Park Theatre, London – until 17 February 2018
It’s a good idea to make a play about the origin of the house of Mayer Rothschild confined in the Judengasse quarter of Frankfurt before the Napoleonic Wars, and their bravery and cunning in raising a global financial empire. But a musical? Clearly it’s hard to write an eleven o’clock number when the ghetto closes at nine.
Rothschild and Sons, originally titled The Rothschilds, is the 1970 handiwork of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, joint composers of both She Loves Me (1963) – recently revived at the Menier – and Fiddler on the Roof (1964) – recently packing in the pensioners at Chichester – and suggests they had already thoroughly mined their seam of Mitteleuropean schmaltz six years earlier.
Is marmite kosher? This is certainly a production with differing appeals: people with Jewish heritage may get more out of it because the success of the Rothschilds against severe opposition from Europe’s princelings, warmongers and politicians makes them a justifiable beacon, but for the prepucially intact, this piece has less obvious charm.
Even though the setting is the late 19th century, broadly the era of Hamilton if we’re making comparisons, the music is thoroughly and only rooted in kletzmer as though there were no other ways to underscore the tenderness of Jewish romance and the steel of Jewish determinism.
Much time is wasted showing the sons as cowering apprentices in Mayer’s shop in what feels like a watery version of Half a Sixpence. I wanted to know more what happened to the boys’ differing careers – banking houses in London, Paris, Vienna, Naples – and how did they get into wine? Actually, that’s a fabulous story worthy of a musical in itself. Although the family bought its first vineyard in 1853, Philippe de Rothschild was evacuated to a village near Bordeaux as a child during WW1 where he developed an interest in the vin not-so-ordinaire. He was a playboy, racing driver, bobsled team owner and 1936 Winter Olympics refusenik because of Germany’s treatment of the Jews.
He married a French aristocrat, then an American fashion designer who was a direct descendant of Pocahontas, but his final partner was – Joan Littlewood, founder of Theatre Royal Stratford East. Joan gave up her beloved theatre, moved to France, and wrote his memoirs. Now that’s a story worth telling.
Rothschild and Sons is well-cast, the five ‘boys’ do tremendous work and harmonise beautifully, and as their founding father – oh no, that’s Hamilton again – and as the founder of the family, Robert Cuccioli is a vocally charismatic addition to London’s leading men, even if he’s given so little to stretch him in a score as insipid as this.
There are lots of negotiations in which Mayer or Jacob bargains with Prince Metternich over interest rates.
So it’s three stars. Or, to you, two and a half.