On Broadway: Tackling racism with rainbows and song
I had absolutely no interest in seeing the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow–just as I had no interest in seeing Hamlet–but there I was, thanks to an insistent publicist.
He was right, I was wrong–the show, far from the Fred Astaire film travesty, is a swirling, surreal exploration of romance and racism. Yes, racism. The 1947 musical best remembered for leprechauns and Irish longing (“How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”) turns out to be a brazen, heads-on attempt to deal with the American social clashes of black and white.
I will not attempt to recreate the plot here–it’s too nonsensical–but along the way, a white bigot’s skin is magically turned black. (Think Rush Limbaugh, suddenly transformed into Al Sharpton.) In 1947, the effect was achieved through blackface–which was enough to thwart any notion of revivals for decades to come. In 2009, the white-to-black transformation is achieved simply by switching actors, white to black.
What fascinated me, however, is that the lyricist for Finian’s Rainbow also wrote the words for the lilting Wizard of Oz classic “Over the Rainbow,” and the ominous Depression plea, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Yip Harburg was a champion of human rights well before it was fashionable–or even spoken aloud. Listen carefully to “Brother,” and you hear his rage over the post-World War I dismissal of the working man. Listen even casually to “Over the Rainbow,” and you will know the yearning of a soul lost in midwestern tedium. (For a riveting line by line analysis of both songs, check out the segments of Rob Kapilow’s NPR series, “What Makes It Great,” devoted to “Brother” and “Rainbow.”)
It is a fitting tribute to Yarburg’s social conscience that this breathtaking Finian includes a human resurrection of its own–the casting of 61-year-old Terri White in a showstopping role. Only a year ago, White, a one-time Broadway star (she was nominated for a Tony for “Barnum”), was homeless and living on a bench in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Rescued by a sympathetic cop, White started down a triumphant road to find home, love…and stage stardom… again.
In his 85 years, Yarburg wrote 550 songs, bouncing from lovers’ longing to underdogs’ striving. In the 1950s, he was, of course, blacklisted.
Sitting in the theater in 2009, absorbing such catchy tunes as “Old Devil Moon” and “If This Isn’t Love,” how can you not stop and gasp, wondering at the long departed soul who could produce such inane romantic beauty–and still rage against inequality, in popular song? How many of us today have the talent–and the courage–to use art to tell such truth?