After Fiddler and The Apple Tree, Harnick and Bock took on a different challenge
Six years after sweeping the Tonys with Fiddler on the Roof, the songwriting duo Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick brought to Broadway a family very different from Tevye’s: the Rothschilds. The lavish show, which premiered at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 1970 with a cast of 40 and a then-extravagant budget of $800,000, follows Mayer Rothschild and his five sons from 1772 to 1818 as they climb from wretched poverty to colossal wealth.
|Hal Linden as Mayer Rothschild|
In contrast with the Tin Pan Alley sound of Fiddler‘s beloved tunes, Bock gave The Rothschilds a stately score (listen to samples here) reminiscent of Haydn in its occasional hints of German and Austrian folksongs. But it’s an ominous clanging—the signal that Frankfurt’s ghetto is closing—that motivates Rothschild and Sons. It rings for the first time at the end of the opening number, set in a lush court ballroom, full of beautiful people dancing the minuet. This is “the world of pleasure and privilege,” sings Prince William of Hesse, “exclusive and elect, wary of outsiders, as you might suspect.” But as the song concludes, that chiming fades in, announcing the gulf between the palace opulence to which the Rothschilds aspire and the Judenstrasse squalor to which they have been relegated.
That minor-key tolling runs throughout the score, a peal of resentment echoing even in songs that celebrate the Rothschilds’ mounting achievements, and a reminder, right up to the end, that anti-Semitism is never far from the surface of the plot. That knowledge, subliminally sounded again and again, is key to the sympathies the show aims to evoke. As Julius Novick wrote in a passionate review of the original production in the Village Voice, “Every time the Rothschilds were insulted, I felt a rush of solidarity with the ultimately triumphant victims.” He added, “I have never felt so clearly that a yarmulke is a badge of honor.”
The power to produce such a giddy sense of identification and justification should have assured The Rothschilds a place alongside Fiddler as an enduring Jewish musical. Indeed, in one of the only pans of the original production, the New Yorker‘s Brendan Gill disparaged it as “one of those precious gems known to the Broadway trade as Hadassah musicals, capable of running for years, with continuously changing casts, on the strength of their warm and homely Jewishness.”
But Gill was wrong. With most reviews mixed to very favorable, The Rothschilds achieved respectable, if not blockbuster, success. It ran a little over a year, and two cast members won Tony Awards: best leading actor in a musical for Hal Linden, who played Mayer, and best supporting actor for Keene Curtis, who played several rulers and functionaries—decidedly not part of the Rothschild clan.
In the decades since, as Fiddler has seen several Broadway revivals, a major film adaptation, and a steady stream of community and high school productions, The Rothschilds has largely been forgotten. Fiddler caught fire in part because it was so in tune with its times—grabbing hold of the ethnic-roots craze and underscoring the tolerance demanded by the civil rights movement. The Rothschilds, on the other hand, was out of sync both socially and formally. The days of the big, integrated-story, happy-ending musical were on the wane by 1970. The plot-busting experiments of the burgeoning downtown theater scene were already trickling up to Broadway—the rock revue Hair had transferred from the Public Theater in 1968—and a new, more psychologically complex and scenically spare musical comedy form was taking shape—Stephen Sondheim’s Company premiered just six months before The Rothschilds.
Bock and Harnick’s musical was based on Frederic Morton’s biography, The Rothschilds. Hugely popular when it was published in 1962, the book’s exuberant tone reflected the post-war excitement of American prosperity, along with a cheery sense of come-uppance for its elaborately and conspicuously consuming Jewish heroes, anti-Semitic stereotypes be damned!
But the national mood had shifted considerably by the time the musical adaptation hit the boards. By 1970, America was not just being forced to face up to the extreme poverty in its ghettos but feminism was exposing the inequities in its families. Bock and Harnick’s uncritical presentation of Mayer’s obsession with having sons (his real-life daughters were not included in the musical), not to mention their giving his long-suffering wife lines such as, “you to clean for and cook for, as mother and wife, is all that I look for in life,” didn’t sit well with audiences soaking up Kate Millett’s bestselling Sexual Politics.
Morton himself wrote a preview essay for the New York Times Arts & Leisure section on the eve of the premiere, contorting contemporary events to draw an analogy between the 18th-century ghetto-dwellers who never gave up their identity and the African Americans asserting themselves in America’s burning cities. (Alluding to the Black Power slogan, Morton’s essay was titled “Jewish is Beautiful.”) The Rothschilds, Morton wrote in the Times—rather missing the structural inequities that urban unrest was unmasking—”served to supplant the era of title and pedigree with the era of money and ability.”
Not even Jews were buying this interpretation. In the same Village Voice review in which he described the show’s irresistible appeal to his Jewish pride, Julius Novick wrote of his “exasperation and contempt” at its depiction of money-making as “not a selfish act, but a noble one.”
Just as important, Jewish audiences had already crowned Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof as their quintessential origin story. The Rothschilds seemed to come from a different planet. Though the duo had collaborated on several musicals—from The Body Beautiful in 1958 to The Apple Tree in 1966 (a revival starring Kristin Chenoweth just opened at the Roundabout)—by the time The Rothschilds premiered, the duo was accused of trying to capitalize on Fiddler‘s record-breaking success by writing another Jewish show. One reviewer described the musical as “Fiddler with money.” In fact, Bock and Harnick had been offered the Frederic Morton material before they embarked on adapting Sholem Aleichem, and had been waiting for a good libretto. (It was eventually supplied by Sherman Yellen.) Besides, structurally and temperamentally The Rothschilds has more in common with their earlier hit, Fiorello!, a charming bio-musical that traces the rise of New York mayor LaGuardia, with the verse of one song in Yiddish, the mamaloshen of the crusading politician’s mother. Yet for all The Rothschilds‘ texture, sumptuousness and cleverness, after embracing Fiddler, Jewish audiences simply could not clasp The Rothschilds so closely to their bosoms.
In the American context, Tevye the Dairyman’s fantasy, “If I were a rich man,” makes for a more comfortable ancestral slogan than the gloating assertion of Mayer Rothschild and his sons, “We’re superior agents of the Court. International finance is our forte.” It’s not just that statistically, American Jews are far more likely to descend from Eastern Europeans than from the assimilated, prosperous families of the West; Fiddler also meshes more easily with American ideals of immigrant ingenuity and bootstrap determination. Upwardly mobile Jews of the 1960s—and beyond—can identify within Fiddler a sense of both ethnic and national belonging, and through it, they can align themselves with history’s underdogs.
The genius of Fiddler was, as the Yiddish literary critic Seth Wolitz has argued, this fusing of Jewish and American values. Changing key aspects of the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based, Fiddler figures Tevye as a Jewish pilgrim who could flee religious persecution in the old country to find fulfillment in the United States. This is a far cry from the “Jews of the kings and kings of the Jews” (as the Rothschilds were known), who amassed their fortune and built their palaces in Europe, never even opening a bank in New York. They never needed to engage the promise of America and they did not leave behind a murdered world for which their grandchildren could be nostalgic.
Worst of all, unlike humble and honest Tevye, the Rothschilds groveled, schemed and even lied; they made their fortunes in large part by financing the Napoleonic wars. Even if they did so for the greater good of their people (a motivation the musical rather exaggerates), and even if the show’s lyrics take pains to cast the family’s greed as no different from that of gentiles—”we want everything, everything, just like other men do,” the sons sing—their conniving and their appetite feel unseemly, even embarrassing. War profiteers make ambivalent ancestral heroes at best, and in 1970, at the height of the movement against the Vietnam war, the Rothschilds must have struck audiences as especially alien to reigning Jewish liberalism.
Perhaps, in this era of the “ownership society,” the show is ripe for a revival. Nonetheless, European nobility will never replace shtetl innocence as a comforting, usable past. The Rothschilds is a good show. That’s never been enough for American Jews to claim themselves in it.
Luba Kadison, once a member of famed Yiddish theater company the Vilna Troupe, reminisces about her past