Timothy McDonald, who founded iTheatrics, the organization which develops works for the Broadway JR series, told Playbill.com that the idea for Finian's Rainbow JR was proposed by Deena Harburg, the daughter-in-law of late lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg.
Finian's Rainbow JR, which runs 60-minutes, has been in development since 2009. A musical about a bigoted white senator who is turned into an African American isn't the first musical one would think of considering the Broadway JR catalogue features such musicals as Annie, Into the Woods, High School Musical and Seussical.
"The key, according to Deena and Yip's beliefs were, is that it's not just about blacks and whites, it's about haves and have-nots. It's about being judged because of who you are and the way you look, or your position in life," McDonald said.
The team at iTheatrics guided roughly four pilot productions of Finian's Rainbow JR, which was predominantly adapted by Ms. Harburg, prior to releasing the material to a few test schools across the country.
So, how did schools address the moment in Harburg's progressive script? According to McDonald, "Some did it like the recent Broadway revival where they exchange the actor playing the Senator with an African-American performer, and some haven't even done that, they just change the way he dresses. For example, the entire population of Rainbow Valley are dressed colorfully and the Senator's costuming is very drab and neutral. So, when he is converted, suddenly his costume became multicolored and he became part of this Rainbow population and one of them." This isn't the first time iTheatrics and Music Theatre International, which licenses the Broadway JR collection, have taken an adult musical about race relations and shaped it for young actors. The Tony-nominated Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical Once On This Island was also reshaped to focus on class and status, rather than the colors of the characters' skin.
"In Finian's Rainbow, they're in Rainbow Valley, which in some ways represents the society we have become, or are much closer to nowadays," McDonald observes. "It's not just about blacks and whites, as Deena pointed out. It should literally be a rainbow, people of all races and backgrounds. It becomes about the establishment holding down the people who have newly-arrived. There's a line in the show that supports that about immigrants, where the Senator says, 'This country would be great if we could just get rid of the immigrants.'"
McDonald recalled an African-American student involved in a pilot of the musical who said, "I don't think it's very interesting if it's just about blacks versus whites because that's history,'" McDonald said. "His point was let's talk about people who can't feed their families, or don't have homes, or who are denied rights. And I asked if he really thought that was in the show, and he said, 'Yeah, it's about someone holding other people down because they're not like him.'"
The collection has long dovetailed performing arts with educational curriculum, teaching students about the New Deal and Great Depression in Annie, and Finian's Rainbow JR will have supplemental material that not only looks at issues of race relations and living in a societal melting pot, but will also teach them about "who Yip was and what he stood for and why he wrote this show," McDonald said.
Despite having to compete against flashier titles like Disney's Little Mermaid JR and Beauty and the Beast JR, McDonald said students have responded strongly to Finian's Rainbow. "It's a fantastic score and you can't underestimate kids; they respond to it and the high quality," he said. "The kids feel like they're doing something important. Finian's Rainbow to them is edgy, and they respond positively to that."
Finian's Rainbow JR will be available for licensing beginning with the 2012 back-to-school season. For now, iTheatrics has just released student choreography DVDs for Doctor Dolittle JR, Finian’s Rainbow JR, Winnie the Pooh KIDS and The Little Mermaid JR.
The company is also focusing on reshaping another Broadway musical for young audiences: The Tony-nominated camp, pop musical Xanadu, which uses songs from the film by ELS and has a book by Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane.
McDonald and his team are in the midst of its first New York City pilot production of Xanadu JR this week. "Douglas is smart. The show is laid out exactly like a Greek comedy and as someone who has tried to teach Greek theatre history to kids, this all makes sense to them, because they're doing it," McDonald says.
It will take more than three years until Xanadu JR is ready to roller skate into the classroom. McDonald is already problem-solving ways Kira, the leading muse, may find other ways to move that don't include wheels. "It can be stylized, but first Douglas has to approve our production and sign off on it. And he's been really supportive so far."
New York rehearsals with student performers have been going well, McDonald said. "They don't understand the 80's at all of course, or why Parker Stephenson reference is funny, but we just say, 'Your parents will get that!'"