Filichia Features: Rothschild & Sons: A New Classic

Filichia Features: Rothschild & Sons: A New Classic

By Peter Filichia on September 28, 2018

No, it is not a musical about a money-grubbing family that wants to get rich quickly.

If it were, Rothschild & Sons would be an insignificant musical.

After all, who wants to pay money just to see other people make money? Would we really want to watch a family pad its bank account, acquire creature comforts and eat lobster thermidor each night?

No. We can only root for people who want money so that they can change the world and make it a better place.

That's where Mayer Rothschild came in.

Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen first told this story on Broadway in 1970. The Rothschilds, as it was originally called, received nine Tony nominations and lasted 507 performances. That was a long run then, especially for a snake bit production. A co-producer had to be found to raise money in a hurry, and a new leading lady and director were required, too.

Now, without those problems, Rothschild & Sons has become a retitled, rewritten and smaller version of that hit. En route it has retained two of musical theater's greatest components: Big Characters. Big Events.

Mayer Rothschild (1744-1812) endured living in Frankfurt when Jews were required by law to take off their hats and bow low whenever any Gentile approached. Even children had to be so honored - and don't think that they didn't consider this a jolly way to spend their time.

"Jew! Do your duty!" they railed at Mayer, who had to humiliate himself to them.

That was hardly all that haunted Mayer. Only 12 Jewish couples a year were allowed to marry, all the better to forestall reproduction. Jews were forced to live in a ghetto surrounded by a tall wall whose gates were locked every night to "keep them in their place." These oppressed people had no choice but to comply.

No - Mayer saw that he did have a choice, although it was a seemingly impossible one. If he could build a large fortune, he could become a monied player in the world economy. He could loan vast sums to nations that needed it on the condition that they change their laws. That was his motivation, not a mansion or brocaded coats.

Fewer than 50 years later, Gentiles were bowing to the Rothschilds.

What's unexpected is that Gutele, Mayer's wife, so loved her husband that, as she charmingly expressed in song, living in "One Room" would be fine with her. After Mayer's loftier goals saw him and his five offspring making good money, Gutele implored "We have enough!" They did, yes, but the other Jews didn't - and those were the people Mayer wanted to liberate - and would.

This great role gave Hal Linden a Tony. Your strongest leading man will find it challenging and rewarding.

Bock died in 2010, so Yellen and Harnick did the pruning and adding for this new off-Broadway version that debuted in 2015. Rothschild & Sons acknowledges that Mayer isn't the show's only hero. He dies during Act Two, by which time his eldest son Solomon has established himself in Vienna, Amshel in Prussia, Jacob in Prague, Kalman in Hamburg and Nathan in England - all on target to liberating their people.

The "new" songs were actually ones written for the original production but dropped during the out-of-town chaos. Once Yellen and Harnick had unpressured time to stop, think and work, they reinstated them. Most effective is one in which Gutele looks at the map that Mayer had just used to show the young men where they're going. "Just a Map" with so many pretty colors doesn't ameliorate the fact that her beloved sons are leaving home with no immediate return in sight.

Discarded was the romance between Nathan and Hannah, a lass he met in London. Harnick recalls that Bock's son George, all of 12 in 1970, told them they'd erred in bringing her into the tale. "He was right," Harnick has admitted. "The show's true 'romance' wasn't between men and women but the father and his sons."

The score has always included the joyous "Rothschild and Sons" that has now become a marvelous title tune. It wasn't originally chosen because Frederic Morton's The Rothschilds, the musical's impetus, spent 16 weeks of 1962 at Number One on Publishers Weekly's non-fiction best-seller list. Thus, the musical wanted to capitalize on the title that was well-known to every cultured American.

Today Morton's book isn't much remembered, so the musical can now have its logical title: Rothschild & Sons.


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