sing “When a shopper says” and his son Nathan repeated the same words a beat behind him. We assumed it was a musical round as well as a musical comedy convention – but no: Mayer chided him with “Nathan, listen!” The kid stopped, Mayer continued — and we laughed.
Because Mayer started a coin-selling business, Bock and Harnick wrote a charming song “He Tossed a Coin” in which Mayer invented stories to go along the coins – thus spurring more consumer interest in them. It was such a clever idea for a song that an audience could rightfully assume it was in place from Day One. Not at all; it was written on the road, proving the skill Bock and Harnick had when the chips were down.
While The Body Beautiful didn’t get Tony nominations for any of its performers, every other Bock and Harnick show got its actors a nomination or two: 11 in all. An astonishing seven of them won – including Barbara Harris for The Apple Tree, and Hal Linden and Keene Curtis for The Rothschilds.
Both these scores painfully remind us of the talents these giants ceased to use as a team. What wonderful shows they denied us! How many more Bock and Harnick musicals would we have had in these last forty years? Sure, while musicals don’t get produced as quickly as they once did, we must be at least seven shows poorer. And so are they.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com