Filichia Features: Happy 45th to The Rothschilds

Filichia Features: Happy 45th to The Rothschilds

Yes, a new version of The Rothschilds is about to be produced at the York Theatre Company in Manhattan. Its title has been expanded to ROTHSCHILD & SONS while its length has been shortened to 90 minutes.

Bookwriter Sherman Yellen and lyricist Sheldon Harnick are still with us (although composer Jerry Bock died in 2010), so they've been pruning, adding, subtracting and, as they've both proclaimed, enjoying themselves in the process.

Robert Cuccioli, who deserved two Tonys for originating the roles of Jekyll & Hyde, now has the role of Mayer Rothschild (1744-1812). Back in 1971, the then-relatively unknown Hal Linden - the future Barney Miller - did so well by it that he won a Tony Award. Note, too, that his competition included performers far more famous than he: David (Hello, Dolly!) Burns, Larry (West Side Story) Kert and Bobby Van, who'll always be known for hopping hundreds of times out of joy in Small Town Girl when the girl not of his dreams said she wouldn't marry him.

You could, of course, wait to see the new version to decide whether or not you'd care to produce this final show from Bock and Harnick. Still, the original version that was nominated for no fewer than nine 1970-71 Tony Awards, won two -- and will soon celebrate its 45th anniversary on Oct. 19 -- should do nicely.

The show starts with 18th century highborn Germans singing loftily about their world of "Pleasure and Privilege" - which is in marked contrast with the galvanizing first book scene that Yellen brilliantly conceived. After a business trip outside the country -- in which he had plied his trade of selling rare coins -- Mayer Rothschild returned to the Frankfurt ghetto where Jews were not only forced to live without recourse, but also had to observe a curfew. Each night at 10, the gates of the ghetto were locked -- and every Jew had better be home or else he'd be subject to harsh penalties.

As Yellen says, "And the Frankfurt ghetto may have been the worst place in all of Europe. It was dark, dirty and disease-ridden."

Before Mayer could get home that night, however, he was approached by schoolchildren whose idea of a good time wasn't playing hide-and-seek. Instead, these Christian kids sought to humiliate any Jew they'd met. German law stated that when any Jew approached Gentiles on the street, he was forced by law to take off his hat and bow low - and these kids knew that adults weren't the only ones accorded this "honor."

Thus, one boy demanded "Jew, do your duty!"

Because a policeman was nearby, the audience may well have assumed that he'd shoo the kids away and make them leave Mayer alone.

A 1971 Playbill of The Rothschilds, featuring Hal Linden as Mayer Rothschild.


No, the audience was in for a second shock when the cop snarled to Mayer "You heard them."

Mayer kept what he could of his dignity by grandly removing his hat and giving an exaggerated bow that made the gesture a parody. By then, given what the audience had already experienced, it might have assumed that the policeman or even the kids would call him on it and make him repeat the act in sincere fashion.

But none of them did. Were both the adult and the children aware that what they were asking was disgustingly wrong-headed?

Don't bet on it. Any potential shame didn't last long, for as the kids ran off, one of them crowed, "I get the next one!" As for the policeman, he turned out to have a second career as a moneychanger, which allowed him to blithely tell Mayer that any income he'd earned in a foreign country had to be changed into local currency. Needless to say, the cop charged Mayer a fee that was hardly fair.

The audience was soon treated to another outrage when it learned that German law permitted only 12 Jewish couples to marry each year. Twelve! Mayer and Gutele Schnapper (1753-1849) were deeply in love. A wait of many, many years would impact Mayer's wish to have as many sons as he could. His reason was not merely limited to getting free help around his store; he needed sons to carry on his master plan to eliminate the German prejudice against the Jews.

So The Rothschilds isn't just a story about a man who wanted to get rich so that he could join that "world of pleasure and privilege." Mayer Rothschild was far more determined to change the fate of oppressed Jews - and that would take money. We never get the impression that Mayer and his family lived in splendor, but that he earmarked his small-but-steadily increasing fortune to this noble cause.

Is this a hero, or what? If you have an actor in your company who's done well by the equally single-minded John Adams in 1776, he's your Mayer -- a magnificent historical figure who became a great musical theater character.

In a way, Mayer was glad that he couldn't immediately marry Gutele - and not because he'd had commitment issues. "I will not allow you to share my poverty," he told her.

We've all read and seen many a story in which women aren't satisfied with their homes or status, but Gutele was refreshingly different. She didn't need more money, possessions or creature comforts; Mayer was enough for her. She would be happy in "One Room," as her charming opening song went -- as long as he was there with her.

There's that famous expression that "Every great fortune begins with a great crime." Yellen had Mayer commit a much smaller one to jump-start his business. He suggested to his customers that the coins he purveyed once belonged to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. His chutzpah impressed avid coin collector Prince William (Keene Curtis, the other Tony-winner) who gave him dispensation to marry.

Even at an early age, the Rothschild sons showed that they knew how to handle customers. When a housewife came into the store looking for a pair of candlesticks, first-born Amshel offered her two mismatched ones. "But they're not alike," sneered the housewife. They're not a set."

Amshel's response? "You and your husband don't look alike, but you're a pair."

He made the sale.

Hal Linden as Mayer Rothschild and the cast of The Rothschilds (Photo:

Yellen was careful to establish that Gutele wasn't stupid but that she simply failed to possess the keen vision that her husband had. Her take on the Gentiles locking the gates of the Jewish ghetto was "It means they're locked out." Although way down deep she knew she was rationalizing, she opted for that position because she simply didn't have the foresight to envision any possible change.

"In that way," says Harnick, "Gutele was a little like Tevye and the Anatevkans in Fiddler. They couldn't think along the lines of anything being different. They were relatively happy while going through their day, while Meyer Rothschild was not at all content."

Harnick admits that all too often when The Rothschilds comes up, so does Fiddler On The Roof. Both deal with European Jews, specifically with families with five children. In Fiddler, they're girls; in The Rothschilds, they're not.

Each show deals with the dissolution of tradition, but even the most conservative theatergoer will admit that the changes that Tevye's family sees, however dynamic, aren't as profound as the one that Mayer and his sons create. "And yet," Harnick muses, "there is that great shadow of Fiddler."

True enough. When The Rothschilds is produced, the poster probably proudly proclaims "From the songwriting team that gave you Fiddler On The Roof!" On the other hand (to quote Tevye), no one has probably advertised any production of Fiddler with the line "From the songwriting team that gave you The Rothschilds!"

"Some critics said that Jerry and I were guilty of expecting lightning to strike twice," says Harnick. "When the off-Broadway revival happened in 1990, some of those same critics admitted they were wrong to look at it that way."

The revival also pointed out that The Rothschilds can be done modestly. "When Stanley Brechner of the American Jewish Theatre called me in 1990 and asked to do it," says Harnick, "he also asked how small we could make the cast. I went back to the original program and saw that we originally had had 40 performers."

For the record, three of those cast members were headed for household-name status: Robby Benson (who played Young Solomon Rothschild), Chris Sarandon (Jacob Rothschild) and Jill Clayburgh (Hannah Cohen, who married Nathan Rothschild).

"I got the cast down to 18," says Harnick, "but Stanley said that was still too many. So I assumed that was that, but the next thing I knew, I heard that he was doing the show. I called, and found that Lonny Price, who'd be directing, found a way to get it down to 15 - because he decided that the actors playing sons could double in other roles, too. The show had to be extended and even moved to an off-Broadway production at a bigger theater."

The moral of the story? Even when small, The Rothschilds packs a wallop. Let your audiences have the thrill of what Yellen wrote for the final curtain: The Rothschilds are now so rich and powerful that the Gentiles are bowing to them.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at, Tuesday at and Friday His bookThe Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at