Thursday, October 22, 2015

Rothschild & Sons

Have you noticed that whenever someone announces a "re-imagining" of a musical, the show gets smaller? Why does no show ever get bigger? Why does no one add more instruments? Why doesn't Dames at Sea have a chorus on Broadway?

Jamie LaVerdiere, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper,
David Bryant Johnson, Robert Cuccioli,
Curtis Wiley, Christopher M. Williams
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Of course, I'm being disingenuous here. We all know the answer: money. Shows with smaller casts and orchestras--i.e., less expensive shows--have a better chance of being produced in New York and elsewhere.

Since this is the sad reality, I can hardly blame the creators of The Rothschilds (Sherman Yellen, book, and Sheldon Harnick, lyrics; composer Jerry Bock died in 2010) for taking another stab at the show. The original version had a strong score plus the seemingly can't-fail story of how the Rothschilds became the Rothschilds and used their power to improve the lot of Jews in 18th-century Europe. The show had somewhat successful runs on Broadway (1970) and Off-Broadway (1990).

In his review of the original production, Clive Barnes wrote, "Mr. Yellen's book has to face the difficulty of making a gripping story about bankers who don't even have the grace to go broke once in a while. In part he solves this with a digression about Nathan Rothschild, the London Rothschild, and his wooing and winning of Hannah Cohen. It provides two of the evening's best scenes but also detracts from the steady development of the story." Yellen and Harnick clearly agree, since they jettisoned Hannah Cohen and her story line completely. Also writing about the original production, Walter Kerr said, "Bonds don't dance, dollars don't sing." Again, Yellen and Harnick agree, and, voila!, the song "Bonds" is gone.

The revision, now called Rothschild & Sons, gives us (per the press material), "A one-act reimagining of the nine-time Tony-nominated The Rothschilds (inspired by Frederic Morton's book of the same title). This new version of the musical is the tale of a family fighting for human rights and struggling against extraordinary odds." Does it work? No. And yes.

The first problem is that the cast is painfully small. Eleven people simply cannot establish the proper milieu. A handful of people at a ball fails to show just how rich the rich were. Three men attacking the Rothschilds' home lack the menace of a mob. Also, having the sons played by grown men even when they are children is just plain awkward.

Another problem is that the song "Just a Map," sung by Gutele Rothschild as she tries to accept that her sons are hundreds of miles away, is pretty but listless. It slows down the show without adding anything new.

More importantly, removing the song "Bonds" is, in my opinion anyway, a big mistake. Many people in the audience don't know (or care) about finance, and while "Bonds" didn't totally explain what was going on, it was more effective than the dialogue that replaces it. It also brought us into the second-by-second action and involved us in the family's success. Also, without "Bonds," too much time passes by unmusicalized, killing the momentum.

On the other hand, the core of the show remains solid. The rise of the Rothschilds remains amazing; the score remains excellent. Very few changes--some streamlining, maybe putting "Bonds" back in--could well solve most of the problems.

Unfortunately, the current production at the York Theatre is poorly directed by Jeffrey B. Moss with awkward pacing, a lack of focus, and acceptance of some truly awful overacting. Here's an example of Moss's bad choices: he has Prince Metternich sing directly to the audience, "The world's been set free/for people like you and people like me." Moments later, it becomes painfully clear that Metternich does not consider Jews to be "people like you and people like me." So why did Moss have Metternich break the fourth wall to sing directly to the audience? Who does he think comes to see a show called Rothschild & Sons? Jews!

Some of Moss's casting choices don't work either. Christopher M. Williams reads more like a contemporary tough guy than an 18th-century banker. Curtis Wiley is a light-skinned black man (at least that's how he reads from the audience). He does a pretty good job, and I am a great believer in multi-cultural casting, but it's jarring here, with his four white brothers and white parents. (If he were a little older, he might be interesting as the various princes in place of the uber-hammy Mark Pinter.)

A general fault is a lack of polish; the show simply doesn't flow. Even more importantly, the production lacks warmth.

I am a big fan of The Rothschilds, and I am potentially at least a medium fan of Rothschild & Sons. However, the show faces one obstacle that nothing, unfortunately, can fix. Even though we get a brief happy ending, with the Rothschilds negotiating more freedom for the Jews of Europe, we all know what the next few hundred years bring. Fiddler on the Roof understands that it can't give us a happy ending; The Rothschilds/Rothschilds & Sons tries, but history gets in the way.

(press ticket; 5th row)


Anonymous said...

A review is always taken more seriously if the title is quoted correctly.
1 Rothschild, 5 Sons = Rothschild & Sons.

Wendy Caster said...

Thank you for your helpful, albeit gratuitously snarky, correction.

Anonymous said...

And you for your gratuitously snarky review!

Cameron Kelsall said...

A comment is always taken more seriously when its author appears to have some idea of what he's talking about. Snark: "an attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm."

What, exactly, in Wendy's thorough and thoughtful review is snarky -- gratuitous or otherwise? (Or perhaps a more piquant question: in what capacity are you associated with the production?)