Encore! and sons

The members of the audience shell out some hard-earned cash and then settle down for an hour or two of good-old clean, insouciant entertainment.

Encore! and sons (photo credit: BRIAN NEGIN)
Encore! and sons
(photo credit: BRIAN NEGIN)
Musicals and musical theatrical productions are fun, right? The members of the audience shell out some hard-earned cash and then settle down for an hour or two of good-old clean, insouciant entertainment. You know the way it goes. A bunch of actor-vocalists sing their socks off at almost any given moment, with the numbers sometimes interspersed by a few minutes of spoken script. Then we all go home with a smile on our faces and a song in our hearts.
Then again, there is the odd music-based play that offers some food for thought, some added-value subtext. West Side Story, with its coexistence narrative, and even Hair and its thematic undercurrents relating to the generation gap, pacifism and freedom of expression come to mind.
Offering their customers something to take in and later chew over certainly suits the ethos of the Encore! Educational Theater Company, which is about to tread the boards once more, this time with Rothschild & Sons. The company will perform the show at the Hirsch Theater, Beit Shmuel, six times between January 7 and January 16.
Encore! has been providing Jerusalemites and people from further afield with quality entertainment for close to 13 years now. Throughout the troupe’s existence, on a shoestring budget it has to be said, Robert Binder has directed the vast majority of the onstage action – and generally served as devoted chief cook and bottle washer – while Paul Salter has overseen the musical side of things, as arranger, conductor and pianist.
Both are fully on board for the forthcoming offering, with the actors’ every step devised by choreographer Batya Feder, and the sets designed by Roxane Goodkin-Levy.
Since its founding, the Encore! gang has kept its nose to a fruitful creative grindstone, putting on an impressive 30 shows, quite a few of which tended toward the lighter side of the entertainment spectrum, with Gilbert & Sullivan an enduring favorite. But, it seems, all concerned felt it was time for something different.
“To some extent we’ve exhausted the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire that’s going to draw an audience and we’re looking into other areas,” Binder explains.
Rothschild & Sons is not just a slick fun show replete with toe-tapping, hip-shaking numbers, although the audiences should enjoy the musical content. Indeed, the scores were composed by a certain Jerry Bock, with Sheldon Harnick providing the lyrics. Bock and now 95-year-old Harnick are generally thought of as the most important composer-lyricist twosome on the musicals scene of the 1960s and early 1970s. Together they contributed to such Broadway hits – many of which also drew large audiences in London’s West End – as She Loves Me, The Apple Tree and Baker Street. But their most famous and enduring, success came with Fiddler on the Roof, which is still being performed 55 years after its initial unveiling on Broadway.
BUT THE current Encore! production is of an entirely other ilk. While Fiddler on the Roof does touch on antisemitic sentiments, Rothschild & Sons gets down and dirty with that, as well as dipping into international politics that significantly affected European Jewry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Binder says that everyone on the Encore! team is keenly aware of all the important topics incorporated in the show’s storyline.
“We have been wanting to do this work for a long time,” he observes, noting nefarious events taking place around the world these days. “It is especially appropriate today, with the world climate on antisemitism and Jewish reactions to it.”
Unfortunately, the above serves to make Rothschild & Sons only too pertinent.
“It is essentially an historical drama, based on facts about how the Rothschild family fought for the rights of Jews in Europe, tearing down ghetto walls, obtaining citizenship and privileges [for Jews] and so on.”
Given the creative souls behind the score and lyrics, and the Jewish core to the two tales, comparison with Fiddler on the Roof is inevitable. Binder says that while there is common ground between the two plays, there are some fundamental discrepancies in there, too.
“Where Fiddler is very nostalgic, exploring themes of Jewish identity, love, home and history against the background of Jewish emigration, Rothschild & Sons is much more hard-hitting about the problems of Jews in the modern world. We see them fighting against oppression, ghettos, restrictions, lack of citizenship and pogroms, and how the Rothschilds cleverly, wisely, used their growing wealth and influence to achieve rights for Jews in Germany, Austria and Prussia.”
Naturally, Salter focuses more on the sonorous elements of the show while being alert to the political undercurrents.
“It’s a good score. Of course the show isn’t known like Fiddler, although there is at least one song which is, actually, very Fiddler-like. People will feel it’s like Fiddler, it’s got the ‘[If I Were] Rich Man’ rhythm. It’s very Jewish,” he adds.
The song in question is “Everything,” which has a chugging, undulating melodic substratum that is, indeed, reminiscent of the Fiddler on the Roof number made famous by, among others, our very own Haim Topol.
The musical director feels the divergence of the musical themes was a premeditated move on Bock and Harnick’s part.
“I think in many ways they were trying to get away, as much as possible, from Fiddler,” he says, adding that, similarities notwithstanding, there are also sizeable contrasts between the two.
“The subject is so different. There is the rise to power of the Jew as opposed to the decline, or exile, of the Jew. I don’t know how well The Rothschilds [the musical’s original title] did on Broadway. It ran for quite a while [550 performances between October 1970 and January 1972] but it didn’t have the success of Fiddler.”
THAT, SALTER points out, is not due to a substandard score.
“That’s not because of the quality of the music. The music is very good. Some of it is even semi-operatic. In certain places the music is more intricate than what you find in Fiddler. In Fiddler everything is immediate and you can’t not like any of the songs. It’s so whistleable, if you like.”
That’s not to say that the Rothschild score is overly challenging for the regular musicals consumer.
“There are certain places where the music is a little bit more intricate than you expect to hear from the composer of Fiddler. That’s all.”
As always, Binder and the rest of the Encore! team have been putting their blood, sweat and, possibly, some tears into ensuring the Beit Shmuel audiences get their money’s worth. They are also keen to do the lesser-known Bock and Harnick creation justice. Harnick, apparently, was alert to the unfavorable comparisons made between Rothschild & Sons and Fiddler on the Roof which, for a while, ran concurrently on Broadway.
“In the original program of Rothschild, Harnick has a long article about why there was another Jewish show,” Binder says. In addition to the competition, in the public’s eyes, between the two productions, The Rothschilds traversed a rocky road, which ultimately led to the breakup of the Bock-Harnick partnership.
Harnick, however, appears to be made of sterner stuff. Already in his 90s, four years ago the lyricist decided to revive the show, renaming it Rothschild & Sons.
"He changed it considerably, and he tried to put more emphasis on the family relationships. He reduced the number of characters and the length of the show,” Binder explains. “I don’t know if it was a totally successful adaptation. We’re going back to the original, to show what the show is really all about.”
As per usual, Binder et al have spared no effort in ensuring the onstage action fits the musical and lyrical bill. Goodkin-Levy has produced a sumptuous set and the 200 costumes for the 30-strong cast to slip in and out of, with Salter presiding over a 13-piece band. As the storyline covers a period of around half a century, the costumes have to reflect the passage of time and fashion fluctuations and, naturally, the characters have to be seen to have aged.
As far as Binder is concerned, the current production and all Encore!’s output are designed not only to deliver the visual and aural goods, they also have to make good on the company’s titular statement of instructive intent.
“We want to educate audiences on topics of Jewish interest and Israeli history,” he declares. “We have also created several original works. Last year we did Keys to the City, about the capture of Jerusalem by Great Britain from the Ottoman Turks. A couple of years ago we did a work called Intrepid, which was based on the NILI spy ring [which provided the British with valuable information about the Ottoman Turks’ activities in pre-state Palestine]. We also want to teach young people about theater, quality theater.”
That should be on offer, in abundance, at Beit Shmuel next week.
For tickets and more information: 054-578-9006 and Encore-etc.com.