FINIAN’S IS SOMETHING VERY GRANDISH By Peter Filichia
En route to Finian’s Rainbow at The Irish Repertory Theatre, a song from Darling of the Day popped into my head.
Not so surprising, you say, given that both musicals have lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, although their fates were markedly different: Finian’s closed as the sixth-longest book musical in Broadway history while Darling (at thirty-two performances) had to settle for 1,023rd place.
Nevertheless, as illustrious as Finian’s is, Harburg’s most famous credit is and will undoubtedly always be “Over the Rainbow” from – well, you-know-what. I envision Harburg going to parties where people congratulate him on that success and Finian’s – to which he might well have smiled and responded “I’ve got a rainbow working for me.”
And that became the actual name of a Darling of the Day song – the one that came to mind last week.
It’s an excellent lyric set to fine music by Jule Styne. And yet, as much as Darling of the Day is mandatory listening, one must admit that the score to Finian’s Rainbow — with music by Burton Lane — is even better.
Lane was also a good sport, for after Sharon McLonergan sang the show’s best-known ballad “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” librettists Harburg and Fred Saidy had her father Finian McLonergan pooh-pooh it as “cheap Irish music.” Hardly – “Glocca Morra” is a crown jewel in the golden tiara of Lane’s score.
Finian’s eleven songs and four reprises are now being sung beautifully at Irish Rep’s excellent revival on West 22nd Street. But if you can’t get there by December 31st, there’s Finian’s 1947 original cast album and also its 1960 revival cast album.
That second one was probably made for two reasons: 1) Columbia had the original, and RCA Victor, then its biggest cast album rival, wanted Finian’s in its catalogue, too. 2) Stereo wasn’t yet invented when the original cast album was made, so here was a chance to give the score an extra channel.
The 1960 edition included Trude Rittman’s delicious dance music for “Look to the Rainbow” while the 1947 one didn’t. However, when the original cast
album was re-issued on CD in 2000, we learned that that same music had been recorded in 1947 but had been excised for lack of room on the so-called “long-playing” record. The CD returned it to where it belonged.
Better still, at the end of the new CD we also heard Harburg himself sing three Finian’s selections – one of which, “Don’t Pass Me By,” didn’t survive the Philadelphia tryout.
Ella Logan originated Sharon; Jeannie Carson portrayed her in the revival. Some will carp that Logan trills more than a bricklayer trowels. She back-phrases so much that if her voice were on a car’s automatic transmission panel, it would almost always be stuck in reverse.
That said, those who enjoy the song stylings of such artists as Anthony Newley and Mandy Patinkin will probably prefer Logan to Carson, who simply sings the songs with careful attention to lyrics.
In the original, Donald Richards played Woody, Sharon’s husband-to-be. The cast album is the best opportunity to hear him, for he died when he was merely thirty-four. Biff McGuire, the 1960 Woody, has had better luck, for he recently celebrated his 90th birthday. If he and Carson sound very much in love on this disc, there’s good reason for it. Soon after the show closed, they married; after fifty-six years, they’re still together.
They certainly shine on “Old Devil Moon.” When a man sings a love song and then the woman repeats it word-for-word, you know the authors thought it had pop-hit potential – which “Old Devil Moon” indeed did.
There’s an important character that you won’t hear on either album, but you’d expect that from someone named Susan the Silent. Long before William Barfeé was spelling out single words with his Magic Foot in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Susan the Silent was writing out entire sentences with her feet in what might be called ISL.
(Irish Sign Language, that is.)
The song is “If This Isn’t Love,” Finian’s third standard. The 1947 rendition mentions Carmen Miranda (as a rhyme for “red propaganda”); the 1960 uses “Zsa Zsa Gabor-a” (as a rhyme for “Glocca Morra”). Miranda had died fewer than five years before the revival, so Harburg may have felt that the beloved star’s death was too fresh on the minds of theatergoers and would depress them. Or perhaps with Miranda no longer on the scene, Harburg may have felt that he needed someone who was still on it.
“What — Gabor-A and not Gabor?” is a legitimate question for those who don’t know Harburg’s lifelong penchant for playing with words, putting his own spin on them, and creating perfect rhymes in the process. So we have her/fer (for for ; “The Begat”), hell/collater-elle (“This Time of the Year”), relative/Rockerfeller-tive (“When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich”), rules/ani-mules (“If This Isn’t Love”) and pickle/par-tickle (meaning particular).
That one comes from “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” arguably the most clever lyric in the entire Broadway canon. It’s sung by Og, a leprechaun who’s slowly turning mortal – which he doesn’t mind when romance is concerned. “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near” is only one felicitous line; my favorite is, “When I can’t fondle the hand that I’m fond of, I fondle the hand at hand.”
I’m impressed; aren’t you?
On the original cast album, you’ll hear David Wayne as Og; he became the first actor to win a Best Featured Actor in a Musical award in the just-started Tonys. TV star Howard Morris does the honors on the revival disc.
Harburg had other goodies in store. “Something Sort of Grandish” may not seem remarkable at first glance, for Harburg seems to have just added the suffix “ish” to existing words: dareish, careish before upping the ante to such made-uppers as the then-topical Eisenhowz-ish.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that Harburg sprinkled the lyric with words that actually did have an ish — outlandish, vanquish – leading to “It’s the beginnish of the finish (!) of me.” Best of all, Harburg has Og state that “Life could be so love-in-bloomish if my ishes” – not wishes, mind you, but ishes – “could come true.”
And don’t you love when a lyricist finds three rhymes among three words that have completely different spellings? Harburg managed that achievement twice in this score: “Necessity” has tennis, Venice and menace while “The Begat” offers breeze, chemise and trees.
Actors, when instructed on the best way to deal with audiences, are told, “Let them come to you.” E.Y. Harburg is the Broadway lyricist who most makes us come to him.
If it all sounds like non-stop fun, think again. Harburg and Saidy had a great deal to say about issues that are still with us today. They believed that “Black Lives Matter” nearly seven decades before the concept occurred to other Americans. Two years before Rodgers and Hammerstein reminded us that we had to be “Carefully Taught” about racial prejudice, these men brought up the point. Finian’s contains still-relevant social commentaries on the haves, have-nots, immigration and “the misbegotten GOP.”
Harburg knew enough to razzle-dazzle rhymes in the sincere ballads and the first-act-closing anthem, “That Great Come-and-Get It-Day.” Instead, it contains one of Harburg’s most heartfelt lyrics. He wants us to get all the well-earned bounty coming to us, to “keep it,” yes, but also, most significantly, to “share it.”
In the Irish Rep production, director Charlotte Moore added a terrific touch by having her excellent cast – including Melissa Errico, Ryan Silverman, Ken Jennings (of Sweeney Todd’s “Not While I’m Around” fame) and everyone else – to gesture right to the audience on “share it.”
Well, the one-percenters may never share the wealth with the other ninety-nine percent, but The Irish Repertory Theatre is certainly sharing with everyone a great and beautifully done Finian’s Rainbow.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.