Book writer Sherman Yellen and lyricist Sheldon Harnick say the timing is spot-on for a new look at their 1970 musical “The Rothschilds,” which has been revised and dubbed “Rothschild & Sons” for its October run with The York Theatre Company, in New York.
The Tony-nominated musical, with a score composed by the late Jerry Bock, recounts the Rothschild family’s journey from shtetl poverty to international financial power in the early 19th century. The story makes clear just how forcefully — and ultimately futilely — they tried to use their wealth to help eradicate anti-Semitism.
Still, in the original version (which starred Hal Linden), the creative team downplayed the anti-Semitism.
“We didn’t want to raise an accusing finger at anyone,” said Yellen, 83 (who boasts musicals, straight plays and two Emmy Award-winning teleplays to his credit). “In 1970 we were more interested in presenting the Rothschild story as an analogy for any persecuted minority.”
Harnick, 91, interrupted, stating that “universality” was the password, and the show still works on that level. His roster of credits includes “Fiorello!” “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” the last of which will be reprised this season on Broadway.
“But it’s also very much about anti-Semitism,” Harnick continued. “In the original there was a line, ‘Jew, do your duty.’ Now, it’s a song. We feel this is a good time to set the record straight.”
The two veteran theater artists, who met with me in Harnick’s graciously appointed Central Park West apartment, were eager to discuss their reconceived production that is tightened, sharpened and redefined to accommodate contemporary tastes — and theater economics — with the show now running 90 minutes (no intermission) and featuring 11 actors in multiple roles. Robert Cuccioli plays Mayer Rothschild, the patriarch whose financial brilliance created the mythical family.
Both artists believe the show will introduce a whole new audience — Jewish as well as gentile — to a bit of lesser-known history, and it couldn’t be more timely, thanks to the rise of anti-Semitism, which can be cloaked in opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.
“As a liberal Jew I depart from Israel’s policies,” Yellen said. “But I still want Israel to survive. You cannot confuse bad policies with Israel itself, all Israelis, or Jews. I often think anti-Semitism is an expression of envy towards a people who were able to rise through their wits and hard work.”
And that brings up the Rothschilds. Arguably, distaste — if not hostility — toward the international bankers has its roots in plain old jealousy. Nonetheless, the production is an unfortunate reminder of super-wealthy, conniving Jewish moneymen, a stereotype if ever there were one.
“Look, they were no worse than any other international bankers, and to say otherwise is blood libel,” Harnick said. “In any case, the play is only talking about their early years.”
“Are we sympathetic towards them? Absolutely,” Yellen asserted. “If you’re writing a musical, you’re going to be sympathetic towards your characters. No, Rothschild is not Tevye. A big difference between ‘Fiddler’ and ‘Rothschild’ is that ‘Fiddler’ celebrates tradition and ‘Rothschild’ is about the fight against tradition: the tradition of anti-Semitism.”
Asked if he had ever encountered anti-Semitism, Yellen described one such episode, an anomalous experience for him and all the more disturbing, occurring in a seemingly diverse and cosmopolitan New York world.
“In the late ’30s, my mother rented a summer cottage for the family in a Long Island town near the Hamptons,” he recalled. “Everything was fine, until somehow word got out that we were Jews. At that point I was disinvited to a birthday party I was planning to attend, and after that nobody spoke to us again.”
Harnick grew up in a Chicago neighborhood with few Jews, and though he was generally left alone, there was one Italian-American youngster who, he said, beat him up routinely, while shouting “‘Christ killer!’”
“He didn’t beat me up too hard. He was just repeating what he heard about Jews and he wanted make a point,” Harnick clarified
While both theater artists knew they were Jews — each had a bar mitzvah — religion was not central in their lives or identities. Yellen’s background was largely secular, and English was spoken at home.
“My mother’s religion was social justice,” Yellen said. “Just to give you an idea, if anyone in the family used the word ‘shvartse,’ she stopped it very quickly. She didn’t want me or my sister to hear that word.”
One expression of the family’s Jewishness was weekly visits to the theater. “Throughout my childhood and teens, every Saturday my father took me, my sister, and my mother to a Broadway play, from 1947 on.” Yellen recalled. “I remember when we saw ‘[A] Streetcar [Named Desire],’ my father had no idea what we had walked into, and he covered my eyes during the rape scene.”
Harnick’s family practiced a kind of Reform Judaism but celebrated Hanukkah and Passover with his Orthodox grandmother. English was his first language, though his parents sometimes spoke to each other in Yiddish. “It was the language of secrets,” he said with a smile. “That’s when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.”
Both men acknowledge that Jewish culture informs their sense of humor, wit, love of language and politics on and off the stage. A social-political conscience is intrinsic to being Jewish, they maintain, insisting that “Rothschild & Sons” exists very much within those parameters. Yellen believes that many traditional Broadway shows — including “My Fair Lady” — though not necessarily political, have a Jewish sensibility.
And what can be more Jewish than “Fiddler,” which took Jewishness onstage to an unprecedented level, though in all fairness Jerry Herman’s “Milk and Honey” pre-dated it, Harnick pointed out.
Still, “Fiddler” was groundbreaking on so many levels. But in its infancy Harnick wasn’t sure where it was going or how much of an audience it would have “until Florence Henderson came back to see us after an early reading and said, ‘ “Fiddler” is the story of my Irish grandmother.’ Then we knew we were on the right track. It meant the show had universal appeal. It still does.” “Fiddler” will open on December 17 at the Broadway Theatre and star Danny Burstein as Tevye.
Today, tourists make up the bulk of the Broadway — if not off-Broadway — audience. So, there’s undoubtedly a market for “Fiddler” among out-of-towners. That’s not to say New Yorkers won’t be lining up for tickets.
Still, a shift has occurred, Yellen said. Those Jews who remain steadfast theatergoers — though it’s less of a tradition than it once was — often reflect musical theater tastes different from those of their parents. This is an era that favors edge, irony and innovation.
Think “Fun Home,” “Spring Awakening” and, most pointedly, the mega-hit “Hamilton,” a show Harnick loves so much he has seen it twice. But he doesn’t think the show’s well-deserved popularity in any way precludes productions like “Fiddler” or “Rothschild & Sons” with their unabashed traditional emotionalism, which for some audiences may in fact be a welcome relief.
“When ‘Hair’ first played at the Public [Theater] in the 1960s, everyone said that was the end of Rodgers and Hammerstein; that was the end of Lerner and Loewe,” Yellen added. “But here we are, almost 50 years later, and Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe are still going strong.”
“Look, if you have a good story, good music and interesting characters you’re going to have an audience and there’s room for everything,” Harnick said.
Simi Horwitz’s awards include the 2013 New York Press Club Award for a BACKSTAGE story on buskers;, the 2014 New York Press Club Award for a FORWARD story on the experiences Jewish feminist theater artists face performing in Muslim lands; a 2014 Simon Rockower Award for the same piece. She was also named a 2014 finalist for The Deadline Club Award for a FORWARD story on the new generation of magicians. This past year she received the 2015 New York Press Club Award for two Forward pieces on the interplay of gender and ethnicity in Jewish drag queens and drag kings; and the 2015 Simon Rockower Award for her Forward piece on Jewish environmental artists.