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.
It’s a strange thing, nationalism. While most nationalisms have elements in common (take out the words and national anthems sound pretty much the same) watching propaganda for another country is rather disconcerting. You get all the sound and fury, speeches and parades, but, lacking any connection, you don’t really care about it. I’m sure that if I was American I’d find the stories of the war of independence, the actions of the founding fathers and the creation of the US constitution deeply meaningful and I would consider the importance of these stories to be self evident. Hamilton the musical proceeds on this basis. Its eponymous hero is important because he is a founding father with a low historical profile, best known for appearing on the ten dollar bill. This doesn’t seem enough — lots of people are written out of history. What did he stand for? Why do we need to remember him now? The opening number makes a lot of his humble background: ‘How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’. This classic musical theatre trope, that anyone can make it if they work hard enough can rise to the top is an American version of the Protestant work ethic, and the large body of evidence against it does nothing to dent its popularity. ‘If you keep your goal in sight / You can climb to any height / Everybody’s got the right to their dreams’ as Sondheim’s Assassins sing. As they prepare to kill the president.
But surely Hamilton wants to do something specific? Presumably this will be clarified in the obligatory ‘I want’ song, traditionally placed second in the running order? Not really. All we really learn here is that Alexander Hamilton is ‘just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot’. Good to know. Of course, like the other founding fathers he believes in gaining freedom from the British monarchy. Who can disagree? I wish we Britons could do the same. If the whole show was about this (rather than just the first half) it would be a straight up anti-imperial yarn, but there wouldn’t be much of a specific role for Hamilton per se. His specific moment turns up in act two – Hamilton, as the first Treasury Secretary, takes the decision to take on state’s debt and create a strong centralised financial system. So perhaps this show is not really about immigrants rising to the top and actually a celebration of capitalism? Should the I want number not have been — ‘I dream of creating a federal central bank so we can continue to borrow at favourable interest rates’? Gordon Brown would certainly approve. When Jefferson calls for the US to aid post revolutionary France as it fights the British (‘now is the time to stand/Stand with our brothers / as they fight against tyranny’) Hamilton retorts: ‘If we try to fight in every revolution in the world / We never stop. Where do we draw the line?’ Are we really supposed to be on Hamilton’s side here? Jefferson’s vision of helping revolutionaries around the world seems a lot more inspiring than prudent financial management.
Of course the show isn’t really about the eighteenth-century. Hamilton premiered in 2015 and is steeped in the politics of the Obama administration. Like Obama, Hamilton is fundamentally liberal — focussing on individual advancement whilst being relaxed about structural inequality. The show’s most celebrated move is to have the founding fathers portrayed by actors of colour, and the use of hip-hop is integral to that. (Strangely this approach doesn’t extend to casting across gender — the female performers are all limited to falling in love with Hamilton, rather than getting to fight the British or set up a new government). The racial inversion is fundamentally a liberal approach, rather than a radical one. It’s designed to make everyone feel good about the (white) national story by reading people of colour into it without changing it’s fundamentals. Much like Obama’s presidency. Actors of colour in Hamilton never play actual characters of colour, because most of them would have been slaves, and Hamilton totally avoids the issue of slavery. Why sadden the tone? It’s not as if the subjugation of millions of people is a major part of the American story. Earlier drafts of the show included a third rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson, in which the latter defends slavery as ‘the price we paid / for the southern states to participate / in our little escapade’. Hamilton condemns slavery but Madison forces him to concede that ‘if we support emancipation / every single slave owner will demand compensation’. Miranda ended up cutting the number saying:
While, yeah, Hamilton was anti-slavery and never owned slaves, between choosing his financial plan and going all in on opposition to slavery, he chose his financial plan. So it was tough to justify keeping that rap battle in the show, because none of them did enough.
Miranda’s honesty is admirable but it leaves a moral vacuum at the heart of the musical. If no-one of the protagonists did enough to end slavery, then maybe put that in the show, portray them as flawed politicians rather than heroes. Or tell the story from someone else’s perspective — an abolitionist campaigner and/or a slave. But then, would that have brought in white liberal audiences in such huge numbers?
But who am I, living in Britain, to criticise the glorious American independence narrative? A British equivalent is hard to imagine, as British monarchs don’t really strive for anything, they just, er, inherit it. We’d have to go back to the days of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century and the I want song would become ‘I want to show everyone that my lineage gives me a better claim to the crown than that ludicrous pretender in Lancaster’ . We can’t do anti-imperial tales because, embarrassingly, we were the empire. Cecil Rhodes maxim of ‘the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race’ is unlikely to lead to a West End hit. Perhaps we could instead produce Owain! — a celebration of Owain Glynwyr’s Welsh revolt against the evil English.
Hamilton’s ongoing success is partly down to (mis)fortune; the election of Trump in November has cast the Obama administration, and anything associated with it, in a Kennedy-esque glow. For your ticket price you not only get a great show but also 3 hours of pretending the 2016 election result never happened. It’s a lot like the Clinton campaign — say lots of nice things about fairness and responsible government without dealing with the underlying structures of discrimination and inequality. Which is perhaps why Hamilton is so beloved by Blairites and other centrists that are baffled by why their oh so sensible politics aren’t popular like they used to be. The words of the closing song ‘He took our country from bankruptcy to prosperity / I hate to admit it, but he doesn’t get enough credit for all the credit he gave us’ are the elegiac cry of every third-wayer — why aren’t they more grateful? Hamilton could do with being a bit less Blairite and a little more like the socialist from Vermont. With a few Lin Manuel Miranda songs behind him, Bernie definitely would have won.