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The show – which follows the 18th-century travails of the European banking family – suggests walls between husband and wife, walls between generations, and looming most large, walls surrounding the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, where Mayer Rothschild aspires to wealth and inspires his five sons to chase international success.
But the focus on family was not as sharp as it could have been in the show's large-cast, original run, nor was it clarified by a popular small-cast version that surfaced Off Broadway in 1990. So says Jeffrey B. Moss, director of the new production. In fact, he argues that dramaturgical walls — covering up what was most powerful about the musical — may be the reason the show by the songwriters of Fiddler on the Roof isn't better known today.
"It was a sprawling Broadway musical about history," says Moss, who saw the original production when he was 15 years old. "I remember it being about the father and the sons — and a lot of other things. The late-60s/early-70s musicals had their own conventions. This was a big show, with a cast of at least forty. It was very 'historical.' At one point, the French army came into a scene, singing."
There was also a love story written for Mayer's son, Nathan, which seemed to pull attention from the family setup. "When the story began to revolve around Nathan and Hannah in England in Act Two, the show took a turn away from what I thought the story was," recalls Moss, whose recent preparation has included poring over many old drafts and lots of trunk material.
With the permission and participation of librettist Sherman Yellen in the 1990s, Moss incorporated minor scene changes into a well-received Florida revival of the original script and score, using fifteen actors.
18 years later, with an editor's eye and an architect's passion for preserving the most beautiful parts of the walls, he began working on this "revisal" with Yellen, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and the estate of the late composer Jerry Bock.
Moss started from brick one and asked, as most directors do, "Why am I telling this story? Who is telling this story?"
His conclusion was rooted in something that both Yellen and Harnick had recognized and talked about earlier: "You have a love story between Nathan and Hannah, but the show is really a love story between the father and his sons. That's what it wants to be."
The clues were already in the score. In one of the more muscular numbers, "Rothschild and Sons," Mayer (originally Hal Linden, now Robert Cuccioli) and his boys swaggeringly celebrate their industry. "I began to eliminate anything in the show that was not about Mayer and his relationship with his sons," the director says.
To keep the audience aware of the family's connection to its environment, the five actors playing the sons are now doubled (and even tripled) as members of the wider community, including enemies of the Rothschilds. (The cast features 11 actors total.)
Another element buried in the original show was the presence of matriarch Gutele, who fears for her brood as they seek to spread their business beyond the ghetto. Moss and Yellen have now put her at the forefront in a new framing device that features her facing off with an anti-Semitic prince.
"Gutele now tells us this story," says Moss. "It puts the story in perspective. It's called Rothschild & Sons, but they were her sons, too."
At the York, Glory Crampton's Gutele even gets a "new" song: She sings "Just a Map," a delicate number about her character's far-flung children, which was cut from the Broadway score.
For the record, Harnick penned three new songs for this version and revised some existing lyrics. Meanwhile, several Bock & Harnick numbers were cut altogether. Fans of the original cast album might most miss a ravishing song called "Bonds," but possibly won't mind the absence of "Allons," sung by Napoleon's conquering French army. (A new cast album will preserve this version, which uses four musicians and has new orchestrations by Joseph Church.)
Did Moss detect resistance from the authors at first? "A little," he admits. "But they always knew the other show still exists as The Rothschilds; it's not banished from the face of the earth. I think there was a need for us to prove to them that this would work. Once they saw there was something there, they were well on board with us."
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Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: The cast of Rothschild & Sons.