Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Finian's Rainbow

Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Finian's Rainbow

Terri White leads the cast of Finian's Rainbow in "Necessity".

 Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson

Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson

When I first started my weekly column "Broadway Musical Time Machine", I decided I would hold-off on writing about my favorite show of all-time until I found that the time was right. However, The Irish Repertory Theatre is preparing a revival of that very musical in the near future, so I can no longer keep my deep and undying love for Finian's Rainbow a secret. In fact, no other show delights me as much lyrically, melodically, thematically and cleverly.  

Rewind to the 1940s when musical theatre was a daring place and the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, Lerner and Loewe, Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd and Agnes de Mille are laying the new path for musical theatre. The Broadway musical was reimagined into a tightly structured integration of music, dance, plot, staging, character development and design that had rarely been seen before. Oklahoma!, Carousel, Bloomer Girl, Brigadoon, On the Town and Allegro were all demonstrating innovation and artistry, each stretching musical theatre into new and exciting directions. The most daring of all of of these was Finian’s Rainbow.

On the surface, Finian’s Rainbow looks like a mere musical theatre fantasy. The story is about an Irishman who steals a pot of gold from a leprechaun, whisks it (and his skeptical daughter) to America, where he hopes to plant it near Fort Knox and produce a bumper crop of golden crocks. It’s a fantasy about achieving the American dream, a metaphor for the promises the New World had to offer. Lots of romance, lots of humor, and a vibrant and witty score by Burton Lane (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) that include “Old Devil Moon”, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow” amongst its ranks, and Finian’s Rainbow should have been innocuous fun, right?

But things are seldom what they seem when Mr. E.Y. Harburg is involved.

Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin perform "Old Devil Moon!" in Finian's Rainbow.

Harburg was a troublemaker, at least by 1940s standards. “Yip”, as he was known, had the audacity to do such things as heckle bigotry, entertain socialism, revile racism, and serve audiences up a happy, tuneful, and only partially disguised slice of reality pie. Harburg, together with Fred Saidy, wrote the book for Finian’s Rainbow and he injected it with his incredibly left-leaning agenda. Harburg understood that the American Dream was just that, an unrealistic, unattainable (for most) fantasy. Those who did well in America, often did it by shady means. Big money was the result of the misuse and mistreatment of the common man. These themes are palpable in Finian’s Rainbow, especially in songs like “This Time of the Year”, “The Great Come-and-Get-It Day” and “When the Idle Poor, Become the Idle Rich”. Despite his political leanings, Harburg was well-liked, beloved by many in show business, thought of as impish, and so he delivered his lessons and messages in the most cheerful and clever ways. Masked as musical comedy, an almost fairy tale full of magic and romance, Finian’s Rainbow was, in many ways, an indictment of American hypocrisy and a rally toward socialist ideals.

When you consider the climate in America in the 1940s, especially with the Hollywood blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee in full-swing, Harburg was, by many conservative standards, an instigator and an unwanted voice (at least to certain people in power). He was, in fact, brought before the committee and was indeed blacklisted. His subsequent shows would also prove to continue his agenda, especially Flahooley and Jamaica which were less-subtle in their satire, more-biting in their approach, and certainly reactionary to his experiences with Washington.

Ella Logan recreated "Look to the Rainbow," one of her great numbers from the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow in this rare 1954 TV appearance.

So I write about Finian’s Rainbow with both a deep love for the show and what it stands for, as well as with an undying admiration for a man named E.Y. Harburg, a troublemaking imp of a man who had the brass balls to infuse this musical with poignant, controversial themes and didn’t shy away from going against the grain. He was a true pioneer of musical theatre. This is what makes Finian’s Rainbow both an important musical, and one that we need to continue to revisit. Its messages will, sadly, never be irrelevant as there are always those who will oppress and those who will create fear around what they do not understand.

Finian’s Rainbow opened on Broadway on January 10, 1947 at Broadway’s 46th Street Theatre. The musical directed by Bretaigne Windust and choreographed by Michael Kidd. It ran for 725 performances. 

Melissa Errico sings "Old Devil Moon" with Tony nominee Max Von Essen, and "Look To The Rainbow" with the Irish Rep cast of Finian's Rianbow.

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