Book Review by Michael Ladenson
Book Review by Michael Ladenson
Sondheim's Finishing the Hat may have made the biggest literary splash in the musical theater world this season, but there are other splashes being made about other creators. Philip Lambert, a professor of Music at Baruch College, has come out with To Broadway, To Life!: The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick. In it, he chronicles the creative careers of the composer and lyricist of Fiorello, She Loves Me and of course, Fiddler on the Roof.
Exhaustively researched, To Broadway, To Life conjures a vanished era, when those smitten with the Broadway musical could train at Jewish Catskill resorts like Tamiment, and cut their creative teeth on special revue material for the likes of Bea Arthur (who performed Sheldon Harnick's song "Garbage") and Alice Ghostley (who performed his "Boston Beguine"). In this era, musicals were substantially cheaper to produce, and producers prowled for material to adapt and potential new teams to write their librettos and scores. Lambert lays out in detail the shows Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote with other people, the shows they wrote together, and their creative endeavors after they split up following their last musical, The Rothschilds.
This isn't a story of personal lives; Elaine May comes up as the proposed author of a one-act originally planned to share a bill with Sweet Charity (a conceptual forerunner of The Apple Tree), but her marriage to Sheldon Harnick goes discreetly unmentioned. The wives of Bock and Harnick serve as nameless accessories to their professional efforts, occasionally helping out but otherwise kept in the shadows. Lambert even seems a bit mystified by the team's split, ostensibly over the replacement of Derek Goldby by Michael Kidd as director of The Rothschilds.
The book's greatest strength is in its details, documenting the changing tunestack of each Bock/Harnick show, and even the shows to which they were contributors rather than creators, including such obscure pieces of Broadwayana as Baker Street and Her First Roman. Where else could you find such a comprehensive list of the short story writers, from Nelson Algren to Mikhail Zoshchenko, whose material they considered for their musical bill of one-acts, The Apple Tree? If you're a musical theater connoisseur, you will eat this right up, and Lambert provides plenty more tidbits in his information buffet.
Coming from the music field, Lambert concerns himself intensively with the minutiae of Bock's work; he seems to want to show the composer as much more than a mere songwriter. From his initial attempt to place Bock's use of the "raised fourth step" on a par with Bernstein's in West Side Story, Lambert frequently takes Bock's compositions apart note by note. Trained musicians may be fascinated by this; those of us not fortunate to be so gifted may want to skip some of this detail.
The main problem with the book is that Lambert seems a researcher by nature, always distanced from the sizzle of live theatrical performance. Bock and Harnick worked with some of the legendary directors of the Broadway theater, but this book won't tell you much about the distinctive artistic styles of Hal Prince, Mike Nichols or George Abbott. Even the brilliant, detestable Jerome Robbins is noted primarily for being a nudnik: continually asking what Fiddler was about, an annoying question that eventually led to the show's extraordinary opening sequence. But you won't find out why Prince became the dominant musical theater director of his time; why Nichols, once the epitome of Broadway success, had such trouble staging The Apple Tree (and eschewed directing any more Broadway musicals until Spamalot); or how Abbott shaped Fiorello through such decisions as cutting Marie's ballad "Where Do I Go From Here?" and adding the uptempo version of the opening number, "On the Side of the Angels." Considering the impact that Derek Goldby's firing had on Bock and Harnick's future, it is odd that you won't find out much about how he directed The Rothschilds, or how the show changed under the stewardship of his replacement, another storied Broadway figure, Michael Kidd. And we get nothing very evocative about the team's work on revivals with such newer Broadway forces as Scott Ellis and Gary Griffin.
Since Bock and Harnick wrote for the theater, the book would be stronger if it gave more of a feel for what these shows were actually like in performance. Did Hal Linden as the Jewish patriarch Mayer give a "Fiddler 2" feeling to The Rothschilds (the impression I got from seeing a number on TV at the time)? Did The Apple Tree reflect the improvisational Compass/Second City origins of its director and its two leads? Why did a Goodspeed revival of Fiorello, which the creators hoped would transfer to Broadway, fall so short? How exactly did Fiddler change through Mostel's successors as Tevye? Lambert gives some attention to the latter question, though he doesn't necessarily convey the impression that he ever sat through their performances in the show. And unlike Richard Altman, whose book on Fiddler he references, Lambert doesn't always convey the feeling of the tensions that accompany rehearsals of any show, let alone a major musical. For example, I'd love to know how Herbert Ross went about "assisting" Lee Theodore in the choreography of The Apple Treeand if, as Martin Gottfried implied in his review of the show, Ross became more influential on the second act than the show's official director.
Lambert does include some production photos, but one longs for the level of photographic documentation of Ted Chapin's book on Folliesmore than you could get from Theatre World, Best Plays and your old vinyl original cast albums.
These gaps make the book lack the smell of the greasepaint, but it's still a worthwhile read for those interested in the men who created Fiddler, Fiorello and She Loves Me.
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