Jews and musicals go together like fish and chips, tea and cake, bread and butter. The list of Jewish musical theatre composers is pretty comprehensive: the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown to name a few. Cole Porter, one of the handful of non-Jews amongst the writers of golden age musicals, realised that he would need a change of approach after some initial Broadway disappointments: from now on, he told his dinner companions, “I’ll write Jewish tunes”.
But Jewish writers preferred to remain behind the scenes rather than put Jewish characters on the stage. As Andrea Most demonstrates in her book Theatrical Liberalism, Jewish writers preferred to examine their identity issues through shows that dealt with notions of ‘performance’ in everyday life (particularly through ‘backstage musicals’), rather than write explicitly Jewish narratives and characters.
That all changed in the 1960s. Most famously, due to the blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof (1964), but also in more obscure examples such as Harold Rome’s South African comedy The Zulu and the Zayde (1965) and Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey, set on a communal farm in Israel’s Negev desert (1961) . These were cultural products of what has become known as the white ethnic revival, the 1960s movement in which European immigrant groups who had previously been desperate to assimilate into a generic ‘whiteness’ began to rediscover, and emphasise their own particular identities. For American Jews, this movement led to the ‘do it yourself’ Judaism of the Chavurah (grassroots services) movement and the Jewish Catalogue (a popular A-Z of Jewish practices), a newfound interest in the Klezmer music that had been seen as passé in the post-war years, and a burgeoning sense of Jewish pride, which exploded after Israel’s rapid victory in the 1967 war.
The Rothschilds/Rothschild and sons, is a product of this era and this milieu. Opening in 1970, and written by the Bock and Harnick team who gained such success in adapting Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Milkman into Fiddler on the Roof, the Rothschilds ran on Broadway for a respectable (but not outstanding) five hundred and five performances. While it took little effort to gain audience sympathy for the residents of Anatevka, constantly persecuted and ultimately expelled by the Czar, telling the story of how a major international banking dynasty gained its name is a little more challenging. The show gives us the back story — how Meyer Rothschild is trapped in the ghetto of Frankfurt, and works to order to liberate himself and his family. As such it’s an explicitly political musical — and a pretty hard hitting one. This is all the more so in the recent revival, based on a 2015 off-Broadway production, which condenses the show into a single 2 hour act, and dismissing with such trivialities as Nathan Rothschild love affair with Hannah Cohen (who is described as an ‘English Jewish Joan of Arc’ — sounds like she deserves her own show) and keeps the family’s attempt to emancipate themselves centre stage. Mayer cannot only do so much on his own, therefore he hopes for sons (‘Sons extend a man’s vision / sons extend a man’s reach’), of which his wife Gutel gives birth to 5. In real life the couple also gave birth to five daughters — had the musical included them it might have been less of a kosher sausage fest. As it stands Gutel is the one female character, and she gets little to do beyond supporting and fretting over Mayer’s increasingly chutzpedik schemes.
The show is politically hard hitting in how it shows the Rothschilds overcoming their oppression. They do so not by classic musical theatre techniques of showing your enemies your humanity, or, better still, convincing them of it through a blistering song-and-dance routine. No, Meyer and his sons gain their freedom (and the freedom of all the Jews of Frankfurt) through the raw and unapologetic use of power. Initially Meyer builds up a business by befriending Prince William of Hesse, and in time, Rothschild and sons are appointed the Prince’s representatives as he lends money to the King of Denmark. When Hesse is overthrown by Napoleon, the Rothschilds decide try to collect the court’s debts, and the sons are sent to various countries to do this — the Rothschild international banking business is born. (That fact that Napoleon was actually the great emancipator of European Jews is entirely glossed over). Years later, having built up the business extensively, Nathan Rothschild, living it up in London (portrayed as a safe haven, clearly a stand in for America) facilitates a loan to the British government to help them win their war with France, on the condition Prince Metternich, of the Austrian empire, liberates the Jewish ghettos. After the war, Metternich reneges on his pledge — at which point Meyer dies having failed in his dream of seeing freedom (‘This Moses wants to see the promised land / In my own lifetime’). The Rothschilds, at great financial risk to themselves, take the fight to the prince by undercutting his Peace bonds with bargain basement bonds of their own (keep up at the back). The Prince, facing financial ruin, gives into the Rothschilds’ demands — the liberation of all the ghettos and the sole right to issue state bonds in the future. The family is victorious and Western Europe’s Jews are liberated.
Politically, there’s a lot going on here. ‘The Rothschilds’ are high on the list of every conspiracy theory fantasist who wants to tell you WHO IS REALLY RUNNING THE WORLD. Though the idea is antisemitic nonsense, this show doesn’t do much to dent the conspiracy theory, there’s even a disturbing moment at the end where a conspiracy leaflet is produced and the sons laugh it off, seeing it as useful if it makes people fear them. The Rothschilds – and implicitly Jews – learn that the only way to overcome their oppression is through strength, because hatred will be a constant through history. I want to suggest that all of this is a dramatisation of Jewish nationalism — expressed in its purest form in the theories of Meir Kahane. Founder of the Jewish Defence League, Kahane was a Jewish terrorist and founder of the extreme racist organisation, Kach, that was banned by the Israeli government in 1988. For Kahane, what mattered most was Jewish survival in what he saw as an unremittingly hostile world. Kahane focussed not on Jewish piety or spirituality, but on Jewish pride, to be found in unity and strength, and in ethnic continuity. As scholar Shaul Magid puts it: “Kahane’s worldview is gnostic; the world is an endless battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Evil needs to be eradicated; it can never be redeemed”. This entails a particular view of antisemitism, primordialist rather than constructivist. ‘They’ will always hate ‘us’—so there is no point appealing to their sense of morality, the only answer is to be strong so they cannot kill us. Every enemy is another Hitler – we have to kill them before they kill us.
This philosophy was relatively new when the Rothschilds opened in 1970. As such, the show would have seemed fresh and contemporary — and appealed to the new philosophy of Jewish national pride which was taking the diaspora by storm. But now, when the dualist view of them and us, the essentialisation of hatred and the validation of strength have become the central outlook of mainstream Jewish life, particularly in Israel, the Rothschilds feels more like propaganda for ethno-nationalism. As such, I think we should take its message with a significant pinch of salt. Antisemitism is not a single dark force surging through history – Prince Mitternich is not a predecessor of Hitler and the Palestinians are not the descendants of either. Sometimes we need strength but sometimes we need kindness, humility and justice. Meyer Rothschild plaintively sings: In my own lifetime / I want to see our efforts blessed / In my own lifetime / I want to see the walls come down and then I’ll rest. It’s a noble sentiment, but not one to be interpreted in a narrow fashion. Let’s dedicate all our efforts to bringing down the walls — all of them. For everyone.