Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock had the knack of writing shows that have a long, wonderful international life, the two strongest being “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler on the Roof”. However, their second Broadway show with a Jewish back-ground, “The Rothschilds” that played Broadway in 1970, has only just managed to get to London some 47 years later in a somewhat changed version with a new title.
Listen below to an interview by Rob Morrison with Sheldon Harnick
The story of the Rothschilds, the German Jewish banking family, had been written about in Frederick Morton’s successful biography. It followed Mayer Rothschild’s building of an international financial empire with his five sons. It was a tale that producer Hillard (Hilly) Elkins saw as the basis of a stage musical. He obtained the rights and had British playwright Wolf Mankowitz to write a draft book for the show. Elkins took that to Bock and Harnick in 1963 but they were not impressed and chose to continue working on a show called Tevya which was to become Fiddler on the Roof.
Hilly Elkins, who was married to Claire Bloom at the time, went on to produce two other shows, “Golden Boy” starring Sammy Davis Jr and “Oh! Calcutta!” before returning to The Rothschilds. During this period he had approached screen and theatre writer Sherman Yellen to write the libretto and again took this to Bock and Harnick now living high on the success of Fiddler and having just seen their “The Apple Tree” open. They had also helped on “Baker Street” and had a few songs in the fateful “Her First Roman”. Elkin’s new libretto was now considered to be ‘workable’ and they agreed – a decision which would eventually end their partnership.
It was a bumpy ride from then on. Elkins was unable to capitalise the show (thought to be between $750,000 and a million) and so joined forces with Lester Osterman who brought in more than his partner and so earned the unusual billing of ‘Lester Osterman presents the Hillard Elkins production of’.
The original director was Derek Goldby with Grover Dale being considered as choreographer. Dale was passed over in preference to Eliot Feld who was from the world of ballet. Goldby was British as were the set and costume designer John Bury and lighting man Richard Pilbrow (Elkins was an anglophile and even spoke, at times, with an English accent).
After casting and rehearsals in New York the company set out for Detroit where every aspect of the show appeared to have problems. The original libretto had a theme of auctions going through it that was not clear to audiences. Elkin blamed much of the problems on the director and Derek Goldby was sacked to be replaced by Michael Kidd (he would later also take over the role of choreographer). They then moved to Philadelphia while the book and score were still being worked on, indeed much of the score was rewritten.
“The Rothschilds” finally opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 19 October 1970. It received nine Tony Award nominations but won just two – both to actors. It would run for 505 performances and San Francisco hosted it soon after. There was a successful revival at the American Jewish Theatre in 1990 where it ran for 435 performances.
It was revised for the York Theatre in New York under the title of “Rothschild & Sons” and it is this production that now makes its London debut at the Park Theatre.
As mentioned “The Rothchilds” caused the split of Bock and Harnick and Jerry Bock died in 2010. However, both Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen are still active and together re-visited the piece changing the book to concentrate more on the father and his five sons and reducing the opulent staging. The new more intimate production continues to play at the Park theatre until 17 February.
RSB Illustrations from the Overtures Archive