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Theatre in Review: Rothschild & Sons (York Theatre Company)

Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Over the years, The 1970 Broadway musical The Rothschilds has been probed, poked, edited, amended, pulled apart, and put back together. A not-quite-hit in its time, it was tried in a smaller, Off Broadway production and subsequently subjected to a thorough revision -- which, we are told, has taken seven years. It has now arrived in a more compact version that its two living authors are apparently satisfied with. I'm glad they're happy, but I suspect that the 45-year saga of The Rothschilds as a musical theatre property is, for the most part, illustrative of the law that states that problematic musicals are rarely fixed, merely made problematic in a different way.

The Rothschilds, which depicts the rise of the European Jewish banking family, originally ran 507 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, but failed to earn a profit, possibly because of its costly production values. It made a star of Hal Linden, who played Mayer Rothschild, the family's founder, and it did good things for an ingénue named Jill Clayburgh. (Others in the cast included Paul Hecht, Robby Benson, and Chris Sarandon.) It also ended the partnership of the composer, Jerry Bock, and lyrics Sheldon Harnick, apparently over the decision to fire the original director, Derek Goldby, and replace him with the director/choreographer Michael Kidd. This can only be considered a calamity: Still young men, they had already given us Fiorello!, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Apple Tree. It is painful to contemplate what they might have done had they stayed together.

The rap sheet on The Rothschilds has always included the crimes of overproduction and lack of focus. If the former may have contributed to its inability to make money, the latter has always been considered more fundamental. The first act follows Mayer as he marries the simple Gutele, fosters five sons, and goes into business in Frankfurt, Germany. Even so, the family's success is poisoned by the fact that, as Jews, they are subject to prejudice and a highly circumscribed existence: They are made to wear yellow armbands, must publicly bow to Christians, and, each night, are locked in the ghetto where they are forced to live. Just before intermission, however, Mayer, through a combination of charm and guile, has gotten his five sons appointed as superior court agents to Prince William of Hesse, charged with working out the details of a loan to King Christian of Denmark. The sons are dispersed throughout Europe, and the firm Rothschild and Sons begins its epic rise.

In Act II of The Rothschilds, Mayer takes a back seat to his son, Nathan, who, after a stumbling start, becomes the talk of London thanks to his financial acumen; he also falls in love with Hannah, a "Jewish Joan of Arc," who only returns his feelings when he displays some social responsibility. What Hannah responds to is Nathan's plan to finance the British in their war against Napoleon, with a guarantee that the Middle European Jewish ghettos will finally be eliminated. When Napoleon is defeated and the Austrian politician Prince Metternich not only reneges on the ghetto deal but plans to issue a set of competing war bonds that will potentially bankrupt Rothschild and Sons, Nathan engineers a plan to sell short, driving down the price of Metternich's bonds and threatening Europe with financial calamity if his original terms aren't met.

If this sounds like the least musical-friendly material ever, I hasten to add that librettist Sherman Yellen found many appropriate places for songs and Bock and Harnick responded with their usual panache. Among the score's delights is "He Tossed a Coin," in which Mayer, having gone into the rare-coin business, first attracts the attention of Prince William of Hesse. "Everything," in which the sons reveal their ambitions to Gutele, is as powerful a statement of intent as you will find in musicals of the period. The triumphant "Rothschild and Sons," celebrating the founding of the family firm, is infectious in its joy. And Mayer's climactic ballad, "In My Own Lifetime," is one of the finest songs Bock and Harnick ever wrote. Also, the show's spine -- Mayer's, and, later, Nathan's determination to free his people from the ghetto -- is a potent one.

In trying to solve the problems of The Rothschilds, Rothschild and Sons eliminates a fair amount of material and reworks much of the second act to keep the focus on Mayer's relationship with his boys. The opening scene-setter, "Pleasure and Privilege," sung by the German elite, has been repurposed for Budurus, a German ally of Mayer's. Another big number, "Stability," celebrating the end of the war with Napoleon, has been detached from its companion, "Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress," and been made into a solo for Metternich. The biggest change is the elimination of the Nathan-Hannah romance -- she isn't in the show at all -- as well as the loss of the penultimate number, "Bonds," in which Nathan's underselling scheme is put in place.

The idea of streamlining and further focusing the action of The Rothschilds may have been a good one in theory, but it never comes to terms with the fact that Yellen's libretto is a vast, sprawling thing that ranges over several decades and sweeps us from humble storefronts to palaces and the London Stock Exchange. Whatever was wrong with the Broadway original, it worked to give the audience a strong sense of place, and it had numbers that drew a sharp contrast between the gilded world of the Christian aristocracy and the abject lives of the Jews in the ghetto. It also had Don Walker's majestic orchestrations.

The slimmer, more concise production at the York shows the authors still wrestling with their unwieldly story. The first act is almost comical in its breathless delivery of exposition. In one number, "Sons," poor Gutele delivers all five boys, one per chorus. She looks pretty frazzled by the end of it, and I don't blame her. Because, in order to keep the cast small, nobody wanted child performers, the adult actors who play the sons are also forced to impersonate them as children, with extremely awkward results. Also, at least in this version, Mayer strikes it rich so quickly that you can barely figure out how he did it. Harnick has gone on record saying that the Nathan - Hannah plot was a mistake, that he, Bock, and Yellen bowed to the notion that there had to be a pair of young lovers -- but without it, the show loses a much-needed touch of warmth and humanity; as it is, the dialogue is usually so top-heavy with exposition -- with everyone dashing in to report on various wars, political maneuvers, and financial schemes -- that none of the characters ever manages to acquire a third dimension. The loss of the number "Bonds" seems especially strange here: It neatly shows Nathan's short-selling plan in action; at the York, it is announced, but essentially happens offstage.

Jeffrey B. Moss' direction does little to add any nuance to the performances, and, truth to tell, there is a fair of amount of indicating taking place on stage, especially in the smaller roles. Robert Cuccioli, who played Nathan in the Off Broadway revival, is a plausibly driven Mayer, and he ages convincingly into a grey-bearded patriarch, giving a touching reading of "In My Own Lifetime." The role of Gutele has apparently been expanded for this production, but it still isn't much and Glory Crampton is mostly given to standing around looking worried. Christopher M. Williams captures Nathan's need to challenge his father. As a trio of oppressive aristocrats, Mark Pinter hams it up excessively, sending thoroughly unnecessary I'm-a-villain signals to the audience.

The production design is given a big lift by Carrie Robbins' excellent costumes, providing even the smallest role with plumed hats, satin double-breasted gowns, and velvet waistcoats. She is especially canny at charting the changes in the Rothschilds' fortunes, and there is an especially telling moment when all five sons appear, now men of means, with each dressed in the style of his corner of Europe. James Morgan's Spartan unit set is efficient, if a little drab, its many panels occasionally opening up to give glimpses of more moneyed ways of life. Kirk Bookman's lighting achieves some nice chiaroscuro effects.

This is a big Bock and Harnick year, what with Broadway revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me in the offing, and I can understand how Harnick and Yellen (Bock is no longer with us) would want to find a viable version of The Rothschilds for future productions. But I would respectfully submit that, if, after seven years, this is the result, then it may be time to move on. The best way of enjoying this material still involves listening to the original cast album, where the score's many beauties are presented in all their glory. -- David Barbour


(19 October 2015)

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