Park Theatre, London – until 17 February 2018
The first recitative line in this one-act musical, as the little band sounds curfew, is chilling: a Town Crier from the 1760s: “Jews and aliens of Frankfurt. Return to your homes. The Ghetto is closed.”
The shopkeeper Mayer Rothschild, yellow star on his sleeve, is baited by local oafs – “Jew, do your duty!” and made to bow. Officialdom cheats him of 12 krone.
Returning to his affianced wife Gutele, he speaks ambition and dreams of sons who will “extend a man’s reach!” once the repressive laws controlling Jews allow them to marry. He resolves to build wealth, brushing off the Biblical camel-and-needle’s-eye rule with “when you’re rich enough, you find tiny camels and enormous needles”.
It is one of the very few jokes in the show. Our hero, played by Robert Cuccioli with vigorous charm turning gradually to patriarchal authority, strikes banking deals with incompetent courtiers in the kingdom of Hesse.
Five sons are born, trained up and spread across European capitals to found the immense House of Rothschild. They are fawned on by desperate and prodigal governments in the Napoleonic Wars. Their unbreakable family network of information and prediction makes them unbeatable.
The one-act, two-hour musical is – with Sherman Yellen’s book – by Bock and Harnick: who of course wrote Fiddler On the Roof, so gloriously played lately at Chichester with Omid Djalili.
Some have expressed disappointment that Rothschild is no Tevye: rather than lovable, traditional and downtrodden, this time the hero is the diaspora Jew as winner. His sons take after him: black-suited, relentless, careful, riding the hard fact that their success and cleverness make them suspect and despised in their chosen nations. Leaflets on the “international Jewish conspiracy” are already circulating. But there’s a lovely, lightly choreographed, sequence when Gary Trainor as Nathan – the family hothead – is being watched by envious London Stock Market top-hats, trying to guess if the angle of his cigar or a gesture of his sleeve means ‘buy’ or “sell’ some commodity.
It is Nathan who first suggests that an offer to fund the Grand Alliance against Napoleon could persuade Britain to put pressure on the arrogant Metternich to abolish the ghetto laws across the Austrian Empire. It is a risk to everything they own ; after some conflict they all agree it, twice over, putting serious fiscal pressure on the brocaded , duplicitous Christian leader.
It may seem an odd moment for a paean to investment-banking and the way that giant fundholders can wield political influence. With nice irony, a few hours after I saw it I watched DRY POWDER (below) about another kind of banking altogether. On the other hand, with Hamilton in town, what better moment to portray pompous royals in brocade and periwigs being outwitted by clever, energetic nobodies from the wrong side of the tracks? And in an time of Holocaust memory and an uneasy sense of reanimated antisemitism, it does no harm to be reminded, from the age of Waterloo, of the troubled, talented, vigorous history of the Jewish diaspora in Europe.
And though the first third of the show is unaccountably slow, and some of the dealings with the Hesse court unengaging, when the father-son conflicts begin it gets peppery and satisfying. The songs improve too; especially “In my own LIfetime” and “Everything”. Cuccioli is tremendous, but so are Gary Trainor as Nathan and the other sons. Glory Crampton, though she is often just background, is moving and melodious when her moments do come. Like Cuccioli she is a personality who can fill far bigger stages than this . It isn’t one of the great musicals, but I left it feeling moved, and thoughtful, and a bit more educated about the diaspora’s journey.