Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Philip Lambert's "To Broadway, To Life!"

Philip Lambert has published widely on twentieth-century music of diverse styles and traditions. His books include The Music of Charles Ives (1997), Ives Studies (1997), and Inside the Music of Brian Wilson (2007). He is Professor of Music at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest new book, To Broadway, To Life!: The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick, and reported the following:
Page 99 of To Broadway, To Life! does and doesn’t open a revealing window into the theatrical songwriting of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. It does because its discussion of their musical Tenderloin highlights exactly what’s so great about a Bock-Harnick show: the music. Reviewers of the opening-night performance found the songs “charming” and “fetching” and “splendidly sassy” and “the best excuse for Tenderloin.” On the 376 other pages of the book, readers may find many other examples of the musical magic Bock and Harnick created on Broadway stages and elsewhere, before, during, and after their fourteen years of collaboration in the late 1950s and 1960s.

It doesn’t because Tenderloin was one of their least successful Broadway ventures, and much of page 99 is charged with surveying the damage. The problem was that audiences were asked to sympathize with a stolid clergyman who is on a mission to eliminate vice in 1890s New York, and yet the victims of this crusade are the ones having all the fun. As Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “Maurice Evans has an extremely unsympathetic part.... He plays a crusading minister who wants to eliminate the production numbers.”

Almost all of the other Bock and Harnick shows, explored in the other chapters of the book, were received much better and continue to prosper on stages everywhere. Fiorello!, the show they wrote just before Tenderloin, won three Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The show they wrote next, She Loves Me, is one of the most beloved love stories in the history of Broadway, often described as the “perfect musical.” Their last two efforts, The Apple Tree and The Rothschilds, also sparkle with charm and originality.

Bock and Harnick’s crowning achievement, Fiddler on the Roof, set records with a Broadway run of almost eight years between 1964 and 1972 and won nine Tonys. Fiddler has been revived three times on Broadway and performed in countless venues around the world. It features a witty adaptation by Joseph Stein of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins, and one of the musical theater’s greatest leading roles, Tevye the milkman. And yes, like Tenderloin, the best part of Fiddler is the music.
Read more about To Broadway, To Life! at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue