STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: E.Y. Harburg Week

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: E.Y. Harburg Week
Did you enjoy E.Y. Harburg Week? I sure did.

Did you enjoy E.Y. Harburg Week? I sure did.

What? You didn't know it was E.Y. Harburg Week? Well, it sure was for me. On Tuesday, I went to The Wizard of Oz at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. On Wednesday, I celebrated the 46th anniversary of Flahooley's opening on May 14, 1951. And on Sunday, I saw Finian's Rainbow at the Goodspeed Opera House.

The Wizard of Oz 90-minute stage show opened to a few strongly negative reviews. Is it as good as the MGM movie musical? Of course not. Is Dorothy (Jessica Grove) the Scarecrow (Lara Teeter), the Tin Man (Michael Gruber), and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) as good as Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr? Of course not. Do the sets of this Paper Mill Playhouse production match the ones we saw in its Millburn, New Jersey home five years ago? Alas, no.

Did the audience care? Of course not.

We critics can carp all we want, but the show at the Garden made the crowd as wild as they are at the town's other theatrical Garden (the Winter). For several reasons. First, Roseanne. Is she any good as the Wicked Witch of the West? Truth to tell, she isn't the greatest when it comes to building a character. But she isn't content just to replicate Margaret Hamilton's performance, and that counts for something.

But here's the real point: The audience -- both adults and kids -- were just so pleased to be in the same room with Roseanne, even though that room is awfully big. Theater always holds an extra special fascination when a mega-star appears on the scene. And while Roseanne is hardly Dame Edith Evans, she does provide that special thrill of knowing that familiar face from that revolutionary TV show is right there with you. Whether or not she's a full success -- it IS her first theatrical role, remember -- is a little beside the point.

Secondly, this Wizard of Oz is a pretty nice way of introducing young 'uns to live theater. Many of you may squirm at some of the show's garishness, but if you turn and take a look at the kids' faces, you'd be convinced that they were quite pleased at their first trip to a stage show. This could very well have them hankering for more. What's wrong with that?

By the way, remember that the original Wizard of Oz movie opened to some poisonous reviews too (and was voted Most Colossal Flop by the Harvard Lampoon's First Annual Movie Worst Awards). So let's keep in mind, as the Madison Square Garden production extends its run at least once and maybe twice, what movie critic Frank S. Nugent said in the New York Times in 1939: "It is so well-intentioned, so genial, and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the funmaking should be spanked and sent off supperless to bed."

Would E.Y. Harburg, the lyricist (and strong contributor to the original script, by all accounts) approve of the new production? Well, his son Ernie Harburg was at the opening, and he sure did. "Marvelous. Great fun. Just a joy," he exulted at the party that followed. And don't forget he wrote the book on his daddy, Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? (Actually, he wrote the marvelous tome with Harold Meyerson, who got top billing.)

Do you know this book? It gives some fascinating information on what Harburg dropped for the movie. He considered having the Scarecrow sing (in "If I Only Had a Brain," a tune Harold Arlen originally wrote for Hooray for What?), "And to you, my darlin' Dor'thy; I'd be Bergen, not McCarthy." For the Lion, "I could be as good as others, good enough for Ringling Brothers." For "If I Were King of the Forest," he played around with "jaguar" rhyming with "what a wag you are." What a wag he was!

Let's thank heaven for what he left in. You have those marvelous Harburgisms, where you get perfect rhymes from imperfect words. "Fiddle" and "individdle." "Lash" with "compash." "Dinosaurus" and "foress." Sure, you could look at them as cheats, but we all have heard people slur their words enough to validate Harburg's (wonderful) lyrical look at the world. As he said in Jamaica, "I won't stop this crazy rhymin'" I'm sure grateful that he never did.

Much is made in Who Put the Rainbow that Harburg liked the words "ding" and its variations. Of course he gave us "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead," but also remember the "life could be a ding-a-derry" line for the Scarecrow. In addition, his original first-act closer of Married Alive, as Darling of the Day was called in Boston, was a song for Patricia Routledge called "Ding Dong Day." And those who know Flahooley will recall that the Genie, in "The Springtime Cometh," sings "Ding Dong Day" to end a B-section.

And you DO know Flahooley, don't you? No excuses now. You would have had some in the late '50s, all of the '60s, and early '70s when the record was murderously hard to find. Happily, it was reissued as an LP in 1977, and as a CD in 1993.

So now you know that Harburg rhymed "St. Nicholas" with "ridicu lus" and -- remember, the show dealt with puppets -- "Why be bothered by psychiatry? Buy a tree, a carve yourself a puppet." After he thought of that one, he must have joyfully danced around his apartment for 20 minutes. Nevertheless, Flahooley must have seemed bizarre in those days. How could a musical be fashioned out of the idea that overproduction would result in underconsumption, and then where would we be? Except we eventually had the government paying farmers not to grow certain crops. Flahooley also dealt with atomic energy, and Arabs coming in and buying up America. That doesn't look so far-fetched now, does it? And in these days of Dow Jones averages escalating higher than Carolyn Leigh could have ever dreamed, Flahooley in hindsight looks a little prescient for its -- I'll admit it -- Marxist views.

He was a little gentler in Finian's Rainbow. Sure, he had the idea of turning a white man black (long before the author of Black Like Me took pills to see what it was like). Sure, audiences at Goodspeed were squirming a bit last week in the scene where the Senator's stooge was instructing a black butler to shuffle along slowly when serving his mint julep. But oh, did they love when the joke paid off -- when the Senator needed a drink to quell his choking, and only then did the black butler decide to follow the slow-shuffle instructions.

However, Who Put the Rainbow points out that his original plans were to show the Senator's problems once he was turned black by Sharon's inadvertent wish. Problems getting into restaurants. Trouble getting on a bus. And the piece de resistance that audiences would have undoubtedly resisted, his being arrested and almost lynched for going to bed with a white woman, albeit his wife. So if the Goodspeed production reiterated that Harburg had the Senator tells of his troubles rather than showing them, do recall it was 1947, and perimeters weren't as wide as they are today.

One other nice thing. In the Goodspeed production, when two geologists entered, one happened to be white while the other was black. You may assume that's just late 20th century colorblind casting, but no -- Harburg wrote it that way. Nice of him to put a black in a job of prestige and power 50 years ago, when the world was still reeling over a black baseball player taking the field.

Finian's was Harburg's masterpiece, of course, and James Judy in the title role and newcomer Erin Dilly as Sharon did themselves and Gabriel Barre's production quite proud. But the score was still the ace trump. Here were Burton Lane's magnificent melodies wrapping themselves around "Condish" and "proposish." "Rules" and "animules." "Horn" and "your'n." "Relative" and "Rockafellative." No wonder that Lane said that Harburg "was the only leprechaun I ever met."

Leprechaunian magic is really the only sane explanation on how anyone could come up with "When I can't fondle the hand that I'm fond of, I fondle the hand at hand." Or "When I'm not facing the face that I fancy, I fancy the face I face." Have words ever been put to better use in lyrics, anytime, any place, anywhere?

And yet, my all-time favorite E.Y. Harburg lyric involves no word trickery whatsoever. It's in "That Great Come-and-Get-It Day," where the poor citizens of Missitucky are dreaming of the day when they're in the money. But what do they plan to do with it. "Keep it," they sing -- before immediately adding, "and share it."

"And share it!" How wonderful that they plan to spread the money around like manure, instead of just hoarding it like a Vandergelder.

Oh, one other thing. According to Meyerson and Harburg's book, Harburg signed his contract to write The Wizard of Oz on May 18, 1938. See? Last week really was E.Y. Harburg Week. For those who disagree, may I point out that we have a National Secretaries Week at the end of April? So you meant to tell me that we can't have an E.Y. Harburg Week in the middle of May?

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
E-mail him at

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