It is a very small irony that when my former colleague, musical theatre composer Jerry Bock died this week, the country suffered a political upheaval driven by fear and negativity. Jerry, as I remember him, was the opposite of all that has befallen us: brave in the best sense, fearless in his work, and a caring man who lived by his principles, a progressive whom fame and fortune did not isolate and make indifferent to the deprivations that others suffered. And he was positive in a way that was life enhancing to others, a man who reflected in his life our better instincts and our better times. At least he was all that to me in my very first Broadway venture, The Rothschilds, a musical whose libretto I wrote based upon Fred Morton's popular biography which took the family from its ghetto roots to its place of power. The long New York Times obit about Jerry got all the facts right but somehow missed the man entirely.
When I met Jerry he was already renowned as the composer of Fiorello that grandest of all musicals on politics and Fiddler on the Roof the best of all possible tributes to the immigrant roots of American life, and one half of a magnificent theatre partnership with lyricist Sheldon Harnick. He managed to combine what was the rarest of qualities, true musical genius, and genuine kindness. Trust me, the older I get kindness counts outside of storybooks, it even tops genius. That pair of qualities doesn't coexist too often in most artists lives. We are often by the nature of our work self absorbed, inward looking, and just plain cranky. None of this applied to Jerry. He was generous in his praise of other's work, and when critical, constructive and filled with suggestions for improvement. I was the beneficiary of both these qualities as our show took shape, went through the trials and tribulations of the infamous out-of-town tryout, and finally arrived in New York for a successful run.
The Rothschilds out of town: Some of the reviews were less than laudatory and it seemed necessary to fire the director, a man who had given his all to bringing the show to the stage, yet to me and others, seemed to have nothing left to give except raising the level of hysteria. Jerry refused to be a party to the firing of that director. He could not disregard the good work that the director had accomplished by tossing him off the project, something unheard of in musical theatre where human sacrifice is as commonly practiced by show-makers as it was by the ancient Aztecs. Jerry lost that battle, and the renowned Michael Kidd took over the direction of the show, but Jerry understood that for all the spit and polish that Kidd brought to the production, it was the work of that first director that gave the show its shape and its distinction.
Opening night: Foremost among the gifts received (and there were a few bottles of rare Rothschilds vintage that I can remember still), Jerry presented me with a laminated plaque of a program from a summer camp I had attended thirty years before. Unrecalled by me, he had been my camp counselor, and the musical director of the camp musical "Hot Iolanthe" a jazz version of the Gilbert & Sullivan Show he had created in which I was a lowly chorus member -- my having a singing voice that compares only to the mating call of bull frogs. He had kept this secret during our two year collaboration so as to surprise me on opening night.
And last, there was his love for his family, his children, and his never-ending loyalty to his ailing wife during these past years. Jerry and his gracious wife Patti had been the best of hosts, and theirs was a house filled with welcome for us and our then young son Nick, filled with laughter and skating parties on their frozen pond. In later times I felt such joy whenever I came upon him at some event, and never forgot his kindness to me in my first venture on the stage. Of very few can it be said that the world is so much better for having lived among us, and it can truly be said of Jerry Bock, master composer, and just one swell guy.