"Here's to Your Illusions" - Flahooley - When Flops Just Hurt
I have a deep affection for flop musicals. Maybe it's because so much hope and hard work is poured into any Broadway musical and I want to see the positive in them, or maybe I'm just a sucker for a lost cause. Whatever the reason, I love nothing more than finding some almost forgotten cast recording and hopefully stumble upon a handful of terrific songs that just happened to be saddled to a show that didn't take off. There are so many to have a deep affection for: The Baker's Wife, The Grass Harp, Anyone Can Whistle, Chess, Goldilocks, Allegro, Triumph of Love, Side Show, Carrie, The Bridges of Madison County, The Rink, and The Scottsboro Boys (to name a few). One of the flops that keeps me coming back is the delightfully quirky, magically delicious Sammy Fain (Music), E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) and Fred Saidy (book with Harburg) musical of 1951, Flahooley.
Flahooley breezed into town with every expectation of being a hit. It's out-of-town tryout had glowing reviews. Noted caricature artist Al Hirschfeld, sketching the show during its tryout, was quoted as having loved Flahooley, and he was sure that it was going to be Broadway's next big hit. The original cast recording would lead anyone to believe that this show should have been a hit. So what went wrong?
E.Y. Harburg was famous for stirring the political pot. His musicals usually had an agenda, and Flahooley was probably the most blatant of them all. Having been blacklisted as a Communist, Harburg poured his contempt for McCarthyism and the Communist witch-hunts into Flahooley. The plot was full of magic and whimsy and, much like Finian's Rainbow, attempted to subversively challenge social atrocities by disguising them with fantasy. The story involves a toy company preparing for their next big holiday must-have: a laughing doll named "Flahooley." A genie and a few wishes later, and the Flahooleys are multiplying and begin to take over the world. Yes...that old story. The musical was as much a scathing indictment of capitalism as it was a smack in McCarthy's face. Considering the climate in America of the early 1950s, is it a wonder that people caught on fast and wanted to distance themselves from this musical?
Something I have always appreciated about Harburg is his conviction. He was one of the truly courageous musical theatre playwrights and lyricists of his time. He was not subtle. He also was not afraid to bring a jaded, darker side to the Broadway musical in a time when most people were following the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. For an interesting read, check out the book Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz by Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg. There are many interesting observations about Harburg as a lyricist. One that stands out to me is this challenge. Try to find a Harburg lyric that definitively and directly makes a declaration of love. It's hard to do. Harburg looks at love as though it is an illusion, something influenced my external forces such as nature and magic. Look at songs like "Old Devil Moon," "If This Isn't Love," "It's Only a Paper Moon," and "Down with Love" and it's hard not to see this pattern.
This leads me to today's song: "Here's to Your Illusions" from Flahooley. At 20:48 in the above video you can hear this glorious song, sung in the original production by Barbara Cook. At a first listening, the song sounds like a sweet love song. Delve into the lyrics a little more carefully and you will find that the song has a touch of the cynical. "Here's to all your dreams. Here's to your illusions. May they always lead you into my arms." Again, not a direct declaration of love, but instead a suggestion that some sort of altered state is required, some sort of magical intervention needs to happen, some sort of trickery must be in play for love to happen. The song is a testament to how Harburg can subtly infuse a lyric with a hidden message or a personal opinion.
If you haven't yet, listen to Flahooley. You will thank me for it!