Had something of a chance encounter with someone who sees a couple of classic show tunes the way I do. So now I’ve the urge to shout “See? I’m not so weird!” But I won’t. For that would be weird.
I was subbing as accompanist at a famous acting school. My head filled with thoughts of the pre-eminent performers who traipsed these hallways early in their careers. Brando lived nearby, and his roommate was Wally Cox. Wally Cox! A true thespian. As well as the voice of Underdog. And I went up a steep (but not so narrow) staircase to a dance studio and wondered how Marilyn Monroe kept her balance on such an incline. There were only four students, affording the voice teacher (from the opera world) ample opportunity to talk. Mostly he discoursed on technical aspects of singing, but when, back-to-back, there were two familiar numbers from Fiddler on the Roof, he started pointing out the sorts of things I like to point out.In Far From the Home I Love, composer Jerry Bock keeps switching between minor and major. This colors the character’s dichotomy, as she’s tugged in two directions, between love of family and devotion to her fiancé, who’s been sent to Siberia. The minor key section chords are traditionally associated with Judaism. Fiddler on the Roof depicts a younger generation breaking off from old restrictions and customs. Hodel, the daughter who’s departing, expresses a sincere affection for all that she’s abandoning. Her love for the modern-thinking husband-to-be is expressed with modern chords: a major seventh, a passing thirteenth. In the bridge, she gets a little carried away, talking about him. Since it’s in the key of C, pianists can’t help but notice her ecstatic expression is all on white notes. But no tonality lasts for long here. In just a moment we’re back to the rich and ancient minor. The voice teacher offered that Hodel is saying she is able to experience romantic love because her parents gave her such a firm foundation in family love. When I coach the song, I focus on the daughter’s understanding of how her words are landing on Tevye. She knows she’s breaking his heart, so she darts back to familial love whenever she gets close to being sappy about the boy. In my song, Home, I also address this notion that “home” means one thing to an unmarried daughter living with her family, and quite another to a bride. And Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick makes this shift in definitions the final dagger hurled at the dad: “Yet, there with my love, I’m home.” Bock sets this on that most difficult of intervals, the tritone, because it is such a difficult thing for this girl, who loves both groom and papa, to say.
Far simpler, but positively eloquent, is the surpassingly popular Sunrise Sunset. Staring at the sheet music during our conversation about it, I thought back to a childhood memory. Visiting a family friend’s back yard, I saw a row of sunflowers that must have been six feet tall. I’d never seen flowers so big, and they were more than a little frightening to the young me. So, Sheldon Harnick wrote “seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers” – a perfect image of the world turning so fast, little things can be come tall very quickly. It’s not set up as a simile, and he doesn’t use the words “seems like.” We understand it as a poetic comparison even as it’s stated just like a fact. Bock uses the first two measures over and over again, at one point this phrase is heard a fourth up from where it’s first heard. So it’s something of an ear-worm. What’s always struck me about the music is the delightful arpeggio on eighth notes, rather reminiscent of the octatonic scale frequently utilized by Igor Stravinski, the Russian composer who based a lot of his work on the folk music he knew as a child. In a sense, given Fiddler’s setting, he and Bock were drawing from the same well. As the lyric extols aspects of the life cycle, the setting of the title line evokes breathing out and breathing in.
The immortality of Sunrise Sunset must be related to the universality of the emotions it expresses. Bock and Harnick were experts at coming up with songs that are extremely specific to their show’s setting while being general enough that all sorts of people could sing them at all sorts of times. (Well, mostly at weddings.) And I think that’s because they began their careers in the 1950s, when it was still expected that show music could produce the most-sung songs in the land. Today, it’s unusual that songwriters are thinking about the commerciality of what they’re writing for the stage. But all the things I’ve mentioned here, these bits of brilliance in the crafting of two numbers, are what Bock and Harnick regularly thought about. A way of thinking, alas, that hasn’t been commonly employed since the team split in 1970.