The audience at a recent performance of Broadway's Finian's Rainbow
revival was old: the heads around me were almost all bald or gray. The musical is a relic, its revival a throwback to the post-war optimism under which it was conceived—and which now seems quaint, if not dangerously misguided.
Broadway hasn't touched Finian's
in more than 40 years, presumably out of a fear that audiences wouldn't buy a silly, weird and stupid musical laden with crass Irishisms and sleeve-worn liberalism. The general consensus that had formed around the show, before this latest, well-received incarnation, was that it's ridiculous—or, less politely, idiotic: Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy's book revolves around an elderly Irish gent (Jim Norton) who has stolen a leprechaun's gold with the aim to plant it near Fort Knox in order to grow more gold. In the process, a fat and racist Dixiecratic senator is turned black through Irish-American magic. And a mute girl communicates through interpretive dance. ("She don't do talk-talk," one character explains. "She does foot talk." Oh.)
To overcome the absurdity, even by the standards of the American musical, the strategy of the current production (from a concert version staged by City Center Encores! earlier this year) is to leave the hokum intact and hope that the music, with lyrics by Harburg, music by Burton Lane, can carry the show. (In contrast, consider the film adaptation
by a pre-Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola, in which the young director-for-hire seems so confused, if not disgusted, by what he has to work with that he fights the material every step of the way with jump cuts and other razzamatazz that feel totally out of place in a Warner Bros. musical, producing an insufferable blend of old-fashioned cornpone and New Hollywood style.) To an extent, it works; Finian's
boasts a solid stead of songs. The show produced a number of standards—"How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," "Look to the Rainbow" and "That Old Devil Moon"—but they aren't the only tunes that leap out from the show's songbook. Like the recent Hair revival
, the show is most effective in its infectious, Oklahoma
-esque group numbers, like "That Great 'Come and Get It' Day" and "This Time of the Year." (The latter has been stuck in my head for more than a week.) The show was also one of the first to integrate the musical idioms of African-Americans into the showtune style, and the resulting songs—"Necessity" (sung robustly
here by the extraordinary Terri White) "The Begat"
and a rollicking harmonica number, "Dance of the Golden Crock," performed by Guy Davis—are some of this Finian's
Standards become standards for a reason, but the ones that appear here have been diluted by over-familarity—and the performances aren't exactly revelatory. Cheyenne Jackson (the "new cast member" in the current season of 30 Rock
), as the musical's hero Woody, has a handsome but unconvincing voice: he hardly sounds like he wants to cry, croon or laugh like a loon. And Kate Baldwin, as Sharon, has a clear voice that carries her through "How Are Things...?" (Listen to Baldwin sing it—better than when I saw her—here
.) But the tune derives its pathos from Norton, as her father, who listens quietly with tears in his eyes. (Sharon's songs tend toward the saccharine; as Finian himself later notes for a laugh, it's "cheap Irish music.") Christopher Fitzgerald gives a great comic turn as the leprechaun, but it's Norton who's the show's stand-out, delivering an inexhaustibly physical performance, despite his apparent age, marked by dewy-eyed enthusiasm.
Still—that damned book. Harburg gets in a few digs at the Republican Party—“the misbegotten G.O.P.”—that feel positively scandalous in a musical on today's Great White and Largely Apolitical Way. (Ma and Pa Kettle, a.k.a. tourists, made up 63 percent of all tickets sold last season
.) But, despite its overbearing pleas for racial and economic equality—for assimilation, desegregation and prosperity—ultimately the show's politics are totally out of step. There's a line in which Woody praises credit; Jackson delivers it with a beat that earns it a knowing laugh, but I don't see any indication that the book meant it to be funny. Act I ends with a song about how wonderful this newfangled concept of —credit— is, and the production rains credit cards (in essence) down on the stage before dropping the curtain. At the advent of the booming Boomer Era, hopeful, forward-looking liberals thought they might buy their way into a brave new world. That hasn't exactly worked out. For a more politically relevant and remarkably similarly plotted story, check out the Fleischer Bros.' Hoppity Goes to Town
, produced before the war, which also features a few lovely songs
. By comparing the two, we can tease out a truth: winning W.W. II made us cocky and a little obnoxious. Finian's Rainbow
makes that plain.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)