THE BOOK SHELF: Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Actors' Equity, Yip Harburg, Stella Adler and More

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30 Dec 2012

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Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist by Harriet Hyman Alonso [Wesleyan University Press] does not have a title which falls trippingly on the tongue, as they say; it seems a bit inelegant, considering the subject. It does, though, give us a good portrait of that picturesque leprechaun of a fellow who followed a crock of gold past that paper moon to somewhere over the rainbow.

Alonso has fashioned her "interview-based biography" around interviews with and lectures by Harburg, who died in 1981 at the age of 84. This does, indeed, give us loads of authentic flavor; however, it makes the biographical aspects suspect. Harburg was a raconteur, certainly; but after years and years of retelling and refashioning the same anecdotes, his spiels sometimes turned more fanciful than factual. Harburg was also somewhat hypersensitive in some areas, with perhaps some stubborn grudges; as a blacklist victim, too, he might well have had philosophical points to make and scores to settle.

The biographer is constrained by the scope of her subject's favored stories. Harburg not unnaturally tended to concentrate on his successes, triumphs, and things that made him look good; this sort of chatter is fine for lectures and dinner table conversations, but does not lend itself to biography.

Some subjects are missing altogether. Can Harburg really have had nothing to say about his final musical Darling of the Day, a disastrously-produced failure he wrote with Jule Styne which nevertheless contains some of the lyricist's most delicious work? Bloomer Girl, the 1944 Civil War-set musical, was a major hit. All that we get here, though, is an interesting-but-familiar anecdotal complaint from one of Agnes de Mille's autobiographies. What was Harburg's position on this episode, in which de Mille claims he tried to censor her work but she triumphantly outsmarted him? All we know, here, is what Alonso has borrowed from de Mille.

We do get a sense of the nature of the man, at least from his viewpoint, and some entertaining anecdotes. But consider "Yip Harburg" as a supplement to — rather than a replacement for — Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg's 1993 "Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?"

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