From little acorns do mighty oaks grow, suggests a famous proverb. And seldom was there a better example of this phenomenon in action beyond the arboreal than in the transformation of Rothschild and Sons, as the title characters of this musical are called, into Rothschild & Co, one of the world's largest independent financial advisory groups that employs 2,800 people in 40 countries across the globe.
Would that the musical, however, was as enticing and interesting as this outcome would suggest. In fact, this show - originally premiered on Broadway in 1970 in a production that won Tony Awards for leading actor Hal Linden and featured actor Keene Curtis, but now based on a revised and reduced version that premiered Off-Broadway two years ago - has turned into a leaden, listless affair. It's handsomely produced and very well sung, but never really comes to life as anything more than a by-numbers (in every sense) portrait of a Jewish family, severely oppressed in a German ghetto, rising out of it by the strength of their wheeler-dealer financial talents, that include striking a deal for their fellow Jews to be released from ghetto life.
In fact it threatens to confirm religious stereotyping as much as portray it. And boy, does it take a long time getting there. Across nearly two unbroken hours, the episodically structured show lumbers on, as patriarch Mayer Rothschild (Broadway import Robert Cuccioli, a Tony nominee for the original production of Jekyll and Hyde) and his five sons plot and scheme their deals with various members of the European aristocracy.
Its score is by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (now 93, and still with us - he was at the London opening), who six years earlier had written Fiddler on the Roof, probably the most famous of all Broadway's musicals set amongst the Jewish community. And there's a famous story of a subsequent Japanese production where its book writer Joseph Stein was asked if the show was understood in America. "Why do you ask?" he enquired, and was told, "Because it's so Japanese."
That universality has, alas, not extended to Rothschild and Sons, a very particular biographical story that shows how a street peddler and huckstering coin dealer would come to rule the financial roosts of the world.
The performances are enjoyable enough, and occasionally a stirring melody breaks through. But it is hard work and scant reward for the time spent waiting for it.