Two Colors of the Rainbow

Finian's Rainbow

In these post-Sondheim, pro-revival days, it's sometimes difficult to find the why and wherefore of the Broadway musical. On the one hand, Times Square overflows with new productions of Grease and Saturday Night Fever and the self-perpetuating Cats, as though the industry were one gigantic broken record. On the other, some revivals (Carousel, Showboat, and Cabaret) have been infused with more sophistication than their original versions. When a work such as the current dance-musical Contact comes along, we wonder if the form has extended its reach yet again, or if the hit is just the proverbial flash in the pan. How many choreographers are there, after all, who can imagine and then sustain such an intricate story?

The assassination of the musical theater by the great enemy television has been well documented, but more recent events have prevented a true rebirth. As much as any art form, the Broadway musical has been affected by the AIDS crisis, most directly with the loss of Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line) in 1987. For a short while in the 1980s, until Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors) died from the disease in 1991, it seemed like the form's choicest elements were going to be permanently available as Disney animation, in the great Menken and Ashman scores of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. One non-AIDS-related early death, that of Jonathan Larson in 1996 just as Rent was about to become a smash, has made many wonder what might happen if someone could continue to make the musical theater inviting to people under age 35.

Chances are you need to be over 35 to even remember your parents humming along to the wonderful score of Finian's Rainbow, now receiving a much-heralded Broadway-bound revival at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "Old Devil Moon" were unceremoniously removed from most jukeboxes about twenty years ago. The truth is, though, the Burton Lane- E.Y. Harburg score of this 1947 gem is as lovely as they come. I'm the first to admit that when I heard about this project, my first thought was, Do we really need a revival of Finian's Rainbow? But the Coconut Grove production, starring Austin Pendleton and the great Brian Murray, has won me over.

There's a pot of gold at the end of this Rainbow
Harvey Bilt
There's a pot of gold at the end of this Rainbow

Details

Through November 21. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-442-2662.
Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy. Music by Burton Lane. Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Directed by Lonny Price. Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks. With Austin Pendleton, Brian Murray, Kate Jennings Grant,Denis O'Hare, J. Robert Spencer, and Tina Ou.

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The show, which originally appeared on Broadway the same year as Brigadoon, is set in its own magical kingdom -- the fictional state of Missitucky -- where black and white sharecroppers work side by side. The cast features an Irish immigrant (Murray) and his daughter, as well as the leprechaun who followed them from their hometown, a bigoted U.S. senator, a folksinger, and his sister, an elfin girl who dances rather than speaks. A fable about racial prejudice, with some love songs thrown in for good measure, Finian's Rainbow is a pastiche of postwar Americana. It celebrates a time when Irish culture was still predominant. "What's the difference between America and Ireland?" Finian asks Sharon. "There are more Irishmen here," she replies. In Woody Mahoney, the Woody Guthrie-inspired folksinger who wants to travel 'round the country and change the world, it celebrates our naive postwar optimism. (The appealing J. Robert Spencer is so wholesome, he seems born to wear an Eisenhower jacket.)

Thanks to its appealing story, in which the baldly racist Sen. Billy Bob Rawkins (Pendleton) finds himself transformed, à la leprechaun, into a black man, Finian's Rainbow now reappears onstage as both a museum piece and contemporary tall tale. Although the face of modern racism is multifaceted beyond anything imagined by Harburg and Fred Saidy's book (updated here by Peter Stone), the show gives us an entirely satisfying confrontation between the racist senator and his own blind bigotry. Directed by Lonny Price, this production reaches it emotional high points when the senator is stupefied to realize that, thanks to his black skin, he has lost every privilege -- from physical safety to common respect -- afforded him as a white man. Pendleton (who played the medical examiner on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets last season) gives a nimble and compelling performance as a great mule of a bigot.

Indeed Finian's Rainbow is the rare Broadway show in which the love story is delicately and successfully wrapped inside a political statement. (To understand what an accomplishment this is, consider the recent failure of Alfred Uhry, whose lighthearted but intelligent touch with matters of bigotry is as good as any, and lyricist Jason Robert Brown to make the musical Parade out of the Mary Phagan-Leo Frank tragedy.) To borrow a term from the movies, the romance between Sharon and Woody in Finian's Rainbow is a MacGuffin, a mere distraction from the issue of whether the senator will be changed on the inside by the startling change of his skin color. According to David Sheward's Broadway history It's a Hit!, attempts to turn this stage show into a movie directly after its Broadway success were waylaid by the antiliberal atmosphere of McCarthyism. Not until 1968 did it come to the screen, with Fred Astaire as Finian. By that time the twee story seemed quite unthreatening compared to the very real civil rights battles, none of which could be put right by leprechauns.

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