I’m a big fan of the musical The Rothschilds. It’s among the shows I saw on Broadway in the late teen/young adult, formative years that profoundly laid the groundwork for my DNA as a musical dramatist. It’s a lively, energetic, touching and epic condensation of the history of the first two generations of a family of German Jews who emerged from the restricted ghettos of Frankfurt to become one of the most powerful financial dynasties in the world.
Despite all the acclaim attending it, it ran only two years. One can only really speculate as to why, but at a guess (and not one original to me), it just wasn’t the follow up to Fiddler on the Roof —which also had a score by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick—that audiences were prepared for. The universal verities of changing tradition within a community and a culture—in which our main character, Tevye, a poor milkman with five marriageable daughters, who tries to hang on to a familiar way of life, sings “If I Were a Rich Man” as a portrait of his state in life and modest desires—were turned on their ear by a male-centric story of Mayer, a patriarch and his five sons, who sings not merely one song, but several covering variations on how well-to-do he will be and how he’ll use that wealth to change the lot of Jews the world over.
Yet it is in many ways a brilliant show, in which the dialogue (book by Sherman Yellen, based on the history of the Rothschild family by Frederic Morton) scintillates almost as much as the classical-music influenced score.
It’s also a show that has haunted its creators for decades. They never thought it was quite right. One story has it that the songwriters were in a cab along with Bock’s son, who was listening to them moan about how in Act Two, second generation son Nathan’s romance with Hannah Cohen felt shoehorned in for the sake of romance; ands Bock’s son piped in that they had it wrong: the romance was already in place: the love story was between Mayer and his sons. “Out of the mouths of babes,” they thought. Skip over a reduced-cast revival in 1990, that offered the show as originally scripted, and the death of Jerry Bock, and we land in the new millennium, in which Yellen and Harnick re-imagine their show as a version re-written to be done in miniature (and in one, intermissionless 90 minute go), with some songs altered, some cut, some added (uncredited new music by Harnick), and rechristen (rejewvenate?) it with a title that celebnrates the new focus: Rothschild and Sons.
There’s no question that it pleases its audiences at the York Theatre; there’s much to love in the show; but almost all its pleasures reside in what was there before, and very few in the new material. And though it makes for a great theatrical anecdote, Bock’s kid was wrong. Here are the problems:
Rothschild and Sons doesn’t quite feel like a show with its own unique identity, apart from its opulent original version; the cuts and shortcuts through material, the reassigned songs, etc. all show the labor of reductive thinking, the artifacts of trying solve the problem of size without sacrificing scope. The new songs in particular not only tell us nothing we don’t know, but backtrack bewilderingly. Meyer (an excellent Robert Cuccioli, who played son Nathan in the ’90 revival) sings a solo about how he has to expand his goals to free European Jews from oppression. Perhaps the authors meant this as an intermediary transition, but he’s already completed that part of his dramatic arc. In the song “One Room”, initiated by his wife Gutele (Glory Crampton), he articulates his desire to be a self-sufficient businessman; later, in the song “Sons” he extols the virtues of progeny who extend a man’s impact and drive and expand a man’s kingdom, concluding: There are walls to destroy / And I’ve scarcely begun. / But with sons to deploy / There’s a world to be won. So what the hell, exactly, is that extra song following “Sons” doing for a living? There are several such “improvements” throughout the show, and they indicate that the authors were so fixated on their umbrella challenge (the love story between father and sons) that, like Nathan when he’s too headstrong, they stopped listening to what the original show was telling them. (It needs to be acknowledged here too that the new song material is vastly, but vastly of lesser quality than the songs from the original show. The tunes are too bland to make much impact, and the lyrics are so foursquarely “on the nose” they’re not much more than a rhymed laundry list of painfully obvious and already implicit [and as often already explicit] dramatic points.)
Then there’s the omission of Hannah Cohen from the original show. It’s not that you miss the character of Nathan’s ladylove and eventual wife; the new show is coherent enough; what’s missing is, in a dramaturgical sense, the work her presence did. By itself, the role of Gutele is a thankless role, an artifact of the 60s and earlier, a reluctant but submissive wife who fears the consequences of her husband’s ambition, but eventually comes around; any effectiveness she has is wholly dependent upon the charm and vocal prowess of the actress playing her. Fortunately, Glory Crampton has enough of that to do as well as may be done. But no matter how you revise the lines, she’s a plot functionary, not a developed human being.
This changes, though, if Hannah is on board. Because she’s the next generation. Fiercely independent, submissive to no one, an advocate of women’s rights. True, under deep scrutiny, she’s no more a well-rounded human than Gutele—she’s another archetype. But as the foil who can stand up to Nathan, she’s the character who tells the audience that women are progressing in this world too. Upon reading the original script with 20-20 hindsight, Hannah wasn’t a less effective character because she was “shoehorned in for the sake of romance”; she was less effective because she was ultimately unnecessary to Nathan’s progress as a power broker (in fact, Nathan wins her over by faking her out; making her think she’s vital to it when she’s of no consequence to it. A ruse she quickly uncovers, but it makes her fall for him; and on the turn of that krona, they’re engaged. It made for a good quick joke, but kept her from being a real partner). If the authors had fixed that, and it could have been done with a few quick brushstrokes…look under cake, eating and having.
Finally: The show isn’t quite as much fun anymore. In the original, both philosophical and financial arguments were quick and made their points powerfully because they were pithy. Here several of them are attenuated with new dramatic beats that are intended to express more emotion but falter because, how can I say this, they’re expressing emotion. Which is to say the extra beats are not letting those emotions, which are perfectly obvious and need no explication, be implicit in the action. (Once again, I’m not talking about any of the lynchpin numbers of the original score; all of those managed the tightrope balance of conflating philosophical idea with emotional expression. I’m talking about the misapprehension that the show’s original subtext wasn’t sufficient unto the task.) Not only is the new stuff unneeded—it works against the natural vocabulary and velocity of the show, which is defined by narrative economy because it’s a generational saga. Another example: It’s one thing to have the brothers talk about a strategy to take an oppressing nation’s economy to the brink of ruin by forcing down peace bond prices, a conversation which occurs late in the new show; it’s quite another to watch them do it in a number with all the tension of a high stakes auction—a split-stage showdown which took place in the original. Here too, I think the revising, surviving authors fixated on the idea that a song about financial maneuvering was less important than songs about feelings. But when what’s fueling such a number are the very high humanist stakes that Mayer set out to play for at the beginning of the show, that number—“Bonds”—is not a song about finances at all. It’s a song about playing your final hand and risking everything for a noble cause. The excitement is in the subtext (and it isn't even that far below the surface; it's not as if the setup makes us guess). Sigh.
But what’s done is done. And the show isn’t damaged in the new moments so much as softened.
The directing and staging of the new production (on a handsome set designed by York artistic director James Morgan, an under-heralded artisan) has a few minor hiccups of tone (a running gag of Gutele’s increasing dishevelment popping out boy after boy into the enlarging family, for example), but for the most part is delivered with a respectable straightforwardness and a healthy pace—and by an eminently capable, likable cast. As I say, it pleases the audience very much. And reportedly, at some performances, more than that.
But I think it should be able to kill them. All the time. And it’s not like the ingredients aren’t still there to play with further.
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