Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: The Rothschilds
It was sometime in the early 1960s that producer "Hilly" Hilliard Elkins read a play of mine, New Gods for Lovers, and although I had never written for musical theater before, he asked me to try my hand at writing a libretto for a musical based on Fred Morton's bestselling book: The Rothschilds. He had gone to many better-known, established librettists before he came to me and he had found all their treatments wanting. I may have been a novice but I knew and loved musical theater. I grew up in New York and, as a boy, was taken to every operetta and every Rodgers & Hammerstein musical by my musical loving parents; together with my older sister we were that family in the 1930s and '40s who sat around the piano warbling Gilbert and Sullivan songs, as my older sister struggled to pick out the notes from the sheet music.
Hilly had tried to engage Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick to write the score for the proposed musical of The Rothschilds but they had just come off their mega success "Fiddler" and they refused. They didn't care for the treatments he had sent to them and they were reluctant to write another musical with a deeply Jewish theme. Pushing modesty aside—on to the floor where it belongs—they read my script and consented to write the score at once.
The young British director Derek Goldby who had just directed the successful Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was hired to direct the musical. The estimable Michael Kidd was on for the choreography. We worked diligently to create a new score, one with classical overtones that reflected its period, yet containing subtle Jewish harmonies and themes—themes that were relevant not only to the time of the Rothschilds but at that time relevant to the sixties Civil Rights struggle. And we were soon ready to put a show on the road. All except Hilly who could not raise the money--the many hundred thousands which was a mighty sum in the sixties—but he soon found a partner in the producer Lester Osterman, a man whose father had left him a fortune from the manufacturing of Bond Clothes—the clothier whose sign hovered over Broadway, so we got to go forth on the strength of two pairs of pants with every suit sold. And Lester, a jolly fellow and hopeless gambler came along with his wife Margery (born with a gold pencil in her hand she never failed to give notes to one and all). That is the price that was paid for a Broadway production—particularly in those days when Broadway musicals were cooked from scratch—no imports from London—no regional theater triumphs transplanted in NYC: it was write it, cast it, get it moving on the road where one worked to shape it and make it a success.
For all the tensions of putting on a new musical, all the sacrifices I made of seeing my best scenes transformed into better songs, I loved working on this show. And I loved my collaborators. But it was a long and difficult ride to Broadway on a very rutted road. We began rehearsals in 1970 with the little known Hal Linden in the lead and the splendid Paul Hecht as his son Nathan with Jill Clayburgh as Nathan's love interest. Then the offstage drama began. In our Detroit tryout there were obvious problems. The show appeared slow to some reviewers while others praised it for book and score. Derek, although beloved by the cast, was fired and replaced by Michael Kidd because it was felt that the work needed more speed, and who but a famed choreographer could do that—even though the brilliantly directed book scenes were the work of Goldby.
Hilly, to whom I owed my early theater career—my comic Victorian sketch had been featured in Hilly and Ken Tynan's Oh! Calcutta!—was a brilliant fellow, a rebel, and the last of a line of Broadway rogues, a charmer, a demon, and an entrepreneur. On the road the show enjoyed some excellent notices—although my authorial pride was a bit wounded when Variety's out-of-town critic praised the show and predicted its success and failed to mention me, the librettist. And when some of my most imaginative touches, like having a pogrom drive the young Rothschild boys into their cellar, and emerge from it as young adults years later, were attributed to its director although I had written this into the original script, I was taught a lesson in humility. They say there is enough glory to go around—but not for most librettists if the show succeeds they are the forgotten men—and if it fails they are considered the cause of all its failings.
There was one matinee in Detroit when I stepped outside for a smoke during intermission (yes, we did that then) I heard a woman say to her companion "Isn't that Hal Linden something? He is so witty, so smart, so loveable; every line he says makes me love him all the more." I came to terms with the fact that the librettist is only successful if he or she is not noticed for their work. But I was still delighted to be a part of this show—until it was determined that the audience loved the character of Mayer Rothschild so much that his life would be extended through most of the show—and my design of having the show be about the father's rise from poverty in the first act and the second act devoted to the challenges faced by his sons who are betrayed by the very European powers who had promised to lift their restrictions on the Jews in exchange for Rothschild money. That historically correct plan of mine disappeared and Hal Linden became a star—on his way to Barney Miller glory. The Rothschilds enjoyed a good Broadway run and a fine tour, and it was revived a decade later under the director Lonny Price who cut down the size of the cast but produced a vivid recreation of their life and times off-Broadway. It had several other revivals, but it has been best known for two unfortunate events—it came after the beloved "Fiddler' and for all its virtues stood in Tevye's long shadow.
Jerry, a warm and generous man, died several years ago, but Sheldon and I have always believed that one could improve a show over time—that even the passage of forty years could provide an inspiration for a new version of the work—one created without the pressures of a Broadway production hovering over it like the Graf Zeppelin. We were all nominated for Tony Awards for the show, Hal Linden was granted the award for best actor in a musical, but all the other awards seemed to go to Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company. Irony in the seventies had trumped idealism and emotion, but as they said in my childhood "losers weepers." And since I don't really believe in Awards—my several Emmys having done me little good sitting on a high shelf gathering dust—it is absurd to compare the value of one piece of work with another. And I apologize for doing so.
As the librettist of The Rothschilds, now restructured and reimagined as Rothschild & Sons under the direction of Jeffrey Moss, I believe that we made significant changes that provide a poignant yet passionate experience for the audience of today. Many who saw the new version in a recent reading reported on the strong emotional impact that this version had upon them —one that brought them to laughter and to tears—something that only the best musicals can accomplish. While retaining the universally loved theme of the underdog, the unjustly despised man who uses his wits and his courage to rise in a world of prejudice that is stacked against him by powerful forces, the family theme is made clearer in Rothschilds & Sons by the concentration of its focus in a new form with new dialogue and new songs.
The Rothschild story for those few who may not know it is that of an impoverished Jewish family who rise to riches as bankers while fighting anti-Semitism, ultimately risking their hard earned fortune to win freedom for their oppressed people. This story has been strengthened in Rothschild & Sons—and for me it is just as relevant today as it was at the time of the original production. It was written in the late sixties to reflect upon the Civil Rights struggle so that the score resonates with the longing of the oppressed for freedom. And it has the humor that comes from a sensibility that turns defeat into success. There is no holding back in this version. It may take place in the early 19th century but it resonates in 2015. But there is little doubt that The Rothschilds finds its heart in the early rise of the family, because if truth be told, few care about the very rich except the very rich. In its present form the show has an uninterrupted flow that keeps the strong emotions of the beginning throughout, even as their conditions in life change. The difference between Tevye and Mayer Rothschild is that Tevye revels in a tradition that anchors him to life, while Mayer fights against a tradition that he views as oppression.
In our new Rothschild & Sons, an ancillary romance of Nathan's is cut, accommodating a show that is now played straight through without intermission, and no longer does the actor who embodies the power structure against whom Mayer Rothschild and his sons must struggle introduce the scenes. It is the Rothschild mother, the powerful Gutele, whose memories provide the frame for the reimagined musical. Unlike the Gutele in the older version of The Rothschilds who stands by as a witness as the action unfolds, this Gutele participates in many of the major events and musical numbers, and ultimately determines the fate of her family. It is Gutele who provides a strong emotional force to the show in her new solo song "Only A Map" one that we put aside in the original but speaks to all mothers whose sons face grave danger in a war torn world. She is a dynamic character who grows from a simple woman into a force of strength in the course of the show, the moral rock on which this story and the family rests.
The conflict between Mayer Rothschild and his son Nathan is now exemplified in Sheldon Harnick's wonderful new song, "He Never Listens." In Rothschild & Sons Mayer now has a deeper relationship not only with his wife but with his sons, the love and the conflict that speaks to all fathers and sons. There is new dialogue that reinforces his remarkable character, revealing his wisdom, his love, and his will to change the world for the better. Unlike the original Rothschilds Mayer's presence is deeply felt following his death as his sons fight the great powers who have betrayed their father. In doing so—we the audience no longer get lost in the weeds of finance. Where the sons once sang of a war of bonds between them and their enemies—we now reprise "Everything"— a song of great emotional impact that shows the family risking their great fortune to gain the liberation of their people. Mayer's signature song "In My Own Lifetime" becomes the family anthem, as he remains a presence until the end. Thus the leading character of our musical is never truly gone from the stage and from the audience's affections.
I believe that the time is now right for this final musical of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, one that has something to say about the value of family, loyalty, and ideals in the world—something the audience of today would welcome—a musical with melody, wit, and charm and a generous heart. If I betray my inappropriate pride in this new version, no apologies are forthcoming. Let the audience decide. Fortunately, it is my understanding that a new production may take place "In My Own Lifetime." A happy footnote to this production: The actors who played Mayer's sons, Paul Hecht, Allan Gruet, David Garfield, and Chris Sarandon in the original production, have remained close friends over forty years—they created a family both onstage and off—a rarity in theater history.
Sherman Yellen is the author of the recently published memoir, Cousin Bella: The Whore of Minsk, and the soon to be published Spotless—his memoir of his New York boyhood in the 1930s and 1940s. He is also the author of December Fools and Other Plays—a collection of plays with an introduction by Sheldon Harnick.
A note on the text
All of the archival images at the link below are made available through the kind permission of the rights holders [Sherman Yellen, Sheldon Harnick and the estate of Jerry Bock] for research use only. You may not repost or otherwise publish the images below without permission from the rights holders. If you are interested in staging a production of The Rothchilds, please contact Music Theatre International.