Finian’s Rainbow Redux

Kerry O'Malley as Sharan McLonergan and Jonathon Freeman as Finian McLonergan. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

By Elizabeth Toomey, Contributor
August / September 2004

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of Finian’s Rainbow brightens New York’s theatrical scene.

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A musical comedy that involves an Irishman and his daughter arriving in the mythical Southern state of Missitucky, followed in hot pursuit by a leprechaun whose crock of gold the father has “borrowed,” not to mention black sharecroppers and a racist senator and his henchman. Confusing? You bet. Yet Finian’s Rainbow was one of Broadway’s most popular musicals when it opened in 1947. And this spring, the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan has had a hit with its staging of a concert version of the show.

The musical has not been revived much. The 1968 movie version seemed outdated — the racial politics of the story heavy-handed — so the appreciation with which the Rep’s production has been received, by audiences and critics alike, has come as something of a surprise for artistic director Charlotte Moore.

“It was a logical choice for us because of its Irishness,” said Moore, who together with Ciaran O’Reilly founded the Irish Rep some 16 years ago. “We knew it would be good because of the spectacular musical numbers, but we didn’t know it would be this successful.” The play’s original seven-week run was extended to a three-month tenure that is currently scheduled to end July 11th.

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Many know and love the songs of Finian’s Rainbow, including “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”, “Old Devil Moon”, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” and “Look to the Rainbow.” But the story will be less familiar, not least because of its many subplots.

Finian McLonergan and his daughter, Sharon, arrive in Missitucky. Finian has stolen a crock of gold from a leprechaun and intends to bury it in the magic soil around Fort Knox, thinking that it will grow and make him rich. (After all, didn’t the Americans who found gold in California in the 1840’s bury it in Fort Knox?) The plot of land where they bury the gold tums out to be worked by black sharecroppers, who are under threat of eviction for back taxes by the racist Senator Billboard Rawlins. Woody, the tobacco farmer, who owns the land, falls in love with Sharon. But then Og the leprechaun arrives in Missitucky to get back his stolen gold. He first falls for Sharon and then Susan, Woody’s mute sister, who expresses herself through dance. Amid all this, the sharecroppers fight for their land, and the senator learns a lesson about fairness and equality.

Despite the Irish characters, with their brogues and ballads, and the leprechaun, the play’s roots are not at all Irish. Burton Lane, who wrote songs for Hold On to Your Hats, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and many musical movies, provided the music. And E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for Finian’s Rainbow, and co-wrote the book with Fred Saidy, is credited with being the real force behind the play’s anti-racist and, indeed, socialist theme. Born in 1896, Harburg grew up the son of Russian Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York, attending public schools and scraping up money to attend vaudeville shows and concerts. While many of his classmates were also children of Jewish immigrants (Ira Gershwin was one), there were pockets of Italians and Irish in his neighborhood too.

By the time he wrote Finian’s Rainbow, Harburg was an established Broadway and Hollywood lyricist. He provided the words for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, “April in Paris”, and “Over the Rainbow”, from The Wizard of Oz. He was reading James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold when he started Finian’s and decided to use an Irish theme and songs. Harburg told a Northwood Institute audience years later that Stephens’s book was “a beautiful book with all the lovely Irish names and leprechauns. I love Irish literature — James Stephens, Sean O’Casey. I felt easy working with Irish ideas.”

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The character of Senator Billboard Rawlins is an amalgam of Senator Theodore Bilbo and Congressman John Rankin, both of Mississippi. Bilbo advocated deporting blacks to Africa, railed against interracial marriage, and in 1938 even publicly praised Hitler. (In 1947, the year Finian’s Rainbow debuted, he was forced to leave the Senate after taking bribes from military contractors and died later that year.) Rankin, a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was accused of being an anti-Semite.

Harburg, whose parents had left Russia to work in sweatshops and live in crowded tenements, was especially sensitive to poverty and discrimination. He said, “Why should there be a thing like racism? It’s so idiotic. How could we reduce all this thing to absurdity?” Combining humor and music with an anti-racist message, Finian’s Rainbow turned out to be his answer. At a crucial point in the plot, Finian’s daughter, Sharon, angry with Senator Rawlins, exclaims, “I wish you were black, so you would know what it would feel like to be in their skin.” And, since she is unwittingly standing above the buried crock of gold, Sharon gets her wish, and the Rawlins becomes black. (In the Irish Rep production, Rawlins simply puts on a dark brown mask that covers half his face.)

Senator Rawlins’ transformation has always caused problems, and even proved troublesome for Harburg. Originally he wanted to include scenes where Rawlins was turned away from restaurants or buses, and even envisioned a lynching scene. However, Burton Lane and others convinced him to remove these scenes because their harshness just didn’t fit into the lightness of a musical comedy. The same issues have prevented many producers from taking on Finian’s Rainbow. It was groundbreaking and controversial in 1947. Its debut marked the first time blacks and whites danced together on a Broadway stage. Although its first run at the 46th Street Theater was a smash hit (it ran for 725 days), no Broadway production of the show has been staged since. A movie version starring Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, and Tommy Steele was directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1968. It won two Oscar nominations but received mixed reviews.

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When Charlotte Moore sat down to adapt the script for the Irish Rep, she was faced with all of these quandaries. But when asked if she tried to skirt the racism angle, she laughs, “We didn’t skirt the issue, we hit it head-on! We wanted to make the point without bludgeoning people. A lot has happened in this country since 1947.” Moore says she made a point to keep in very close contact with the black actors in the production to make sure they did not feel exploited or uncomfortable.

“I took their suggestions because their grandparents have been there, their parents have been there, and they have been there themselves,” she explains.

However, throughout rehearsals and the run of the play, Moore did not have to make any changes to her adaptation, and “there was not an uncomfortable moment.” Similarly, John Sloman, who plays the controversial Senator Rawlins, delved into his role with relish. “He was game for it,” Moore says.

In Moore’s production, the score of Finian’s remains intact, while the book has been abridged through the use of a narrator who addresses the audience with details of plot throughout the show. To fit the physical environs of the Irish Rep Theatre, cast members sit around the edge of the stage when they are not speaking, and two pianos stand back to back in the center. There are no real sets, and the actors wear the same costumes over several days of the play’s action. Yet this does not take anything away from the audience’s reception of the play.

In fact, the smallness of the theater adds to the intimacy between the audience and the cast, and there is a palpable bonhomie among the cast. Even as they exit the stage and applaud the pianists, they remain engaged and in character.

“In a difficult and complicated book, we concentrated on the optimism,” Moore explains. “I thought, how can I lift it and keep it in the balloon of a musical and love story, because there’s a great love story too? The secret of success was making it workable and livable.”

This is done very effectively by simply cutting out many confusing details and pages of dialogue and replacing them with a narrator, played expertly by David Staller, who moves the audience quickly up to speed as scenes change. Omitting some of the distractions and politics of the play really allows the songs to shine.

In particular, Malcolm Gets, who recently appeared in Broadway’s Amour, performs Og’s “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” with gusto. Kerry O’Malley as Sharon (played by Melissa Errico during the first part of the run) sings “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” memorably, almost bringing to mind Judy Garland singing Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” She later joins Max Von Essen’s Woody for a touching rendition of “Old Devil Moon.” Jonathan Freeman (who plays Finian with a convincing Irish accent) and other members of the cast bring optimism and nostalgia to “Look to the Rainbow.” And in two numbers, “Necessity” and “The Begat,” which shine and provide notes of gospel and blues, Terri White is particularly outstanding.

“The music is uniformly good,” says Moore. “It’s very rare to have so many good songs in one musical. It’s a treat to hear them in context and in progression.” Fittingly, Moore has been taking advantage of this rare treat; she has missed only one performance since the run began. “It’s been such a pleasure. I love watching this show,” she says.

Finian’s Rainbow on Film

The 1968 film adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, and Tommy Steele. Although it won two Oscar nominations, it received mixed reviews. As the New York Times points out, however, “Finian’s Rainbow is a lot sprightlier that some of the lumbering big-budget musicals of the late 1960s; and besides, nothing with Fred Astaire in it is completely without merit.” 

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