Friday, November 05, 2010

Rooftop Fiddlers and Red Machines: Appreciating the Impact of Jerry Bock and Sparky Anderson

Until I learned of their deaths on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, I certainly wasn't giving Broadway composer Jerry Bock or baseball manager Sparky Anderson much thought. Let alone perceiving that I would ever mention their names in the same sentence.

But not only were Bock and Anderson among the most illustrious practitioners, ever, in their respective realms, their accomplishments had a significant impact upon my own personal penchant for musical theater and baseball, two of my foremost passions.

Anderson, who passed away at 76 yesterday from complications of dementia, became manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 and led them to World Championships in 1975 and 1976. The 1975 World Series, in which the Big Red Machine--including Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, Ken Griffey, Dave Conception and my favorite, centerfielder Cesar Geronimo--defeated the Boston Red Sox in seven games, is the first I remember watching. And given that I just now had to look up that Jim Marshall was the Cubs' manager in '75, I would venture to say that Sparky Anderson was the first major league manager of whom I was consciously aware.

Although I have an aunt who had also gone prematurely gray by 1975, I recall being intrigued by the silver-haired Anderson, who wasn't nearly as old as he looked to my 7-year-old self. But in truth when the Reds won it all in '75, Sparky was younger than I am now.

His Reds would sweep the Yankees--managed by the despicable, even more so in comparison, Billy Martin--in 1976 and are considered one of the most dominant teams in baseball history. After 9 years with the Reds, in which they won 5 division titles, 4 pennants and the 2 championships, Sparky Anderson would go on to manage the Detroit Tigers for 18 seasons. In winning the World Series in 1984, Anderson became the first manager ever to "win it all" with teams in both leagues (only Tony LaRussa has since done so).

All told, Anderson won 2,194 games as a major league manager (the 6th most ever), including obviously some very big ones. In reading a number of stories of his death, several of his players--including Rose and Morgan--are calling him their best manager ever and many commentators are validating the class that I always sensed that Sparky represented. And I would imagine that to some significant degree--especially given how bad the Cubs stunk in the '70s--by leading teams that would play the game of baseball about as well as it could be played, he helped make me a fan for life. Not just of the national pastime, but of George "Sparky" Anderson (February 22, 1934 - November 4, 2010).

If numbers and victories don't tell the full story of Anderson, neither do they for Bock, yet they are damn impressive. In tandem with lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer Jerry Bock--who passed away from heart failure at 81 on Wednesday--created two shows that won the Tony Award for Best Musical (Fiorello and Fiddler on the Roof) and two more that were nominated (She Loves Me! and The Apple Tree).

The original Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof, which began in 1964, lasted 3,242 performances, setting a new record at the time (since broken repeatedly). The initial production won a total of 10 Tonys (including a special award in 1972), while the groundbreaking show was revived 4 times on Broadway, tours constantly, has been produced all around the world at every conceivable level and was turned into a popular 1971 movie.

I believe the show--in which Bock's score brilliantly merges Judaic music relevant to the story with typical Broadway textures--is one of the very greatest musicals ever created. Nearly every song is a classic, including Tradition, Matchmaker, If I Were A Rich Man, Miracle of Miracles, Sunrise Sunset, Do You Love Me? and Far From the Home I Love.

I won't pretend to recall precisely when I first heard the music or saw the movie--I didn't see a stage version until adulthood--but with my father's love of musicals, Fiddler has certainly been a staple nearly all my life.

And Fiorello, which Bock and Harnick created in 1959 about storied New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, is definitely one of the earliest musicals I ever saw, having been taken to a local production (probably at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, IL) in the mid-to-late '70s. Although this is not a show that has ever had a Broadway revival or gets produced much on local stages, I have always held great fondness for it. A version by Chicago's TimeLine Theatre that I saw in 2008 is one of the best local musical productions I have ever seen (and I've seen hundreds). Like Fiddler, Fiorello is full of phenomenal songs, many slyly so, that show Bock's wonderfully deft touch and range.

I also saw a Broadway revival of The Apple Tree in 2007 and enjoyed She Loves Me! some years back at the Circle Theatre (it's currently running at the Writers' Theater in Glencoe, IL).

Sadly, Bock died just 10 days after speaking at the funeral of Joseph Stein, the book writer for Fiddler on the Roof, who passed away at age 98.

Like Anderson, there aren't many people who did what they did any better than Jerry Bock (November 23, 1928 - November 3, 2010). And perhaps more overtly than I ever realized, both men's accomplishments have had tremendous lasting impact on my life.

Sunrise, Sunset indeed.

(If I Were A Rich Man, from Fiddler on the Roof, sung by Zero Mostel)

(Vanilla Ice Cream, from She Loves Me!, sung by Barbara Cook)

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