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Theatre review: Rothschild & Sons

The UK premiere of a musical about the Rothschild banking dynasty is more about the underlying story of antisemitism than of money

Park Theatre

    Mayer Rothschild teaches his sons (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
    Mayer Rothschild teaches his sons (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

    Looking around the Park Theatre, it seemed as if a contingent of North West London had made a small pilgrimage to Finsbury Park. 

    There might be a joke about a play about the Jewish banking dynasty Rothschild and Sons attended by an almost all-Jewish audience. However, this meant that the audience was amenable to the story about to be told. They were familiar with the concept of 18th century Frankfurt where "Jews and aliens" are coralled inside a ghetto and were happy to be in this world for a few hours of an evening.

    Ostensibly Rothschild & Sons is the story of Mayer Rothschild and his banking dynasty. How he grew his fortune, starting as a poor money lender in Frankfurt's Jewish ghetto, through making friends with princes and insinuating his five sons into the royal business, to being the headline name in what is now known by antisemites as the Jewish banking "conspiracy."

    But really this is the story of what is referred to in the musical as "the Jewish Question". And therefore a story that the audience - or at least those I saw - is familiar with.

    Last staged in America in  1970 Rothschild & Sons is witten by the team behind Fiddler on the Roof, and there are lots of similarities. Meyer befreinds the Prince of Hesse, just like Tevye and the Russian chief of police in Anatevka, but this friendship can't save either character from the ultimate fate of Jews: persecution. Meyer sings that he won't rest until the ghetto doors are open for good "in my lifetime". Unfortunately this is not to be, although as we discover through the play, he longs to be rich, not for money's sake but to pull his family - and his extended family of all Jews - out of confinement and suffering.

    At the end of the play (after Meyer has died and his sons and wife have sat shiva in their shop in the ghetto) the middle son Nathan Rothschild secures a decree from the German Prince Metternich that the laws against Jews will be lifted as a thank you for the Rothchilds' financial help during the war, a sort of almost-apology for the treatment of Jews in Germany. To which the audience let rip a few "woohoos".

    Unfortunately though Rothschild & Sons doesn't have the flair of Fiddler. There were no stand-out songs - no Wonder of Wonders or If I were a Rich Mans -  and the narrative doesn't flow as easily. Maybe it's because there is so much ground to cover in such a short space of time (the play is a single act, just under two hours) and has a historical narrative to follow, rather than the family tale of Tevye and his daughters.

    It is about 20 minutes too long and does not feel like it will leave the Park Theatre and travel to a West End stage. Nonetheless, Rothschild & Sons is an entertaining way to spend an evening, brush up on your history and enjoy this almost-lost musical from writers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

     

     

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