Apple Tree Theatre

I didn’t know much about the Rothschild family before I saw this show. As everyone does, I knew that they were rich and Jewish. I had an inkling they were idealistic, since they were instrumental in the establishment of a Jewish state–and indeed had bought a large South American tract with the intention of making it the Jewish homeland.

After seeing the musical The Rothschilds at the Apple Tree Theatre, I was horrified by my ignorance. This truly extraordinary family went in one generation from Frankfurt ghetto merchants to international financiers and noblemen–it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Far more than a simple rags-to-riches tale, it’s a story of unwavering idealism and incredible chutzpah, the real-life triumph of societal outcasts over oppression and the most powerful governments in existence.

That said, it must be acknowledged that the musical The Rothschilds is strangely undramatic. But it makes up for that with heart and intelligence.

The story of the Rothschilds would be astounding no matter what the family’s ethnic heritage. But their rise occurred at a time of intense anti-Semitism–the late 18th and early 19th centuries–and their pride in their roots makes it a story worth listening to. Though the tale has several heroes, its center is the family’s formidable patriarch, Mayer Rothschild, who rose from rags to riches through his sons but refused to leave the ghetto himself until all his family were free to do so.

Music and lyrics for The Rothschilds were written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (of Fiddler on the Roof fame), with a book by Sherman Yellen. Based on Frederic Morton’s biography of the same name, it was Harnick and Bock’s last collaboration. (They didn’t want to do another play with a Jewish theme, and also they were having personal disagreements.) Although the original production in 1970 enjoyed a decent run and Hal Linden received a Tony Award for his performance as Mayer Rothschild, the show was not a success with critics and received little attention from regional companies after it closed. Last year, however, it was revived in a scaled-down version by the American Jewish Theatre in New York, and was an enormous success.

Its recent popularity may be due to the paring down. Though the story of the Rothschild family is epic in proportion–the children scattered all over Europe during the Napoleonic Wars to build their banking empire–The Rothschilds uses simple story-telling techniques. Almost a musical docudrama, it moves through the years at breakneck speed, seemingly equally divided between scenes and a kind of ambulatory narration. This emphasis on events rather than characters makes for a fascinatingly intellectual evening of theater.

This charming piece has several flaws, however. The ensemble numbers that set up changes in locale and changes in the cultural climate are quite wonderful–particularly strong is the chilling “Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress?” in which the roots of Nazism can be seen. But most of the character-revealing numbers are uninspired. One notable exception is the haunting “In My Own Lifetime,” which reveals Mayer Rothschild’s tremendous desire to see his dreams reach fruition before he dies.

It’s possible to consider the inherent misogyny and Jewish stereotyping another flaw. But to me this flaw is minor, because those faults are part of the show’s truth. The Rothschilds lived in a time when misogyny was simply the way of the world; and the show explains many of the reasons behind the Jewish stereotypes. For instance, because Jews weren’t allowed to hold land outside the ghetto, or indeed walk outside the ghetto after curfew, to make a living they often had no recourse but to become middlemen of some sort–merchants and bankers were the most common. Some of the negative stereotypes, such as the international Jewish banking conspiracy theory, come directly from the Rothschilds’ history itself.

Though it’s extremely uneven, Apple Tree’s production of The Rothschilds is delightful overall. David Studwell is sensational as Mayer Rothschild, capturing the movement from youth to age with subtle precision. Studwell also beautifully conveys his character’s profound idealism and equal pragmatism, and layers it with an energy and exuberance that show us a Mayer with many complexities. None of the rest of the cast can measure up to Studwell, but all do fine work, both singing and acting.

Director and choreographer Peter Amster keeps the show moving with intricate stage patterns and theatrical devices, though unfortunately the cast isn’t precise enough to execute all of Amster’s choreography and set changes and the results are sometimes annoying. Alan Donahue’s malleable set provides plenty of different spatial configurations for the many locations; and Caryn Weglarz’s costumes are in general interesting and appropriate. She makes up for what appear to be SS trench coats for the five Rothschild boys with a wonderful expression of German interest in racial purity in “Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress?”: a pure white nightmare of frills and lace and pale masks.