All musicals are collaborative works, and sorting out who deserves credit for their success is a speculative game at best. Finian's Rainbow is no exception. Its sensational music is by Burton Lane, who remains at the top of his game from the opening number through the finale, and its original production was fueled by the unique energy of two of its stars — Ella Logan and David Wayne. Fred Saidy, an underappreciated rapier wit, collaborated on the book and undoubtedly deserves considerable credit, as does director Britaigne Windust. And Michael Kidd's choreography was justly celebrated in the original production. But there's no question that the spirit of the show — its knockabout embrace of whimsy, progressive politics, romantic sentiment and agrarian populism — is the property of its larger-than-life lyricist and co-librettist, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, who conceived of the thing in the first place.
Harburg was, by all accounts, a complicated man, ingenious, stubborn, fiery and sweet, charming and caustic — a wise guy. The contradictions between his deep commitment to the progressive American struggle and his joyous embrace of the purely sentimental can be seen in an amusing pair of irreconcilable explanations of his nickname, which was shortened to "Yip" from the middle name Yipsel, which he adopted early in life. According to his Songwriters Hall of Fame biography, "He was nicknamed 'Yipsel' (Yiddish for squirrel) for his constant clowning and unbounded energy." But his biography on Wikipedia insists that, "Contrary to popular belief, 'Yipsel' is not a Yiddish word at all, but rather the pronunciation of 'YPSL,' which, in turn stood for Young People's Socialist League." Could any man ask for a broader understanding, or misunderstanding, of what he was all about?
Harburg had a remarkably eclectic career as a lyricist. He could be a demonic rhymer who took great delight in mangling the English language for his own purposes, as he did in "Something Sort of Grandish." He could personify pure unadorned longing, most famously in "Over the Rainbow"; he managed in one proud cry of pain to embody the entire spirit of the Great Depression in "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" And he could find inspiration in the most practical of places. He once claimed to have written the ravishing lyric for "April in Paris" not by sailing across the sea but by walking across the street from Lindy's restaurant on Broadway, picking up a travel brochure, and then returning to the restaurant to reshape the brochure's promotional lingo into poetry over a plate of knackwurst and sauerkraut. The man must have amused himself almost as much as he amused the world.
He also has to his credit one immortal bit of screenwriting, written, ironically, without any credit. That would be the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" in which the Wizard dispenses brains, heart and courage to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion respectively, and finally agrees to escort Dorothy home. It is a small, but unquestionable masterpiece. His sense of structure when writing an entire show, however, was as mercurial as his imagination. And Finian's Rainbow features a plot that sometimes seems like a pileup of story ideas looking for a yellow brick road to follow. The show concerns itself with the American South, but it features an Irish leading lady and a leprechaun who turns mortal, as well as a racist senator who turns black. It is a running satire on the capitalist mania for gold, but expresses an unbridled enthusiasm for tobacco (this was a long time ago). There is a deaf girl who communicates through dance, and a blind man who communicates with a harmonica. Quite obviously, Harburg loved all of these ideas equally, and would part with none of them, easily or otherwise. But how in the world does it all hang together? Well, it's Yip. Follow the fellow who follows a dream; he'll lead you out of the woods eventually.
Harburg's most formidable partner in crime was Lane, a first-rate melodist with numerous credits on Broadway and in Hollywood, who had, however, never been asked to write in so many styles for so many different kinds of characters all at once. He was more than up to the task, writing a score for three distinct groups of characters — Irish, southern American and African-American — which, nonetheless, is as elegant a score as an audience could hope for. He created an immortal fake Irish tearjerker ("How Are Things in Glocca Mora"), an African-American rhythm number worthy of the Golden Gate Quartet ("The Begat"), the bluesy "Necessity" and the gospel-inflected "Great Come and Get it Day" and even a gavotte ("Something Sort of Grandish") and a comic quadrille ("When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich"). If you listen carefully to the dance music to "Look to the Rainbow" you can also hear an American square dance bubbling up under an Irish jig. And, just to remind everyone that this was Broadway after all, Lane tossed off a bevy of flat-out great show songs, including "If This Isn't Love" and "Old Devil Moon." The score, expertly orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker, keeps hurling swell new tunes at the audience, just as Harburg's and Saidy's book keeps tossing out new ideas. The threat of chaos is never far off, but the show’s crazy-quilt of energy suggests that the collaborators were following Satchel Paige's famous bit of advice on living: "Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you."
Audiences in 1947 bought the argument, and Finian's Rainbow was a hit. Future generations have not been as convinced. In part, this is because the style of Harburg's progressive attack on American racism has not dated particularly well. The trick of turning Senator Billboard Rawkins from a white man to a black one using blackface makeup has, in particular, been hard for more recent audiences to swallow, and what seemed radical and daring in 1947 makes audiences uncomfortable today. Encores! has tried never to shy from these difficult situations, and we hope our solution here suits our time as Harburg's original idea suited his own. In any case, neither its casual structure nor its political indelicacy should trump the plea — sure of hearing the Finian's Rainbow score and celebrating its boundlessly joyous spirit of community and hope. There never was and never will be another show like it.
(Jack Viertel is the artistic director of Encores! This piece appears in the March 2009 Playbill for New York City Center. The Encores! concert of Finian's Rainbow — starring Cheyenne Jackson, Kate Baldwin and Jim Norton — plays New York City Center March 26-29.)