To Broadway, To Life! The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick. Philip Lambert. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-1953-9007-0
Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers. Stewart F. Lane. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-5917-9
Reviewed by Alisa Solomon
Like those Broadway musicals that are driven by deep emotion and a social conscience, intellectual books about Broadway musicals face a dilemma: how to be serious and popular. Indeed, books may have a harder time. From Showboat to Rent, musicals have managed to challenge audiences with questions about such issues as racism and AIDS even as they have filled the coffers of investors. But to whom is a book on Broadway addressed—to academic specialists or to die-hard show fans? Not that these categories are mutually exclusive (the best scholarship is typically driven by passion, after all), but they can represent vastly different cultures and interests. As publishers increasingly look for “crossover” projects—and as the academic study of musical theater expands—the clashing expectations of these disparate audiences can put some authors in a bind.
This predicament was brought to mind by the recent publication of two books that come from— and perhaps aim at—opposite ends of the spectrum. The author of Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers is the Broadway producer Stewart F. Lane, who (among other significant credits) was behind the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof that starred Alfred Molina (later replaced by Harvey Fierstein). His compendium betrays no scholarly ambition: it makes no argument and does not unearth new information. But at a time when—as the funny opening number of this year’s Tony Awards put it—Broadway “is not just for gays and the Jews” any more, the book’s jaunty inventory of Jewish theater artists from the early days of the Yiddish stage to now may appeal to Broadway buffs who still enjoy some tribal flag-planting. In contrast, Philip Lambert brings to bear his expertise as a music theorist in his meticulous study of the song-writing team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in To Broadway, To Life!, the first full account of this music-and-lyric duo whose seven Broadway collaborations included Fiddler (1964). Lambert’s close analyses of Bock’s compositions may be lost on readers with little more than a rudimentary knowledge of music theory, and those looking for insight into the lives of Bock and Harnick outside the studio or the rehearsal hall will be disappointed. But those who appreciate why it’s the scores, not the men themselves, that are the main characters here will be richly rewarded.
Lambert identifies “the stylistic fingerprints of essentially all their subsequent works” as early as the mid-1950s, when Bock and Harnick first met. By then, both had written for various revues in New York, at out-of-town summer resorts, and for television, and Bock had written the score for the Broadway musical Mr. Wonderful (lyrics by Larry Holofcener). Lambert neatly summarizes the “traits and trends that would become their calling cards”:
Harnick emerged as a master lyric craftsman with an eye for detail, an ear for musical speech, a taste for unusual rhymes, and a nose for offbeat humor, often delivered with a touch of social consciousness. Bock had proven to be a prolific inventor with a seemingly endless supply of original, fertile musical ideas, a mastery of the complexities of style, and a focus on challenging conventional creative boundaries. (45)
Lambert uses a key word there, for as he devotes a chapter to each of the pair’s seven Broadway musicals over their fourteen-year partnership—among them, Fiorello!, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, and The Rothschilds—the duo comes across, indeed, as consummate craftsmen. Artists, yes, but also showbiz pros who could make and shape a song to suit the dramatic purpose (a concern that deepened for both as their careers evolved) without getting precious about tunes that had to be left behind if they didn’t work within the context of the show. (Lambert quotes Harnick at one point comparing lyric writing to carpentry.) Bock and Harnick worked so specifically for each project—trying something new with each show they engaged—that they were never able to pull from their stash of “trunk songs” and retool them for another musical. For Fiddler, for example, they wrote more than 40 songs; 12 made it into the final version of the show. Their craftsmanship is also what enabled them to dash off dazzling new songs during on-the-road tryouts. To cite just two astonishing examples, “Do You Love Me?” and “Miracle of Miracles” from Fiddler were the products of deadline labors in a Detroit hotel room.
With their first show together, the short-lived The Body Beautiful (1958), the story of an aspiring prizefighter, Bock and Harnick settled on a working method they sustained through their partnership. Beginning independently, Bock would sketch some tunes—“musical guesses,” he called them—and send them to Harnick on a cassette. Meanwhile, Harnick would read as deeply as he could in the subject area related to the show and begin to hatch some notions for lyrics. He’d work with the tapes from Bock; soon he’d begin sending Bock lyrics that didn’t seem to fit any of his tunes, and Bock would compose in response. Back and forth they would go, each stimulated by the other. As their skills developed, and as they landed ever-larger projects, they began to work more holistically, writing lyrics and music that not only made appealing numbers, but that also built the dramatic action.
Lambert notes that Harnick says he didn’t really become fully attentive to a show’s book until She Loves Me (1963; book by Joe Masteroff), the team’s small, bright chamber musical based on Ernst Lubitch’s 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner. But, Lambert persuasively demonstrates, Bock and Harnick were already headed firmly in that direction with Fiorello! (1959; book by Jerome Weidman), their dizzyingly successful early effort that traces the rise of the beloved New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. (It shared that season’s best-musical Tony with Sound of Music and then won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.) Lambert explains how, for example, the opening number “On the Side of the Angels” works musically and verbally to establish character and set off the plot: Some of the mayor’s staff members sing, “Penniless and helpless / Ignorant and scared / He collects ’em all” and then new voices and melodies are added as some of those poor and downtrodden people seek assistance. The two groups sing together and, writes Lambert, “[t]he contrapuntal writing allows fleeting dissonance and momentary rhythmic entanglements” that “help bring out the contrast between the two parts, the clients and the staff.” In the song’s chorus, he continues, in the first two phrases,
prominent chromatic tones occur on the downbeats of the first and third full measures . . . and then return with heightened frequency and drama in bars 5-7 . . . each resolving upward by half step to a chord tone. As these figures continue to appear throughout the song’s choruses, they repeatedly offer little moments of tension and release, little anxieties that are quickly whisked away, like a legal advocate protecting the rights of a client. (70)
And thus he continues, through the entire song. Lambert scrutinizes, too, the first-act show-stopper “Politics and Poker,” arguing that “similar chromatic accents” connect lyrics about the card game with those about local power-brokering.
In addition to similar, thorough musical analyses of the shows that followed, Lambert also describes the duo’s non-Broadway gigs—among them, a television version of The Canterville Ghost (based on an Oscar Wilde novella), songs for a World’s Fair extravaganza, an eight-year run of numbers for Mayor John Lindsay to sing at an annual dinner for New York’s political reporters, and even tunes for Ford tractor and Ballantine beer commercials. Lambert briefly chronicles, too, their separate projects in the four decades after their partnership dissolved.
Fiddler on the Roof, as Lambert quite rightly states, stands as “the defining work of the Bock and Harnick partnership” and it properly receives his most detailed treatment. He shows, for example, how “counter-clockwise fifths progressions” in Tevye’s monologues “give an impression of searching for a home key, as a depiction of Tevye’s rambling questions and exclamations.” And he provides a thorough assessment of the show’s “musical roots,” demonstrating influences on Bock of Theodore Bikel’s recordings of Yiddish songs and of the Moiseyev albums of Russian folk music.
Lambert is less interested in how Bock and Harnick’s songs actually play in performance—how different actors interpret them, what emotion they evoke in audiences, and in general, as theater folks say, how they “work” on stage. (Neglecting the theatrical life of the songs sometimes leads him to miss how lyrics can be contradicted by action.) Still, in reading the scores so carefully and explaining how each Bock-and-Harnick show was built, he not only provides a vivid portrait of one of Broadway’s most important and beloved teams, he also brings to life the process of constructing a score for the integrated book musicals of mid-century. To Broadway, To Life! is one more way the vital new Oxford University Press series, Broadway Legacies, is enlarging the field of musical theater studies.
Less academically inclined readers might be more drawn to Lane’s book, an exuberant gush of appreciation for—by his count—Broadway’s 69 percent of composers, 70 percent of lyricists and 56 percent of librettists who are Jewish (at least as statistics available since 1947 have permitted him to calculate), but they would get more depth from Lambert, even if they skipped over the technical sections of musical analysis.
True to its subtitle, Jews on Broadway is a galloping survey, racing from Jacob Adler to Adam Guettel in less than 200 pages. Organized chronologically, it reads, essentially, as an annotated list of dozens of creative personalities, each described in a page or two (and sometimes less). Sections on many artists are shorter—and thinner—than a Wikipedia entry. For the most part, Lane does not consider in what way these artists related to their Jewish background or identity—or, indeed, what such an identity comprises. In the absence of any sustained or sophisticated discussion of the significance of being Jewish for Broadway artists or, indeed, for the art of Broadway, the book amounts to a theatrically-focused prose version of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”—a simple, prideful assertion of ubiquitous Jewish talent—but without the irony.
Jews on Broadway might function as a handy reference book, except that it is riddled with errors (and, sad to say, McFarland & Co. Publishers seems to have laid off all its copy editors). To cite just a few of myriad examples: Bock’s partner is called Sidney Harnick and subsequently referred to—twice—as Harnish. The opening date of Funny Girl is given, inaccurately, as 1965. Lane calls the Shylock play that Zero Mostel was working on when he died a musical; it was not. He describes Jerome Robbins as the original director of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but Robbins came in to help fix the show when it was in out-of-town tryouts. Egregiously, Lane claims that in Robbins’ appearance as a friendly witness before HUAC, he named Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford as Communists. Not true (though Gilford’s wife, Madeline Lee, was one of the people Robbins named). And so on. Broadway devotees thrive, I can personally attest, on inside stories, back-stage gossip, and even downright rumor. But that’s no excuse for getting the facts wrong. They matter—does it need to be said?—even in a book that does not purport to be scholarship.
Alisa Solomon, Columbia University