The Rothschilds has a small but significant place in musical-theater history. Earning nine 1971 Tony nominations, it is perhaps best remembered as the show that ended the legendary partnership of songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. After squabbling over Michael Kidd replacing Derek Goldby as their Rothschilds director, the team that gave the world Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me would never write a full show together again.
Perhaps that's one reason why The Rothschilds has seen only one other New York production, an off-Broadway revival at the American Jewish Theater in 1990. Nevertheless, the show has remained a curiosity for its surviving writers. In cooperation with Bock's estate, Harnick, now 91, and Yellen, 83, have created a radically recalibrated version of the work titled Rothschild & Sons. With a restructured book, several previously unheard Bock and Harnick trunk songs, and only 11 cast members, this almost-new musical is currently seeing its world premiere at the York Theatre Company. Unfortunately, their new concoction, directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, is a puzzlement to say the least.
Like its predecessor, Rothschild & Sons follows the rise of the Rothschild banking family from their home in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, Germany, to the heights of European prominence. The hero is Mayer Rothschild (Robert Cuccioli), a lowly Jewish citizen who, despite the constant anti-Semitic taunts of "do your duty," manages to entice the interest of Prince William of Hesse (Mark Pinter) with stories and promises of rare coins. He bribes the Prince to allow him to marry his fiancée, Gutele (Glory Crampton), so they can circumvent Frankfurt's marriage quotas. As Mayer's friendship with the Prince grows — to the point that he becomes the agent for the court's bankers — he and Gutele have five sons, who follow him into the family business. But Mayer's main objective is to see the ghetto walls torn down before he dies.
Mayer's journey is a moving one, and in Cuccioli's expert hands, it's laden with real emotion. His performance, along with his impassioned delivery of the show's eleven-o'clock number, "In My Own Lifetime," is one of the few highlights of this otherwise misguided production, with a staging that baffles at every turn.
The problems start with Yellen's book, which has been compressed, from two acts to one, with a new focus on Mayer's relationship with his sons. The dialogue is filled with anachronisms, and the storytelling is as dry and deadly serious as can be. As for Bock and Harnick's score, played by a four-member band, it lacks the musical zest we expect from this pair. You'd never know that these were the authors of rousing, memorable numbers like "To Life" and tender, beautiful ballads such as "Will He Like Me?"
Moss' staging too feels limp and listless, while the cast (with the exception of Cuccioli) seems unaware that they are a part of an ensemble. Thankfully, the costumes, by Carrie Robbins, are big and pretty in that flagrantly over-the-top late 17th-century style, and Kirk Bookman's lighting creates some haunting images onstage. On the other hand, James Morgan's dark and black set is too funereal for the proceedings.
Perhaps most damaging is the fact that, in both writing and staging, Rothschild & Sons doesn't feel authentically Jewish. Sure, the male characters wear yarmulkes and the music sounds like it was written in a minor key. But in the end, it doesn't capture the essence of the people whose struggle to rise above their hellish existence catapulted them to a fortune that still exists today.