Jerry Bock was one of the most successful theater composers of the 1960s -- the fact that he's not better known beyond theater circles may be explained by that timing; theater wasn't the dominant musical venue of the 1960s. Born in New Haven, CT, he was a natural musician, and took up the piano and composition at an early age -- as a boy, he was able to play very advanced pieces of music by ear. Bock grew up in Queens, NY, attending P.S. 32, where he wrote his first musical. He later attended Flushing High School, where he wrote a musical, My Dream, which was produced at the school. Bock studied at the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote the show Big As Life, which was staged there in 1948. On his return to New York in 1949, he went into creative partnership with Larry Holofcencer, writing special musical material and production numbers for producer Max Liebman on the latter's Admiral Broadway Revue, which included the early comedy of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and later for Your Show of Shows, for which he wrote much of the background music. Bock also spent his summers during this period writing revues for Liebman at Camp Tamiment -- ten shows a season for three seasons. Bock's other early-'50s television credits include composing music and writing sketches for The Mel Torme Show and The Kate Smith Hour. He also wrote the background music for a documentary film, The Wonders of Manhattan, in 1955, but more significant that year was his successful leap into theater.
It was a natural jump, in the days when television was centered in New York, from the small screen to the Broadway stage, and Bock made the leap in 1955 with the revue Catch a Star. In 1956, he composed his first complete Broadway score for Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis Jr. And he began his most successful collaboration with the musical The Body Beautiful in 1958, written with lyricist Sheldon Harnick. That production was a flop, but the two enjoyed working together and created their first big hit a year later with Fiorello!, a musical based on the life of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, which won a Pulitzer Prize and made a star of actor Tom Bosley in the title role. Another New York-inspired musical, Tenderloin, followed in 1960. The two wrote what is often referred to as their best score for the 1963 musical She Loves Me, which was based on Nikolaus Laszlo's play Parfumerie, which had served as the source for the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner and Robert Z. Leonard's 1949 Americanized adaptation In the Good Old Summertime (as well as the indirect inspiration, by way of the Lubitsch movie, for the 1990's film You've Got Mail). She Loves Me, which was very much a labor of love, proved to have something of a charmed life. It survived an initial refusal by MGM studios (which owned the adaptation rights to the Laszlo play) to license the work to the composers; award-winning stage producer Harold Prince convinced MGM to approve the musical, and She Loves Me -- starring Barbara Cook (who was then Broadway's favorite ingenue, having only recently come off the Broadway run of The Music Man) -- opened in 1963 to positive reviews but only fair box office, and closed after an anemic eight-and-a-half-month run. The score, which contained such songs as "Will He Like Me," "Ice Cream," and "A Trip to the Library," was too good to be forgotten, however, and She Loves Me later found a new lease on theatrical life in revival.
Meanwhile, in 1964, Bock and Harnock debuted the biggest success of their careers: Fiddler on the Roof. That score, with such songs as "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "If I Were a Rich Man," and "Sunrise, Sunset," insinuated itself into American popular culture as no musical since West Side Story and it proved a difficult act to follow. That became doubly true as the original New York production (which was soon joined by companies in most of the major cities in the western world and beyond) became what was then the longest running show in the history of Broadway. Well into the 1990s, even in an era of mega-hits such as A Chorus Line, Cats, and Les Miserables, whose theatrical runs dwarfed Fiddler on the Roof, the Bock-Harnick piece was sufficiently well-known for elements of its plot and music to turn up in jokes on popular television series such as The Nanny, with the expectation that audiences would get the jokes.
As Fiddler on the Roof, initially with Zero Mostel in the lead role of Tevye, racked up over 3000 performances and generated one of the last truly big-selling cast albums of the 1960s, the team went on to write Baker Street, built around the character of Sherlock Holmes, The Apple Tree, adapted from the work of Mark Twain, and Her First Roman, a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, for which they wrote several songs. The latter, alas, proved to be no My Fair Lady and none of these works was particularly successful before the public, though Baker Street is reasonably well known. Their final collaboration in 1970 was The Rothschilds, based on the history of the Jewish banking family. That musical wasn't well received, and even the composers conceded that there were problems with their approach to the story. The duo brought a halt to their 14-year partnership, though not to their friendship, after The Rothschilds.
There were no more Bock/Harnock collaborations, though Norman Jewison's 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof, which was a major hit in its own right (and for which film composer/conductor John Williams won his first Oscar as music director), along with revivals of that play, saw to it that their names remained before the public and their music was heard throughout the 1970s. Harnick has continued to work as a lyricist on new projects, but Jerry Bock was most visible during the 1990s only in connection with stage revivals of She Loves Me and Fiorello! ~ Bruce Eder