"Twinkling high in the fiscal sky is a newly risen star,
There's another firm in the firmament: Rothschild and Sons!"
- Book by Sherman Yellen
- Music by Jerry Bock
- Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
- Directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd
- Orchestrations by Don Walker
- Musical direction and vocal arrangements by Milton Greene
- CD produced by Thomas Z. Shepard
- Opened 10/19/70 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. Closed 1/2/72 (505 or 507 performances).
Gutele (Mama) Rothschild
Prince William of Hesse, Joseph Fouche, Herries, Prince Metternich
This musical was loosely based on the achievements of the Rothschild family as depicted in Frederic Morton's book The Rothschilds.
Frankfurt, Germany, 1772: Jews are restricted in their movements and frequently the victims of violence. At night, they are restricted to the Frankfurt Ghetto. Mayer Rothschild returns from Hanover, where he was an apprentice banker, to make his fortune in his home town. Because there can only be 12 Jewish marriages in a given year, he is forced to come up with a plan in order to marry his fiance Gutele. He reopens his shop, carrying goods and rare coins. At the Frankfurt Fair, he entices Prince William of Hesse with fanciful tales about rare coins, then bribes the prince in order to marry Gutele. Later, Mayer becomes agent for the court bankers, but he wants more. Gutele helps out by bearing him five sons by 1778; they enter his business as soon as they're old enough. As they age, they and their father chafe at the many restrictions and indignities heaped upon Jews. In 1804, their success and their chutzpah take them to Denmark as superior court agents to the Danish king when Hesse must loan money to him to help fight a war. However, Hesse is overthrown by Napoleon, and his Minister of Police, Joseph Fouche, takes over. When Mayer and his sons return to Germany, they find no court for which they can be agents. So Mayer sends his sons off to collect Hesse's debts before the French can get them; Nathan is sent to England to invest the money.
Initially a bit awkward in England, Nathan soon displays considerable investing moxie and makes a pile. He falls in love with Hannah Cohen, an aristocratic English "Jewish Joan of Arc" devoted to charitable works. She isn't interested because he seems to lack ideals, but he eventually wins her over by pledging to loan money to England to help win their war against Napoleon--if the Chancellor of the Exchequer Herries pledges to make Germany and Austria lift their restrictions on Jews. In Germany, Prince Metternich promises roughly the same thing if the Rothschilds make the loan. However, in 1818, Metternich reneges on his bargain, and old Mayer dies, broken-hearted. His sons scheme to force Metternich to come to terms by continually undercutting his price for peace bonds, though the plan brings them to the brink of bankruptcy. Metternich not only concedes but is forced to guarantee that all state bonds will be handled by the House of Rothschild. The ghetto walls are torn down, and Mayer's dream is realized.
- Pleasure and Privilege
- One Room
- He Tossed a Coin
- Rothschild and Sons
- Rothschild and Sons (reprise)
- Finale to Act I: Sons (reprise)
- Act II Opening (Part 1): Give England Strength
- Act II Opening (Part 2): This Amazing London Town
- Act II Opening (Part 3): They Say
- I'm in Love! I'm in Love!
- I'm in Love! I'm in Love! (reprise)
- In My Own Lifetime
- Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress?/Stability
- Finale: The Will
Entries in red were winners.
- Best Musical
- Best Score
- Best Lyrics
- Best Book
- Best Actor (Hal Linden)
- Best Supporting Actor (Keene Curtis)
- Best Direction of a Musical
- Best Scenic Design
I confess to a certain fondness for this musical that goes beyond its intrinsic qualities; can you guess why? Anyway, I'd known for some time that there was a musical about the Rothschilds, but it was obscure and hard to get. Never mind that it was the last work by Bock and Harnick; like many 1970s musicals, it had a long run (though it lost a ton of money), won a couple of Tonys, and promptly fell out of the public consciousness. With too long a run to qualify as a beloved flop, some thematic similarities to Fiddler on the Roof, a book that lost the audience's interest after Mayer died, and a subject that had by 1970 been done to death, The Rothschilds would see few productions. A small-scale production in 1990 (directed by Lonny Price, yay!) got better reviews than the original, and Ken Mandelbaum (who wrote the booklet) expressed hope that this "intelligent and well-crafted" musical, which is "far stronger ... than it had been considered in 1970," would receive further productions. But it's still obscure.
Which is an enormous shame. Whatever the book problems, the music alone deserves a revival, a concert version if nothing else. Bock and Harnick were probably the best team to come out of Broadway in the late 1950s and 1960s, yet most people only know their work from Fiddler on the Roof. That's a crime. I've now heard most of their work, and while Fiddler is arguably their strongest work, The Rothschilds is a more-than-credible score that has only a few hints of the Jewishness of Fiddler. Many of the songs sound classically inspired; Harnick was aiming for a score that "reflected the music of the show's period," according to Mandelbaum. "Pleasure and Privilege" indeed sounds like a period minuet, though it segues into the droning cry of the "ghetto closing" refrain. There is also a lot of counterpoint singing, which gives the show a distinctive air. The lyrics are easily up to Harnick's standard--he's probably less celebrated for his lyrics than he should be.
Besides "Pleasure and Privilege," other highlights include the long "Sons," which chronicles the birth of Mayer's five boys and how he got the first four started in business--it includes a counterpoint with all four young boys singing different shop-related refrains at once; the stirring "Everything," the most Jewish of the songs on the CD and very Sondheimesque in its jumping around, when the adult sons angrily sing about their ambitions; "Rothschild and Sons," a cry of triumph from Mayer and his five adult sons; "They Say," when the English whisper about the mysterious Nathan Rothschild and his financial successes; "I'm in Love," a giddy tune which one wishes was sung by someone else, since Paul Hecht is not much of a singer here; and "Bonds," as the sons and Metternich continually undercut one another to sell peace bonds. Yes, the energy level does drop off in the second act as the focus moves away from Mayer, but I've seen much worse sagging (The Unsinkable Molly Brown comes to mind).
One of the things that may work against the revival of this musical is the lack of female characters; there are only two, only one truly important to the plot (Gutele). In fact, the character of Hannah Cohen was added mostly because of the convention that a musical needed a romance, and Harnick would later admit that they should have just stuck with Mayer and the sons. On the other hand, the nearly female-free 1776 was successfully revived, and I admit to a certain fondness for all-male choruses.
The Rothschilds benefits from several strong performances:
- Hal Linden spent more than a decade kicking around as a replacement, a featured player, or an understudy before winning this part. The bastards didn't even give him star billing; his credit on the CD appears below everyone else as "Also starring HAL LINDEN as 'Mayer'." Huh? Of course, this was before Barney Miller, but still--geez! Anyway, he would later get star billing when the show moved to San Francisco. His performance as Mayer is nothing short of astonishing. (See Great Performances: Male.) Linden is currently appearing on Broadway in the play The Gathering--follow this link to learn about the play and a bit more about his musical experience.
- Paul Hecht is in inferior voice on The Rothschilds--he's frequently almost tuneless, though he's energetic and forceful and was probably a lot of fun to watch on stage. When he sprechtsings or sings in the sons' chorus, he's a lot better than when he tries to actually sing. He sings somewhat better in 1776, though that song ("Cool Cool Considerate Men") was easier than anything he had to sing here, and more spoken than sung anyway.
- Leila Martin gets one of the great thankless female roles here; Gutele spends most of her song-time complaining that Mayer and his sons are too ambitious, or that the family is breaking up. As a result, her songs are nice but conceptually annoying.
- In his many roles, Keene Curtis successfully portrays different European leaders from England, Austria, Prussia, and France and their different attitudes. He won a well-deserved Tony for this versatility. His best song is probably Prince Metternich's "Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress," a paean to conservative stability.
- Jill Clayburgh would go on to movie stardom from here. She is appealing in her one number, her half of "I'm in Love! I'm in Love!" and considerably better than Hecht.
- The other actors playing the older sons don't really stand out, since adult Nathan is the only son who gets a solo (well, half a solo). But their voices blend well in their chorus numbers.
- The kids are cute and realistic-sounding in their one song ("Sons"), especially the young Robby Benson, whose voice cracks on the high notes, and Michael Maitland, whose headstrong Nathan sounds like he'll grow up into Hecht's Nathan. I'm impressed with their counterpoint singing, which is hard enough for adults, let alone kinds.
Another Sony Broadway booklet: Ken Mandelbaum's interesting essay on the musical's background and plot synopsis in English, German, French, and Italian; a list of musical numbers and their singers; a cast list; and two black-and-white pictures which partially make up for their paucity with their quality: Hal Linden in full hair and beard, recording a song, and an unforgettable one of Mayer and his five black-hatted, black-coated sons singing "Rothschild and Sons." (Sorry, the phrase "Jumping Jews of Jerusalem" comes to mind.) All of the other Sony booklets I've seen have contained five or six pictures; what happened here?
A thoroughly enjoyable musical by one of the most important teams in Broadway history, The Rothschilds is a semi-forgotten classic that deserves to be much better known, especially for Hal Linden's exceptional performance. Essential for Bock and Harnick fans and for anyone who loves Hal Linden. Paul Hecht fans will certainly enjoy this musical, though it doesn't show him to best advantage.
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