Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Looking for Rainbows: Two "Finians" for St. Patrick's Day

When Encores announced "Finian's Rainbow," a Broadway hit from 1947, as part of its 2009 season, I wasn't really sure what to think. Joy for an exciting new revival? Horror that they'd unearthed that old chestnut? Not really either. More curiosity, I guess.

"Finian's Rainbow" was a bit of a curiosity, even in 1947, mixing an old Irish gent with a stolen crock of gold, the leprechaun he stole it from, a mysterious girl who dances instead of talking and a bunch of poor sharecroppers in "Missitucky" who are looking to better their lives with a better brand of tobacco.

Like many people, I'd never seen a stage production of the show, and my only knowledge of it was the 1968 movie version, directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola. (Let's be honest here. It's a Fred Astaire movie. Of course I've seen it. I mean, duh. It's FRED ASTAIRE. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how I feel about Mr. Astaire.)

My main recollection of the film was Fred being charming and doing his best not to get sucked down by the creepiness of the subplot involving Keenan Wynn in blackface. But that's the thing about "Finian's Rainbow" -- the blackface that looks bizarre and horrific to us now was actually part of its message of racial tolerance. It's the bigoted cornpone senator who gets turned into a black man to show him what the racism he's been spouting feels like. It's still blackface, however. And that was problematic for me, even in 1968.

The weird thing is that I didn't remember much of the score from the Coppola movie, even though he included most of it. I'm used to Hollywood gutting the songs when they put stage musicals on screen, but "Finian's Rainbow" got a different treatment, what Coppola called the "road show" approach, where it played as much like a night out at the theater as possible. In fact, everything but "Necessity" seems to be there.

So how is it possible I had no memory of "Old Devil Moon," "Look to the Rainbow," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" or "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" as being part of "Finian's Rainbow"?

When I first played the cast recording from the Encores production that moved to Broadway, I kept saying "THAT'S from 'Finian's Rainbow'?" every few minutes. I think the difference is in who's singing these gorgeous songs and the overall style.

The movie has a 60s hippyish sort of feel in some places, especially when Petula Clark gets all folk-pop on "Look to the Rainbow" and when Dorothy Jeakins' costume design pulls in that seriously hideous wedding ensemble. I don't know who thought a veil made of fishnet trailing little daisies was a good idea. It wasn't.

And then there's Tommy Steele. Again, I don't know who thought it was a good idea to cast a cheesy pop, almost Music Hall performer like Steele as the show's sweet little leprechaun, but he is completely at odds with the more down-home, laid-back style of the rest of the film.

In contrast, the Broadway revival went back to 1947 in terms of the look and the sound. So Kate Baldwin's clear, bright soprano hits the perfect mood, as does Cheyenne Jackson's smooth baritone. Together, they make "Old Devil Moon" swoony and sexy and just plain beautiful. Sweeping me off my feet? You bet.

Kudos to Warren Carlyle, who directed and choreographed this new "Finian's," and also to musical director Rob Berman, for sticking with the 40s feel and making it sound so good. Carlyle's decision to cast a black actor as Senator Rawkins' double (avoiding the blackface problem) is also most welcome.

The funny thing is that even "Necessity" and "The Begat," the most old-fashioned songs in the score, sound fresh and new here. Even the "Dance of the Golden Crock," a total snoozefest of easy listening in the movie, is fun and engaging performed as a harmonica instrumental on this fizzy, fabulous cast recording.

It's tough for me to put aside my feelings for Fred Astaire and recognize that someone else fits the role better, but Jim Norton really does make a better Finian. I still love Fred, but Norton's "When the Idle Rich Become the Idle Poor" is more mischievous, more fun and more Irish.

Meanwhile, Christopher Fitzgerald's Og beats Tommy Steele's in so many ways it's not even funny.

When this new "Finian's" closed in January, I was dismayed that I hadn't managed to get to New York to see it in time. The good news is that PS Classics and executive producer Tommy Krasker recorded it for posterity. Krasker has not only brought the score to life, but he's included enough dialogue to make the story work and added a terrific little booklet offering pictures, complete lyrics, a synopsis and notes about the history of the show. PS Classics sweats the details and I couldn't appreciate that more.

So, no, I didn't get to see the revival. But I know what it sounded like, what it looked like and, yes, what it felt like. This cast recording is just that good.

To order the cd -- and you really should order this cd -- you can visit PS Classics. You might also want to take a look at some of their other offerings, including "Nine" done right and lesser-known gems like "Kitty's Kisses" and "Fine and Dandy." Yes, it's true. I love PS Classics. But they are completely deserving of that love.


  1. One of the things I'd wanted to see with this revival ([cough]Cheyenne[cough]) was the doubling of the Senator's role. I'm not sure when doing this began, but to switch to a black actor instead of blacking up the white actor would seem a sensible solution ...

  2. Ah the wonders of YouTube. One can compare and contrast Old Devil Moon performances:

  3. It does seem as if it'd be problematic to be magically wiping blackface off an on-stage actor. Much easier to have two actors. Who gets credit for that, I don't know, although there's only one actor playing anybody named Rawkins in the original or 1955 or 1960 Broadway revival casts, so I'm thinking it wasn't doubled as it was in this production.

    While checking those credits, I discovered that Merv Griffin was Woody, opposite Helen Gallagher as Sharon, in the 1955 revival that played 15 performances, while Howard Morris was Og in the 1960 version that looks like it lasted about 10 performance. I can see Howard Morris. Merv Griffin, I'm not so sure about.

  4. Regarding the dueling Devil Moons... Don Franck was a better singer than I expected going into the movie, but he still doesn't have the depth or richness of tone Jackson does. Plus he's not as cute. :-)

    I think that Cheyenne and Kate managed to be sexier, even though they didn't get the benefit of lying on the ground or close-ups.

    And I hate that they switched from location shots (Coppola seemed to be in love with running people around on trains and in cars to avoid dance numbers) to really obvious studio shots. "Old Devil Moon" is in the silliest looking interior they built and the obvious jump from real grass to the faux greenery of the set is very jarring to me.

    So, for me, anyway, no contest.

  5. Two actors sounds like a good solution to me.

    Love these songs. Love your comparison.

  6. I'm all but certain that this is in fact the first production to use two actors for the senator. (Which is amazing, that it took over 60 years to think of a solution that now seems so obvious, but there you are.) When I talked about this musical to my History of Musical Theater class last fall (I've always omitted it before, thinking they'd never see it; this year it was obviously different), I told the story in a couple of sentences, building to the wish and the transformation. They gasped and laughed appropriately at the audacity of it, then one boy asked "So... what, do they change the actor?" So the solution is instantly obvious to them (partly I guess because they've basically never seen blackface).

    The stage script is constructed so that he doesn't have to do instant makeup changes; for the first transformation he sort of collapses and then runs off (the Encores production could leave him onstage a bit longer before running off, of course), and the second one happens offstage.

    There was an attempt at a Broadway revival of the show in 1999; and it used a mask (on a stick, I think) as a theatrical indication of the senator's change of race. (Ossie Davis was listed as the production's "cultural advisor" -- Peter Stone did a lot of rewriting on it, not to much purpose.) It had Denis O'Hare as Og, Austin Pendleton as the senator (really??), Brian Murray as Finian, Kate Jennings Grant as Sharon, and J. Robert Spencer (in a reading it had been Patrick Wilson) as Woody. It played Miami and Cleveland, then shut down.

    A common element in that effort, the small-scale 2004 Irish Rep production (Malcolm Gets as Og, Melissa Errico as Sharon), and this new one? Terri White to sing "Necessity."

  7. But do you love fishnet wedding veils with little daisies scattered hither and yon on the fishnet?

  8. (The fishnet comment was for Kathleen.)

    Jon, did you know about Merv Griffin and Helen Gallagher? I think Malcolm Gets must've made a rather tall leprechaun.

    I think "Necessity" really adds something to the whole tableau. Without it (the movie has a few bars of the music under a transition scene but no vocal) it feels like the sharecroppers don't get their due. We don't really get to know any of them except Howard.

  9. I knew about Merv Griffin and Helen Gallagher only because I looked up the early revivals when I went briefly Finian-crazy right after Encores and wanted to know everything about it.

    There are many jokes about Og become more human all the time since losing his gold, so being tall can be part of the joke, I guess.

    Howard (Al Freeman Jr, right?) is really the only new piece of invention in the movie. The guy who's a scientist, and looking for the way to grow menthol in tobacco, is all new. The one scene where he tries to get a job as valet to the senator is from the stage show, where that's all we ever know about this person.

  10. Oh... and on the DVD commentary, Coppola says that he didn't want Tommy Steele at all (had someone else in mind and i can't recall who), but the bosses were really high on him right then and really pushed him. I imagine it was a bargaining thing, like "If you use Steele, you can have Don Francks" (who was certainly no bankable star).

  11. Yeah, I heard that on the commentary, as well. I think he said he wanted Donal Donnelly. Is that possible?

  12. I'm fine with fishnet veils, yes. And daisies in general.