‘Fiddler on the Roof’ composer Jerry Bock dies

His partnership with Sheldon Harnick yielded great tuners

Composer Jerry Bock, an award winner for “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Fiorello!,” died Wednesday in Mount Kisco, N.Y., of complications from a stroke he suffered Sunday. He was 81.

Bock, with collaborator Sheldon Harnick, won the best musical Tony and a Pulitzer for 1959’s “Fiorello!” and the Tony for score for 1965’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“The whole score somehow received an appreciation without one particular number stepping out from it,” he told Playbill.com. Bock learned to play the piano as a child and composed complicated tunes even in high school. While at the U. of Wisconsin, Madison, he wrote the tuner “Big as Life” about Paul Bunyan, which went on the road as far as Chicago.

He made his Broadway debut in 1955 with lyricist Larry Holofcener, whom he met in college, on “To Catch a Star,” for which they contributed songs. They worked together on “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” forerunner of Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” and also teamed on Sammy Davis Jr. tuner “Mr. Wonderful” the following year and later for “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1956.”

“This was a star vehicle, no question about it,” Bock told Variety in 1989. “The performer came first. It was a tricky assignment because we as songwriters were competing with great standards.” The following year Bock hooked up with Harnick and even though their first collaboration, “The Body Beautiful,” was a disappointment, it led to “Fiorello!,” the tuner about New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Joseph Stein wrote the book for “Fiorello!” and “Fiddler”; he died Oct. 24.

“In Broadway’s world they’ll have a chapter, or two or three,” BMI said in an ad in Daily Variety announcing “Fiddler on the Roof.” The advert continued, “Brought together by a publisher in 1957 (and shoved toward a piano), Jerry and Sheldon quickly developed a rapport that brought them the Antoinette Award, Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.”

Their other collaborations include 1960’s “Tenderloin,” 1963’s “She Loves Me,” 1966’s “The Apple Tree” and 1970’s “The Rothschilds.” They took Tonys for all four either for musical or score.

“I tend to approach things skeptically and pessimistically,” Harnick once said. “Jerry Bock is a bubbling, ebullient personality.”

Harnick told Variety in 2004 that Bock would sometimes send him a tape with musical ideas and he’d write the words in his own studio.

As to what came first, Bock said in that same interview, “Our answer has become ‘the book.’ That is the fountainhead. We could work both ways, but the book predominated our thinking.”

Talking about the increasing sophistication of storytelling in musicals, Bock said, “We appreciate the integrated musical, where at best scenes and songs are seamless. The opportunity to extract songs became less and less probable, and now they are fastened to and embrace the story and characters.” Bock would never say why the partnership broke up after “The Rothschilds,” but according to Playbill, there was a difference of opinion over who would direct the tuner. They didn’t work together again until 2004, when they reunited for the revival of “Fiddler,” for which they wrote a number.

Bock, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, won a Daytime Emmy this year with Billy Aronson for toon “The Wonder Pets.”

In 1997 the Jerry Bock annual grant was set up to give $2,000 to a lyricist and a composer at BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.

Survivors include his wife, Patti, a daughter, a son and a granddaughter.

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