When revivals materialize, the question is often whether everything old can be made new again. Two musicals struck up the band this week by taking different approaches to this question, with varying degrees of success.
The story on The Rothschilds — though never confirmed, to my knowledge, by either lyricist Sheldon Harnick or composer Jerry Bock — is that during the run-up to the 1970 opening on Broadway, the songwriting team clashed over how director Derek Goldby was handling the material. Harnick was anti-, Bock pro- (and Michael Kidd replaced Goldby), causing the rift that left them never collaborating happily ever after.
If so, it’s tempting to regard Rothschild & Sons, running through Nov. 8 at Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company, as Harnick’s revenge. Uncontested by Bock (who died in 2010), the re-titled “revisal” looks to represent what Harnick — himself 91, and having reorganized the tuner for several years with book writer Sherman Yellen and director Jeffrey B. Moss — would have liked The Rothschilds to be back then.
Full confession: I don’t remember the opus scene for scene or song for song from 45 years ago. My lasting impression, though, is that it was a stodgy companion to Bock and Harnick’s legendary Fiddler on the Roof. Here, wealthy banker Mayer Rothschild deals with five sons whom he’s raised to do as they’re told, in contrast to the poor, ghetto-confined Tevye grappling with five daughters determined to go their own way.
I also recall thinking that the score wasn’t on the level of Fiddler or even Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me (both due for Broadway revivals this season), although I was moved by Meyer’s second-act threnody, “In My Own Lifetime.” (My interpretation of the songwriters’ split is they decided they’d peaked and might be better off pursuing other writing partners. Evidently the separation wasn’t that amicable.)
Confronted with Harnick’s various alterations (including turning the tuner into an intermissionless 90 minutes), I can report that there’s something extremely effective about its major thrust — which may have been there originally and slipped my mind. Now (as then?), the fervid purpose of Mayer Rothschild (highly effective Robert Cuccioli) is to use his wits and determination as well as those of his sons (David Bryant Johnson, Jamie LaVerdiere, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Curtis Wiley, Christopher M. Williams — all deft and singing forcibly) to improve the plight of European Jews.
Before the fade-out arrives for the score and Yellen’s potchkied-with book, the Rothschilds have used their bankers’ ways to manipulate blatant anti-Semites like Prince Metternich (Mark Pinter). But their progress on behalf of European Jews was, of course, partial. With the still-outstanding “In My Own Lifetime” ringing out as the finale — sung by the whole family, including Mayer’s long-enduring wife Gutele (Glory Crampton) — Rothschild & Sons vehemently implies that those invisible ghetto walls did not crumble fully. It’s a viewpoint that can’t easily be dismissed.
It is a message so strongly delivered that it makes what Harnick, Yellen and Moss have done worth doing. More than that, it eminently makes valuable their continuing to look at what they have and refining it further.
Rothschild & Sons works best when Mayer’s boys fan out across the continent, and particularly as Nathan (the intense Williams) accumulates successes in London. The earlier scenes in which Mayer courts Gutele and waits and watches as his offspring grow, by contrast, are halting and clumsy. The first third of Rothschild & Sons, though crowded with musical numbers, impresses as a prolonged wait for the substantial drama to come.
Harnick has sorted through the original score, adding to and subtracting from it. I’ll let others to do the fine-tooth-combing on that, but this seems a more trimmed presentation. All entries new and old are well played, including Joseph Church’s arrangements and the orchestra featuring Jeffrey Klitz, Michele Irion Fox, Sean Katsuyama and Matt Lepek.
Aside from “In My Own Lifetime,” the ditties “I Tossed a Coin” and “Rothschild and Sons” remain solid, and there’s a newly-minted (restored?) ironic ditty about the joys of repression called “Stability” that’s good enough to expand. Missing are the songs about Nathan’s London love affair, apparently now deemed superfluous.
As usual, York Theatre Artistic Director James Morgan has designed the show tidily on a small budget, while Carrie Robbins’ sumptuous costumes look as if acquired on a limitless Rothschild expense account.
For the musical Dames at Sea — now at Broadway’s small Helen Hayes Theatre after bowing 49 years ago on the postage-stamp-sized stage of the Caffé Cino in the Village — the changes are of an entirely different sort. While the show reaps moderate applause, it doesn’t have a great deal in common with the original.
In 1966, the camp-entertainment trend was just starting, and Dames at Sea was one of the first and possibly finest examples. Back then, audiences knew that 1930s movies were being sent up — for their silly plots, for Busby Berkeley’s extravagant production numbers, for Ginger Rogers’s wisecracking and skill at pig Latin, for Dick Powell’s inch-deep crooning, for Ruby Keeler’s earnest, heavy-footed tapping.
Today, such familiarity may not be so widespread. How many audience members will hear the lyric “Tell Mrs. Roosevelt this is my day” and recognize it as a reference to “My Day,” the First Lady’s newspaper column?
So, rather than rely on a George Haimsohn-Robin Miller-Jim Wise script that derives much of its charm from sending up big-screen foolishness on a teensy-tiny stage, the producers forget about charm, which is in short supply everywhere nowadays, and push the fragile limits of Dames at Sea on a comparatively bigger stage.
Granted, the Helen Hayes stage isn’t large by Broadway standards, but it’s still too large to recreate the bona fide Dames at Sea. All the same, it’s a pleasure to report that Randy Skinner is the ideal choreographer for this show. Of course, he’s the fellow who also staged the dances for the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street (speaking of Keeler, Powell, etc.), so to some degree he’s repeating himself but in a scaled-down mode and with a plot that echoes the ailing-leading-lady-replaced-by-neophyte twist. (Skinner even repeats the famous opening image from 42nd Street of lower legs tapping without the whole body being viewed.)
No one who knows Skinner’s work will be surprised to see him unleash inventive tap routines as supplements to a score that is ceaselessly smart about pastiche-ing famous period songs. (“That Mister Man of Mine” is a spoof of “Remember My Forgotten Man”; “Singapore Sue’ is a spoof of “Shanghai Lil,” for example.)
Eventually, though, with only six cast members to choreograph, even Skinner runs low on invention. Or it seems that way by the time he reaches the “Star Tar” finale where, instead of six characters representing hundreds in a minuscule space, six hyper-energetic dancers don’t quite fill the space in which they madly cavort.
Indeed, if Skinner is the ideal choreographer for this material, he may not be the perfect director. Whether he’s chosen to have his dancing-singing-acting cast members overdo their impersonations or is under duress, he hasn’t replicated the ‘30s styles for laughs. The mugging on display was never the point.
This isn’t to say that Eloise Kropp as Ruby, Cary Tedder as Dick, Mara Davi as Joan, Danny Gardner as Lucky and John Bolton as both stage manager Hennesey and the ship captain don’t earn the heavy mittage they should receive. But Lesli Margherita, as self-involved Broadway star Mona Kent, is working far too hard for her responses. She may get to wear the most glamorous of David C. Woolard’s evocative costumes on Anna Louizos’s evocative sets, but at the moment what she really needs is a muscle relaxer.