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Y. Harburg and Burton Lane, Finian’s
Rainbow / 1947
Rosemary Clooney, Still on the Road,
The story of the
1947 musical by E. Y. Harburg and Burton Lane might almost have jumped out of
today’s newspapers: it features an immigrant family, where the elderly Irish
Finian McLonergan, decides to decamp in the American South—a kind of Kentucky
mixed with Mississippi—with his daughter Sharon, along with a somewhat fiendish
Irish leprechaun, from who he’s stolen a pot of gold, which he intends to bury
in Fort Knox.
The local factory workers are being
attacked by the bigoted local authorities, who are definitely in control of the
Jim Crow politics of the day. There could never have been a more political
musical ever created (well there is now Hamilton),
and Harburg, Fred Saidy, and composer Burton Lane meant every word of their
impassioned plea about bigotry, anti-immigration behavior, and every other prejudice
that their musical shouted out.
Rainbow is an incredulous mix of politics, nonsense, and utter fluff, it
still today speaks out for a kind of musical theater that we might wish for,
one in which a passionate political viewpoint is infused with great musical
Created in the year I was born, it seems
to be a work which I might never been able to resist. I appeared in the high
school production as the only black-faced figure of my all-white school
production (no black attended my Marion, Iowa school), and I later played a
dancer and singer in this work in the University of Wisconsin production,
several years later. Obviously, I have a very special relationship with this
musical that makes it almost impossible for me to separate if from my very
identity. And even today, as crazy as its story seems to me, I love it with an
intensity that probably has little to do with its real qualities.
When, years later, at an event which I
hosted (and partially funded) celebrating the career of Jerome Lawrence, I
experienced Lane playing a song from the work in person, I realized that I had
assimilated Finian’s Rainbow in a way
that no one in the room, in New York’s famed Algonquin Hotel, might have ever
realized. Even the presence of Michael Feinstein, Jerry Herman, and many other
luminaries, could not match that moment.
Og, Finian’s angryleprechaun, was
there, as far as I was concerned (and I later discovered that figure of my
college production was indeed there
[see My Year 2005]) or, at least,
Early in this play, the newly arrived
Sharon, sings a passionate song about her longing to return home, “How Are
Things in Glocca Mora,” which tears at your heart. We know, immediately, she is
not yet comfortable in her new world, although she has just met the handsome
local union leader, Woody Mahoney, and soon falls in love. But Sharon’s
songexists as an almost inexpressible
longing for her homeland, something almost all of Americans must have felt upon
their travels to the new home in the USA. It’s a terribly touching expression
of alienation that seldom gets expressed in the American musical, one that
ought to be attended to in order to understand what immigrants, legal and
illegal, might feel about their new experience in the country which supposedly
accepts all strangers.
hear a bird, Londonderry bird,
well may be he's bringing me a cheering word.
hear a breeze, a River Shanon breeze,
well may be it's followed me across the seas.
tell me please
are things in Glocca Morra?
And, of course, as Finian’s Rainbow reveals, it’s never an easy transition, although,
Sharon, her father, and even the strange Og do find a way to assimilate
themselves even in theprejudiced deep
South, a situation which Og helps to take care of that by transforming the
local white Senator into a black man. O how I might wish for such a
transformation for the Kentucky-born Senator today!
The original Sharon in the musical, Ella
Logan, sings this song quite beautifully. But it is fascinating how, later, the
superlative singer Rosemary Clooney takes this simple piece of nostalgia into a
new jazz-oriented work. Glocca Mora suddenly seems to have been transferred to
the new world in which Sharon finds herself.
the 1968 movie, directed The Godfather’sFrancis Ford Coppola, English singer
Petula Clark sang the same song so brilliantly that she certainly must be
recognized as among its best interpreters.
I mention in that volume, I accidentally came into contact with my Wisconsin
theatrical cohort in a gay psycho-sexual situation in a Brooklyn, New York
apartment—to which I possibly had not even been invited—several years later. Strange
coincidences also happen to me.