By Peter Filichia
For me, one of the great nights of the 2015-2016 season will take place when I saunter into the tiny York Theatre Company that’s nestled in the bowels of the Citicorp Building.
Sherman Yellen and Sheldon Harnick have reconceived their 1970 musical The Rothschilds and have turned it into a 90-minute musical called Rothschild & Sons. I saw a reading some months ago and adored it. Now I look forward to seeing it acted without the performers holding scripts.
Even with a ream of paper in his hands, Robert Cuccioli was superb as Mayer Rothschild, the 18th century Jewish coin-dealer who would not stand pat for German injustice. Lest we think that Holocaust was the first instance of the country’s horrible oppression of Jews, Yellen showed us otherwise. Jews were confined to a ghetto where they were literally locked in at ten p.m. each night. When any Jew approached any Gentile on a street – even a child – he had to take off his hat and bow low.
Mayer Rothschild was determined to change all that, and how he and his five sons did it makes for an engrossing story. The strong Yellen book is enhanced by Harnick’s lofty lyrics and magnificent Jerry Bock music.
In the reading, Glory Crampton was also outstanding as Mayer’s wife Gutele who didn’t have her husband’s vision but could loyally love her man. Luckily, both she and Cuccioli will return when Jeffrey B. Moss’ production begins performances this week.
Gutele makes clear in her opening number that she’d be happy with Mayer in “One Room.” But a modest residence isn’t in his plans, for he needs a dwelling that’s big enough for the sons he wants to work with him and help his cause. “I could use at least five,” he muses — and five is what he gets.
In “Sons,” Mayer teaches his offspring how to do business. A delightful moment comes when he starts to sing to Nathan and Nathan repeats the same words a beat behind him, starting the convention of a musical round. I won’t give away what happens, but I do believe it’s a unique moment in musical theater that will make you smile.
Actually, in real life, Gutele also gave birth to five girls, but ten kids would mean too big a payroll and would drive a child wrangler crazy. Besides, there’d already been a musical in which parents had dealt with five daughters and Bock and Harnick had already written it. Their Fiddler on the Roof, which had opened in 1964, was still running when The Rothschilds opened; in fact, it continued to run after the newer show finished its 507th and final performance.
Fiddler has enjoyed more than two dozen recordings; The Rothschilds has but one, for the 1990 off-Broadway revival went unwaxed. (Cuccioli, by the way, played a son in it.) And with no new cast album on the horizon, gather ye Rothschilds while ye may. Needless to say, it has a far fuller orchestra than you’ll hear at the York. How well it serves the majestic overture that paves the way for the magnificence that would be, sadly enough, Bock and Harnick’s final collaboration.
You’ll also hear “I’m in Love! I’m in Love!” which you won’t hear at the York; Yellen and Harnick have chosen to stress the Rothschilds’ professional rather than personal life. That doesn’t mean the song isn’t delicious; when reprised, it even has an especially endearing final line.
Most of the other songs were in place when the show left for Detroit, but a few new ones proved necessary. Harnick has often said that he finds writing a new song easier under these circumstances, for after spending a few weeks seeing the performers play the characters, he has a better sense of their strengths. He and Bock certainly came through for the politicians in Fiorello! with “Little Tin Box” and with Tevye’s asking Golde “Do You Love Me?” in Fiddler as well as having Motel realize that Tevye’s endorsing him as a son-in-law was a “Miracle of Miracles.”
So between Detroit and Philadelphia, Bock and Harnick came through with two fine songs for Mayer, one for each act. The first was “He Tossed a Coin” in which Mayer tries to sell his wares on the street to passers-by. He suggests that these coins may well have belonged to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. His fanciful approach makes people smile – and buy.
“In My Own Lifetime” is Meyer’s life summation just before he dies midway through Act Two. Originally, the character had expired at the end of the first act, but audiences’ reaction in Detroit told the collaborators that they wanted to see more of him. They did, and got this stirring ballad as well.
Hal Linden originally played Mayer. When the 1970-1971 season began, Linden was virtually unknown. In fourteen years of trying to get a lead in Broadway musicals, he’d been an understudy and replacement (Bells Are Ringing), an understudy with a small role (in both Illya, Darling and Something More!), a standby for the star (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), a replacement (Wildcat) and an understudy with a featured role (The Education of Hyman Kaplan).
Now he’d have his big chance, although winning a Tony would be out of the question. Everyone knew before the season began that the Best Actor in a Musical prize would just have to go to Danny Kaye.
The beloved comic was making his first return to Broadway since he’d dazzled in Let’s Face It! more than a quarter century years earlier. Now Kaye would play Noah (of Ark fame) in Two by Two. Peter Stone, just off 1776, was penning the book and no less than Richard Rodgers was writing the music. The only liability? Lyricist Martin Charnin, whose four Broadway musicals had averaged eleven performances each, thanks to two that had closed out-of-town.
(But in seven years, Charnin would write the lyrics for and direct a hit that would run longer than anything Stone or even Rodgers had ever written: Annie.)
As it turned out, Kaye didn’t even get nominated. That may surprise those who listen to Two by Two, which reveals him to be charming, dynamic and sincere. Ah, but the disc was recorded early in the show’s run when Kaye still believed in the musical. After he’d broken his leg and was forced to use a wheelchair, he started to ad-lib madly. The Tony nominating committee’s members decided to consider the performance that Kaye was then giving and not the one they had seen early on. No nomination.
At least Kaye was showing up at the Imperial each night; Dean Jones had said goodbye to Company after a few weeks of performances. So the committee ignored Jones, too, but surprised many by giving a nomination to Larry Kert, his successor. It was the first time and still the only time that the Tony committee has opted to put a replacement in competition.
Kert had been a Broadway presence baby since 1950 and had been in eight Broadway shows of varying worth (from West Side Story to Breakfast at Tiffany’s). That alone could get him the prize, but his rescuing Company’s with short notice made him a contender.
But wait! What about Bobby Van? Before the season began, no one would have assumed that No, No, Nanette would have been a Tony factor. Mirabile dictu, the surprise hit was nominated for six Tonys – including one for Van. But unlike Kert, Van wasn’t loyal to Broadway, and only seemed to return when he couldn’t get work in films. (For that matter, so did Danny Kaye.)
Would the Tony go to David Burns? The musical for which he’d been nominated – Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen – had closed months earlier after a mere nineteen performances; no Tony-winning Best Musical Actor had ever won in so short a run.
And although Burns had already won two Tonys (albeit supporting ones) for The Music Man and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, there was a bigger factor at work here, and not just because Burns was a Broadway veteran of sixteen years before he was the original Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1939. No, after Lovely Ladies closed, Burns almost immediately started rehearsals for 70, Girls, 70. But on March 12, 1971 during one of the show’s Philadelphia tryout performances, he died soon after he’d made a second-act exit. The Tonys would be dispensed a mere sixteen days later, and many might feel sentimental about the loss.
“And the winner is,” said Lauren Bacall after opening the envelope, “Hal Linden!” Linden concluded his acceptance speech with “For those of you who have spent all those awful Saturday mornings in the understudy rehearsal, this is for you.”
So Hal Prince, who won one Tony for producing Company and another for directing it, wasn’t the only Hal to be awarded. And Linden wasn’t the only Rothschilds cast member to be Tonyed.
Keene Curtis won as Best Featured Actor in Musical for playing, as he said in his acceptance speech, “four villains” – including Prince William of Hesse and Prince Metternich.
The orchestra had sixteen Rothschilds songs from which they could choose to play as these two winners made their way to the stage. The choice? “Rothschild and Sons,” a tuneful and rollicking song that has the family celebrating its official recognition as a legitimate business. (“There’s another firm in the firmament!”) And now at the York, Rothschild & Sons – without the conjunction and with the ampersand – has become the show’s title song.
It’s such a fetching ditty that you may wonder why the show didn’t originally make it its title tune. Well, back in 1970, people still remembered Frederic Morton’s 1962 Number One Best-Seller The Rothschilds on which the musical was based. Now people don’t as much, freeing one of the memorable songs to be the show’s brand. See you at the York!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.