Happily, I'm more bemused than chagrined as I consider that in my 2005 book, The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide, in the chapter on libretto writing, I went on record as stating categorically that Finian's Rainbow is largely unproduceable these days.
The reasons all were valid enough and remain true: its dramatic structure is flimsy: there are long stretches in which the urgency of story is dropped in favor of pausing for songs (all of them, granted, delightful) that are non-progressive interludes, a number of them even revue-style sidebars (“Necessity” and “The Begat” among others); its fantasy universe doesn’t hold up under story-scrutiny, as the devices of magic are employed inconsistently; and the songs themselves don’t always quite connect with the characters’ psychology and backgrounds, occasionally sacrificing internal sense for wordplay (i.e. would Og, the displaced Irish leprechaun, new to the world of humans, just beginning to sort out his feelings about encroaching mortality, know enough about [then] contemporary  American politics to say to a woman,“I might be Manish-ish or mouse-ish. / I might be a fowl or fish. / But with thee I'm Eisenhowsish” by way of indicating boldness?).
Though Rodgers and Hammerstein had already introduced a new level of maturity with Oklahoma!, that had only begun two years before, in 1945, Finian’s was likely already in progress by then or close to it. Perceived in the immediate wake of Oklahoma! it’s very much a transitional musical, and transparently so, a strange blend of elements that keep missing integration, congruence and fluidity by small but bumpy degrees.
It’s therefore easy to explain why it failed in a 1960 revival (too close to the original, too quaint next to other musicals pushing the envelope) and to theorize why a 1999 reworking closed out-of-town (the new take came off to some as having limited regard for the original, sacrificing innate charm for interpolated self-awareness); but the most interesting question is, why does it seem to be such a rousing success in revival now?
All one can do is guess, but here’s my best: Enough time has passed that audiences are prepared for the quaintness of Finian’s Rainbow—there’s enough perspective that they’re not prone to weigh it in negative contrast to other shows close to its own generation. And with that obstacle gone, director Warren Carlisle and cohorts have been able to do something extraordinary. Notwithstanding mild tweaking by playwright-librettist and credited “book adapter” Arthur Perlman to remove obsolete “contemporary” references and jokes, Carlisle & crew have simply presented Finian’s Rainbow as was. As is. Straight up. No apologies, no soft-pedaling, no revisionist thinking. As the street kids say, “What it is.”
With many musicals of that general era—the Cole Porter shows come to mind especially—this isn’t possible: the era’s trendiness and different comic sensibility was often very deliberately reflected in musical libretti that doubled as a kind of social commentary. (It’s not a coincidence that this began to vanish right as television variety shows began showing up; musical theatre no longer needed to provide that service in so overt a manner, with TV giving it up for free.) But because Finian’s Rainbow tackles the timeless theme of racial prejudice within the locale of a set-off, and suddenly magical, Southern country township; because unlike, say, the Porter shows, the romance is very low on sly suggestiveness and very high on innocence; it somehow keeps its charm intact—even in our more jaded new millennium; and that simple thing—charm—and our back-of-the-mind acknowledgement that Finian’s is very much a period piece—buy it a whole lotta leeway and a passel of forgiveness.
Serving it up pure extends here to making it all look old fashioned too (despite any high tech stuff surreptitiously employed): the scenery is conspicuously painted, the costumes unapologetically sport happy patterns and bright pastels; anything meant to be a special effect clearly isn't, but is delivered so hokily that it virtually dares you not to be a willing conspirator in the illusion.
And the casting, in this anything-but-rock musical simply rocks; the cast doesn't so much play their roles as embody their iconic essence: there is no more authentic and fetching a trilling colleen than Kate Baldwin, no more strapping a leading man than Cheyenne Jackson, no more cunning an old duffer cum colleen's lovin' father than Jim Norton, no more impish an Oggish leprechaun than Christopher Fitzgerald, no more hiply wailin' a matriarch than Terri White, no more blustery a bigoted senator than David Schramm, nor a more soulful ego for his transformed, RE-formed self than Chuck Cooper, and..…well, you get the idea.
Add the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett & Don Walker as delivered by musical director Rob Berman and his superb orchestra and the answer to the musical question is unequivocal:
are just fine in Glocca Morra, thank you very much. And in Rainbow Valley,
Missitucky. And at the St. James Theatre. Where they are likely to remain so
for a long, long time...
Return to home page
Go to David Spencer's profile