Good night, good rest

1928-2010 What did Eve hum to the world’s first baby?

What’s the march of a family of European bankers?

A well-loved sewing machine emits what waltz?

What’s the tread of the diaspora? When Jews were forced to evacuate their shtetl, feet would trudge slowly but steadily for three steps, but the fourth was a killer. Weighed down by possessions and memories, the foot would go down a little harder, a little lower.

I just learned that Jerry Bock, the greatest composer born after World War One, died today. When I was fresh out of college, we met, in his office, and he was cordial and encouraging. Over the course of a mere 14 years, Bock provided music for Broadway that no one’s come close to matching, for quality and effectiveness, ever since.

So now I’m listening to Eve’s lullaby, and it’s a deceptively simple tune that keeps changing key, keeping it interesting, and making the whole scenario seem magical. Which it is, in a way: How did Eve know what she was doing? It was instinctive, and our greatest living lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, found the perfect title, “Go To Sleep, Whatever You Are.”

Those bankers, Rothschild and Sons, march with a certain squareness, precise, full of ambition, in major four-part chords, parallel fifths and all. I stole the basic rhythm for an early minor-key song about a businessman remembering his World War One service. I was unaware then, that Bock switched his delicate music-box No More Candy, into minor for the stirring rallying cry of the Russian Revolution, Any Day Now.

I keep thinking of more examples of Bock’s coloring, always so right for the time and place setting of his shows, and how it enhances emotion. If you’re a poor dairyman, pulling your own milk cart, wearing heavy boots, and stop to indulge in a fantasy of wealth, your feet will hit the downbeats hard while you clap or snap, hands high, on the off-beats: two times on beat two, once on beat four. It seems so inevitable. “If I Were a Rich Man” is the paragon of show tunes, and the composer managed to make nonsense words (Digguh digguh deedle daidle dum) fly.

Now I’m listening to Barbara Harris and Alan Alda sing about running away to Gaul, and Bock parodies French popular song, making this previously-exotic story suddenly mundane and middle class. Then he zags back to the melodrama, creating a duet that’s funny because of clever musical choices.

The machinery of the eighth notes in the sewing waltz occasionally slows down, just like, when you’re powering one of those things by pedal, it gets hard to push before it gets easier.

Keely Smith sings

Keely Smith sings

As a child I got to see Bil Baird’s Marionettes doing an original Bock & Harnick musical, The Man in the Moon. Over the years, it’s struck me as the greatest-ever theatre score for kids, because it never talks down to them. The title character has a scary song; his daughter, a delightful ballad that plays on major sevenths. This respect for young people’s ears was much on my mind as I wrote Popsicle Palace (now retitled Not a Lion) and stole the outro from Miracle of Miracles.

Of course, one of the first musicals I ever saw was Fiddler on the Roof and, in second grade, or so, Eydie Gorme came to my classroom and sang Matchmaker Matchmaker. Little me loved waltzes, and Bock must be considered the waltz king of the 1960s: My Gentle Young Johnny, Sunrise Sunset, Gorgeous, Dear Friend, Artificial Flowers, Where’s My Shoe? Funny thing is, if you take Matchmaker and add a quarter note to every bar to make it 4/4, as Lucy Simon did for her puerile ballad, The Girl I Mean To Be, you take the spring out of its step: The Secret Garden does talk down to children.

Somewhere in childhood, it occurred to me I loved The Apple Tree even more than Fiddler on the Roof, although I still consider the latter the greatest musical ever written. Fiddler’s unmatched success has made it as familiar as chicken soup. I’m far fonder of Fiorello. And many people I know consider She Loves Me a masterpiece.

I’m not sure about that, but boy is it full of fantastic music. Consider the quiet bolero that colors a lustful lass’s trip to the library. It’s quiet, because you can’t get loud in a library, but one feels the passion is heating to the boiling-over point, and fortissimo ecstasy can’t be far away. Or the more obvious example: you’re trying to write an apologetic note but the ecstasy of last night’s gift of a frozen dessert (and all it represents) keeps forcing you to break out into a slow building polka.

One of my most-treasured possessions is a score Bock wrote after the disastrous split with Harnick in 1970. It’s utterly charming, but we couldn’t find room to use any of it seven years ago, when Sara Lazarus and I fashioned a full-length Bock and Harnick revue. It was called Grand Knowing You. Jerry Bock: it’s been grand, perfectly grand.

I play, Hananel Edri sings

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2 Responses to Good night, good rest

  1. Beautiful tribute, Noel – we share a hero – one who will be greatly, greatly missed.

  2. Emily Christenson says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!! Thank you for sharing.

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