Librettist Peter Stone told Playbill On-Line Aug 17 that his role as adapter for the upcoming Broadway-bound revival of Finian's Rainbow has been misunderstood by the theatre community and the press, partly because of his most recent gig of rewriting Annie Get Your Gun.
It had been thought by the press and others that because Stone softened some of the outdated, offensive Native-American references in Annie Get Your Gun that he might be making the racism theme of Finian's Rainbow somehow more palatable for a modern audience. "On the contrary," Stone told Playbill On-Line. "I'm doing the exact opposite of what I did on Annie Get Your Gun."
Whereas Stone restructured Annie Get Your Gun and trimmed stereotypes of Native-Americans in the musical comedy, he said Finian's Rainbow was social satire meant to be jolting to an audience. At one point in the 1947 musical fantasy, a racist white senator is turned into a black man and gets a dose of his own medicine. Lyricist-librettist E.Y. Harburg also injected his socialist point of view into the script, satirizing consumerism and the tension between the haves and have-nots.
Stone said his rewrites for Finian's sharpen the story's edge. "It was politically incorrect when first done," he said, "but it has gotten milder over the years. It has to go back to being as shocking today as it was then."
In the original, Stone said, Og the leprechaun encounters the transformed senator, who is African-American but still racist, and the imp uses magic to make him tolerant. "I felt that was too naive today," Stone said. "If that's all it takes, there's not much of a problem. Now, the leprechaun fails: It's too big to change." That's when a pair of racist state troopers enter the scene, adding another new twist. "It's quite chilling," Stone said.
The plot issue that is arguably racially insensitive is the implication that turning someone black is a punishment. Stone said script consultant Ossie Davis, the patrician African American actor, told him there were no concerns about references to race in the revised script. Both Davis and Public Theater producer George C. Wolfe gave advice to the librettist, Stone said.
But will it work?
"You never know what's going to play in front of any audience," Stone said. "[If it's not risky], I don't see a point in doing it."
In addition to making the script harder-edged (including the restoration of tobacco-industry references that had been trimmed for stock and amateur productions), Stone said his work in the rewrite of Harburg and Fred Saidy's libretto had to do with tightening the script's construction.
In the 1940s, when the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution of plot driven songs was still new, many shows (including Annie Get Your Gun andFinian's Rainbow) did not have song and script tightly integrated. "There were songs where there should be scenes and scenes where there should be songs," Stone said.
The score by Burton Lane (music) and Harburg (lyrics) is "fairly intact" with a reprise or two added, Stone said. No songs have been cut, and Brian Murray, as Finian, is expected to sing "Look to the Rainbow." The role was virtually non-singing in the original.
Stone said he loves the hit-packed score, which includes "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," "If This Isn't Love" and "Ol' Devil Moon." "That's why I do it," he confides. "There's no use to rewriting anybody else's book [if you don't love the score]."
* In the musical's setting, mythical Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, father and daughter encounter sharecroppers, a racist senator, a hero named Woody - and the leprechaun, who has followed them in search of his stolen crock of gold.
Director Lonny Price's staging plays Miami and Cleveland before opening in New York sometime in spring 2000. Rodger Hess is producer.
The cast of the musical, which is part impish fantasy and part social satire, includes Denis O'Hare (Cabaret) as Og the Leprechaun, Austin Pendleton (The Diary of Anne Frank) as Senator Rawkins, Kate Jennings Grant as Sharon, Tina Ou as Susan the Silent and J. Robert Spencer as Woody.
The staging will play Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse Oct. 12-Nov. 21 and Cleveland's Palace Theatre Center Nov. 30-Dec. 12.