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Howard Kissel

Howard Kissel

 

The Same 100 People

Posted: 01/27/11 02:30 PM ET

It is often said that there are only 100 people in New York. Forget about the alleged 8 million. In any field you inhabit there seem to be no more than 100 people, whom you run into all the time. This was particularly true at the beginning of this week.

Monday afternoon there was a very moving tribute to composer Jerry Bock at the American Airlines Theater. I have long maintained that the best entertainment now on Broadway are the memorial tributes. To begin with those being memorialized tend to be giants, people who created theater when it was genuinely part of American culture, not just a diversion for tourists visiting New York.

So the material is first rate. So are the performers, donating their time to pay tribute to the people who helped create their careers.

Most important, you get true emotional resonance, too often absent in what now passes for theater.

All this was true Monday in the tribute to Bock, who is best known, of course, as the composer of Fiddler on the Roof. With his lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, he also created an equally brilliant but less remembered show, "Fiorello," about the legendary mayor of New York. Among the special treats Monday was a tape in which Bock, who lived in Westchester, sent his collaborator a melody he thought would be good for Tevye's daughters. (The Sholom Aleichem stories on which "Fiddler" was based were about a milkman in a tiny Russian shtetl marrying off four daughters.)

To hear Bock sing the melody we know as "Sunrise Sunset" (there were no words yet) was deeply moving. As it happens, Bock had a rich, resonant voice, but invariably composers singing their own songs is especially moving because they provide an emotional subtext performers often miss.

Among the speakers was one of the truly great men of the American theater, now or ever, Harold Prince, who began his career as a producer, an often under-appreciated creative job, and then became one of our most inventive directors. Prince recalled in 1956 getting a call from his friend Stephen Sondheim urging him to see a show Bock had composed with another lyricist, "Mr. Wonderful," which starred Sammy Davis Jr. (In a wonderfully self-deprecating bit of wit, Prince said he found the show "too obviously entertaining.")

But he remembered Bock's work and called him and his new partner, Sheldon Harnick, when he wanted to make a musical about Fiorello Laguardia.

Apart from the title song, which became a standard, "Mr. Wonderful" had another pop hit which I remember from my youth, "Too Close for Comfort," which was sung splendidly by Bock's major collaborator, Harnick. It was courageous of Harnick to emcee the tribute, since within a few weeks last fall he lost Bock, Joe Stein, who wrote the book for "Fiddler," Jill Clayburgh, who appeared in "The Rothschilds," and Tom Bosley, who played the title role in "Fiorello."

But he did the job with the elegance you would expect.

Among the other participants in the Bock tribute were Chita Rivera, who just celebrated some impossible birthday, and two of the original Rothschilds, Hal Linden and Christopher Sarandon. Austin Pendleton sang "Wonder of Wonders," from "Fiddler," with as much youthful zest as if46 years had not gone by. Harvey Fierstein sang "If I Were a Rich Man" endearingly.

Lonny Price, one of whose first roles as a child actor was as a young Rothschild, spoke what I would have said when he mentioned that, as a director, he always has auditioning actors perform songs by Bock and Harnick, because their material always projects a basic humanity he wants on the stage. Amen.

The next day I saw many of the same people at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, where two precious objects were being added to the collection. As Jacqueline Davis noted, whatever concerns there are about the future of the book, the Lincoln Center library has 68 million objects, of which only 14 million are books. The rest are papers, designs, letters, costumes.

The two objects added last night were a barber chair and a desk, both of which belonged to the great illustrator of the Broadway theater for much of the 20th century, Al Hirschfeld. For some reason Hirschfeld felt unusually comfortable sitting in the barber chair, creating the images by which we often remember Broadway shows. (Who can think of "My Fair Lady" without remembering his drawing of Shaw the puppeteer manipulating Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews?)

The objects, donated by Hirschfeld's widow Louise, are on display at the entrance to the library next to the Vivian Beaumont. The drawing on the desk will be routinely changed, since the library owns many of them.

Among the people I saw at the Library was the legendary Marge Champion, who met Hirschfeld in the '30s, when she made her first visit to New York -- on a tour with the Three Stooges! It was before she married Gower but after she posed for the Disney Studio as their model for Snow White. (I didn't know she also posed a few years later as the Blue Fairy in "Pinocchio" and the dancing hippo in "Fantasia.")

Needless to say, the median age of the 100 people at both events was fairly high. There were some wonderful younger performers at the Bock tribute and many younger people at the Library. But the 100 people date from a special period, which, alas, has come to a close.