To Broadway, to Life! The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick

By Philip Lambert | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

On only their second try Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in 1959 created the music and words, respectively, of a captivating musical based on the early political career of Fiorello La Guardia, the beloved Mayor of New York City from 1934–1945 from his days as a congressman during World World I to the eve of his election as Mayor (and decades prior to the renaming of a New York airport in his honor). Fiorello!, directed by George Abbott, ensured its historic stature as the recipient of the third Pulitzer Prize for Drama (following Of Thee I Sing and South Pacific) and the first of only three winners of Broadway’s Triple Crown (the Pulitzer, Tony, and New York Drama Critics Circle awards), a feat later duplicated only by How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Rent. After the death of Hammerstein and end of the Lerner and Loewe partnership, both in 1960, Bock and Harnick, the last major new musical team to enter the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, were the rising creative stars of Broadway’s firmament.

Thirty-five years after it took home the crown jewels, Fiorello! gained renewed historical distinction in 1994 when it inaugurated an exciting new series devoted to the presentation of worthy but neglected shows, “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert.” In addition to launching the career of Tom Bosley, much later the avuncular co-star of the television sitcom Happy Days, the well-crafted and imaginative Fiorello! contributed two timelessly biting and funny satiric political songs, “The Little Tin Box” and “Politics and Poker.” For most of the latter song, which my cousin can still recite reliably from memory after more than fifty years, Harnick’s lyric and Bock’s Bowery waltz treat these two high-stakes games as running “neck and neck,” before declaring the former vice as the more predictable “because usually you can stack the deck.” In 2000 and 2005, respectively, two other worthwhile if uneven Bock and Harnick shows Tenderloin (1960) and The Apple Tree (1966), the latter starring Kristin Chenoweth, were similarly honored by “Encores!,” the latter performance leading to a brief Broadway revival again featuring Chenoweth.

And then came Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, almost exactly midway between Fiorello! and Bock and Harnick’s final show as a team, The Rothschilds in 1970. As many reading this foreword doubtless already know, Fiddler was and remains an iconic collaboration with choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, whose unwavering insistence on asking “what is the show about?”

-vii-

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