Flahooley: The Broadway Musical that Dared to Be Too Honest

Flahooley: The Broadway Musical that Dared to Be Too Honest

Now here is a musical flop that I simply adore, as much for its audacity as for its simply enchanting score. Flahooley, which may have many of you wondering at its bizarre title, opened on Broadway in 1951 at the Broadhurst Theatre. The musical was expected to be a hit, enjoying an enthusiastic out of town tryout. Even theatre caricature artist Al Hirschfeld, who often visited shows in their tryout cities to begin his artwork, was certain that the show would be an enormous hit in New York. Sadly, the show ran for only 40 performances, closed, and faded into obscurity. 

Flahooley features a book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, the same whimsical and mischievous minds that wrote the book for Finian’s Rainbow. Well regarded composer Sammy Fain provided the music, with Harburg penning his usual witty and imaginative lyric stylings. The production had a cast that included Barbara Cook, Yma Sumac, Irwin Corey, Jerome Courtland, Ernest Truex, and Louis Nye. Harburg and Saidy directed the show, and Helen Tamiris provided the choreography. It seems like Flahooley would have been a hit with this roster of talent. So why didn’t it? 

 Barbara Cook, Jerome Courtland, Ernest Truex, and Edith Atwater in  Flahooley .

Barbara Cook, Jerome Courtland, Ernest Truex, and Edith Atwater in Flahooley.

We can always speculate as to why a musical fails or succeeds, but we cannot really be sure what ingredients (or lack thereof) are responsible. It is however, easy to make some guesses where Flahooley is concerned. E.Y. Harburg, the driving force behind the musical, had been blacklisted in Hollywood in 1950. Flahooleyappears to be his direct response to his experience with the witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy to keep Communism at bay. Flahooley is laced with an abundance of anti-McCarthy sentiment, thinly veiled in fantasy and satire, sure to raise the ire of any capitalist. Playwright Arthur Miller would tackle the issue of the McCarthy witch hunts to greater success with his 1953 play The Crucible, but delivered the allegory based on historical fact, removed from its (then) present day parallels. Harburg saw to it  that Flahooley was contemporary in its setting, and the plot seemed to be hitting a little too close to home in its candor. Is it possible that theatre critics were afraid to embrace Harburg’s tale for fear of being labeled one of his communist cohorts? Let’s remember: to be branded a communist in that day and age often meant the end of your career. Was Flahooley’s failure squarely on the back of cowardly critics who didn’t want to rock the boat? 

Yes and no. 

 Al Hirschfeld's caricature of  Flahooley , from  The New York Times .

Al Hirschfeld's caricature of Flahooley, from The New York Times.

Flahooley, for the glittering brilliance of its score (if you haven’t listened to it, please do) and the intricacies of its daring book, was not the easiest musical to follow. The problem, perhaps, was that too many things were happening in the story with Harburg trying to address a bevy of society’s ills. The oversaturation of the plot may have made Flahooley hard for critics and audiences to follow. This could be a contributor to its failure. 

So what is a “Flahooley”?

It’s a doll manufactured by B.G. Bigelow, Incorporated, the world’s largest (fictional) toy manufacturer.  A toymaker named Sylvester has created the laughing doll as part of the company’s potential Christmas line. As he prepares to present his creation at a board meeting, a Saudi Arabian delegation arrives and interrupts his unveiling. Their country has run out of oil which is normally generated by a magic lamp in their possession. The lamp is seemingly broken and they are hoping that someone at the toy factory can make the repair that will release the genie within. Sylvester is assigned the task by his boss B.G. Bigelow and sets out to attempt the repair. Bigelow, meanwhile, is wooing the Princess Najla who has arrived with the delegation and who speaks (or rather, sings) in an exotic tongue. Sylvester fixes the lamp and accidentally releases its genie, Abu Ben Atom. Sylvester, who dreams of being wealthy and winning the heart of his assistant (and model) Sandy, begs Abu Ben Atom to help him. Soon, everything spins into chaos as the kindly but confused genie uses his magic and floods the world with Flahooley dolls, thus rendering them without value, a travesty in a capitalist market. 

Sounds wacky, doesn’t it? Now imagine that story with layers of Red Scare McCarthyism casting a foreboding pall over the proceedings?  And yet, Flahooleyhas its charms. Though a failure on Broadway to be certain, it was given a cast album that, decades later, was one of the most sought-after albums amongst Broadway record collectors. Everyone spoke about the score and its intoxicating tunes including the mesmerizing “Here’s To Your Illusions” and the zesty frolic “Springtime Cometh.” Eventually it was released on CD and everyone had access to Flahooley. This is one of those cast recordings that, though lovely, needs a new recording in order to make the show accessible to new generations as the contemporary ear seems to have little patience for the tinny operetta-light sounds of that day. 

A few years ago, I saw a production of Flahooley at the Harlem Repertory Theatre, and the audience was engaged, enthralled, and pleasantly surprised (I think). It is a musical that works in fits and starts, and it was nowhere near the unfollowable disaster critics made it out to be in 1951. Regardless of its plot or your perspective on it, it is a musical you can admire for its brazen honesty in the face of adversity. That alone makes it a historically relevant piece of theatre and one that speaks with a great deal of relevance today.   

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