The Broadway Musical Troublemaker of 1947
Every once and a while, a musical comes along that stirs up the pot, shocking us with its audacity to speak the truth. In recent years, musicals such as Hamilton, Next to Normal, The Scottsboro Boys, and Fun Home come to mind as examples of musicals that were not afraid to look societal and artistic norms in the face and thumb their nose as what is comfortable or conventional. This was done in-an-effort to cast some light on overlooked subject matter, issues that demanded a new perspective, or inconvenient truths that may have been glossed over. It might be hard to believe, but musical theatre has typically been at the forefront of performance mediums in addressing controversial topics. In fact, Finian's Rainbow, which opened on Broadway in 1947 (and celebrated the 70th Anniversary of that premiere on January 10th), may have been one of the nerviest of all Broadway productions. It subversively confronted race issues by addressing bigotry, head-on, and by taking steps within its production to demonstrate active change. Finian's Rainbow was (and remains to be) one of Broadway's bravest shows.
A show's ability to engage, enlighten, and particularly to enrage often begins with one great mind who strives to find a voice for change. E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the lyricist and one of the book writers on Finian's Rainbow, was a whimsical, well-liked gentleman in show business who was never afraid to tackle challenging subject matter, especially if it was a cause in which he believed. Harburg was anti-racism, anti-sexism, and pro-socialism, a dangerous mix for anyone to be in the United States circa 1947 and on the precipice of 1950s McCarthyism. He collaborated with librettist Fred Saidy to come up with the story for Finian’s Rainbow, a musical which would feature, among other things, a group of black and white sharecroppers cohabitating in the rural south and working together toward their communal benefit, a United States senator who uses bigotry to try to manipulate and divide for his own capitalist gains, and a tongue-in-cheek celebration of credit (spending money before you have it) as the answers to people’s woes. All of this was radical thinking for the 1940s, and Harburg would never relent in his beliefs. His ardent support of socialism led to his being identified (incorrectly) as a communist, and his refusal to name certain Hollywood artists as fellow communists, led to his being black-listed from working in film and television from 1950-1962. Fortunately, he found his survival in the Broadway musical where he continued to push boundaries and use lighthearted satire to gently skewer the ideologies of his oppressors.
Moving back to Finian’s Rainbow, the musical is perhaps most game-changing because it was the first musical to feature an integrated dance ensemble. As hard as it is to imagine in the enlightened world of the arts, up until this point, blacks and whites simply were not supposed to dance together. This is in a time that pre-Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Brown vs. Board of Education. Segregation was a way of life, something that was rarely challenged. Separate (and hardly ever equal) was the status quo, and this even extended to the progressive world of the arts. Finian’s Rainbow was a musical that was daring to challenge segregation, racism and bigotry. How could a theatrical piece make a claim for equality without representing it in its ensemble? Director Bretaigne Windust and choreographer Michael Kidd (and certainly with Harburg championing the moves) understood the need to get past this antiquated convention for Finian’s Rainbow, and, in doing so, changed the direction of musical theatre. It is the greatest legacy that this musical should be remembered for, above and beyond its magical and unforgettable Harburg (lyrics) and Burton Lane (music) score. Here’s to 70-years of Finian’s Rainbow and all the other troublemaking musicals that wake us up, startle us, and break down walls.