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October 2, 2015

The return of THE ROTHSCHILDS — & SONS.

In his marvelous book BROADWAY BABIES SAY GOODNIGHT, Mark Steyn quotes Sheldon Harnick’s opinion that “It is not specifically a love affair that a musical needs – just strong emotion.”

One must wonder if Harnick has come to this conclusion in the last few years. Back in 1970, however, when he, composer Jerry Bock and bookwriter Sherman Yellen wrote THE ROTHSCHILDS, they included two love stories.

First, there was a nice one at show’s start, which led to the marriage of Mayer Rothschild (1744-1812) and Gutele Schnapper (1753-1849). Making it legal was no easy matter, for 18th century German law allowed only a dozen Jewish couples to marry each year. Mayer feared that if he and Gutele had to wait their turn, she might be too old to provide him with the sons he wanted.

Yes, many a father wants a son or two, but as Harnick had Mayer sing, “I could use at least five.” Mayer saw them doing the immense and seemingly unachievable task of repealing German laws that persecuted Jews, who were confined to a ghetto where they were locked in each night by ten p.m. Any time a Jew was walking down the street and encountered a Gentile, he had to take off his hat and bow low – even to Gentile children. Jews weren’t permitted much latitude in business, either, and were cheated through higher taxes.

How Mayer and his sons circumvented all this made for a hell of a story. And yet, the musical theater handbook did seem to demand that romance be part of any show, and with Mayer and Gutele married by Scene Three, the team felt they needed two other characters to fall in love. They chose third-born Nathan Rothschild, who met Hannah Cohen while doing business in England. That allowed him to sing “I’m in Love! I’m in Love!” and for her to reprise it.

Says Harnick, “At the time, Jerry Bock’s son George, who was only around twelve, told us ‘You guys really blew it. The real romance of the show is not between Nathan and Hannah, but between the father and his five sons.’”

Out of the mouths of tweens! Harnick and Yellen have come to believe that George Bock was right. “We’ve cut Hannah from this production,” Yellen says, to which Harnick adds “And the song, too.”

The role of Gutele has been increased, however. Back in 1970, she was to be played by Joan Hackett, who’d later become best known as one of the six murder suspects in Sondheim and Perkins’ THE LAST OF SHEILA.

But Hackett left the show soon after rehearsals began and Leila Martin took over. “I didn’t even remember Joan Hackett was in it,” admits Harnick.

Yellen does. “She may have been dyslexic,” he says. “Joan had to go to a separate room with a coach and learn her lines as they were told to her. That wasn’t all of it, though. Frankly, she wanted to become a star and she knew that this show would not do that for her.”

It did it for Hal Linden, who won a Tony as Best Actor in a Musical. Says Harnick, “The first time I saw Hal was in ANYTHING GOES, which Margie was doing.” (“Margie” means Margery Grey – Mrs. Sheldon Harnick -- who’d played Bonnie to Linden’s Billy in the much-heralded 1962 off-Broadway revival.)

“When Hal walked on stage as Billy, I thought he had a strange eye,” admits Harnick. “Not thirty seconds later, I thought, ‘Take me, I’m yours!’ When we auditioned him for Mayer, he did splendidly, but he had to come back five or six times.”

Frankly, the production was hoping for a Big Name to play Mayer, and Linden’s BARNEY MILLER days were still four years away. Lest Harnick embarrass anyone, he prefers to not mention the stars who did audition and were found wanting compared to what Linden was giving them.

Linden’s appeal eventually unexpectedly impacted the plot. Says Yellen, “I originally had Mayer dominating Act One, dying and having his sons take over Act Two. But the audience told us otherwise and wanted Mayer to live. I fought like hell because I didn’t want to be accused of changing history, and historical correctness meant so much to me – then,” he says with a decisive finger-point. “Now, whatever works is fine with me.”

“Once Mayer was gone,” Harnick says, “the air went out of the show. We knew we had to keep him alive longer. So Jerry and I decided to write a new song that Mayer would sing just before he died in the middle of Act Two.

The result was the magnificent “In My Own Lifetime,” which was later covered by both Theodore Bikel and Sammy Davis, Jr. The irony is that the song raised a red flag to Harnick that his working relationship with Bock was coming to an end.

“Up till then, whenever we wrote a new song,” he says, “we’d always bring it in to let everybody hear it. Jerry would accompany me on the piano as I sang it. The day when I expected we’d do that, people from the show were already coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, we love the new song that Jerry played for us!’ And that’s when I knew our partnership was in serious trouble.”

THE ROTHSCHILDS would be the finale for the songwriting team that had won two Tonys (for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and FIORELLO!), a Pulitzer Prize (FIORELLO!) and had given Broadway one of its most admired musicals: SHE LOVES ME.

But who would have guessed that two years before THE ROTHSCHILDS, a 17-perfomance flop would sow the seeds for the team’s eventual destruction?

HER FIRST ROMAN was the 1968 musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA that wasn’t destined to be another MY FAIR LADY. It met with terrible reviews during its Boston tryout, so by the time it had moved to Philadelphia, director Michael Benthall had left and Derek Goldby succeeded him. Although Goldby’s previous Broadway effort – Joe Orton’s LOOT -- was a quick 1968 flop, he had staged the much-heralded ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD a few months earlier.

Bock and Harnick were called in to buttress Ervin Drake’s terribly out-of-period score. “And I believe it was the beginning of our breakup,” admits Harnick. “After a week, I realized that there were problems with HER FIRST ROMAN that new songs were not going to solve. I thought we were wasting our time. After a week and a half, I decided to go back to New York. Although we didn’t have a verbal argument over it, I know how unhappy and angry Jerry was with me because he felt we were abandoning Derek Goldby, whom he’d come to like very much.”

Two years later, Goldby was hired to direct THE ROTHSCHILDS. Says Harnick, “I remember being in the hotel out of town, getting up at ten after working till four, and looking out my window to see Derek sitting by the pool sunning himself. Why wasn’t he working?! We had a staff meeting where the producers said they thought that Derek had lost control of the show and wanted him fired.”

Yellen says, “I believe that (producer) Hilly (Elkins) had doubts about Goldby from the beginning – which is why he hired Michael Kidd as choreographer. He knew that Michael had directed many musicals” – five, in fact, starting with LI’L ABNER in 1956 – “so that if Derek couldn’t do it, Michael would be there to take over.”

“Michael was one of the most decent men that I have ever known,” says Harnick. “When he was approached to direct, he said that Derek didn’t have to be officially fired and that the company didn’t really have to know what had happened. He would become ‘chairman of the board,’ so to speak, and would work with us in deciding what scenes would have to be rewritten, what new dances would have to be put in and what new songs would have to be written.”

And that worked? Harnick shakes his head no. “Unfortunately,” he says, “it all fell apart three or four days later. Sherman had written a new scene which we were going to rehearse in the lower room of the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. It was such a huge space that it turned out the entire company was there rehearsing, too. The dancers were in one corner, the singers in another, the actors in another still. Hal came in, looked at the scene, and said to Derek, ‘I don’t understand; why do we need this?’ And Derek took what Sherman had written, walked over to Michael, threw the pages in his face and said ‘Ask Michael!’ That was the day he was officially fired.”

Harnick pauses as if he’s through, but then decides to go on: “And I must say that by this time, most of the cast came up to me and said ‘We were wondering how long this was going to take.’ But Jerry felt that we’d done Derek a terrible wrong.”

Despite all this, THE ROTHSCHILDS did crack the 500-performance mark. But it wasn’t a money-maker, and needed a 1990 off-Broadway revival to let people see how good the material was.

And now comes ROTHSCHILD AND SONS. Frankly, the first time I played the original cast album and got to the rollicking song “Rothschilds and Sons,” I believed that this should have been the name of the show; no musical has ever suffered for having a great title tune.

But I knew why it wasn’t. The book on which the musical was based -- Frederic Morton’s biography THE ROTHSCHILDS -- had hit Number One on the non-fiction best-seller list in June, 1962. “Branding” wasn’t yet a term in use, but the concept was enough in place even then, and the musical didn’t mind grabbing onto Morton’s coattails.

Now that Morton’s book is no longer in the public consciousness, the musical can claim its rightful title. Bring on ROTHSCHILD AND SONS.

         — Peter Filichia



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