Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A celebration of Finian's Rainbow

I was enchanted yesterday to have a little Finian’s Rainbow with my lunch at the National Arts Club. David Richenthal, a producer of the current hit Broadway revival, and Kate Baldwin, who shines as Sharon McLonergan, were welcome guests to our Dutch Treat Club weekly luncheon.

Lynn Lane, widow of Finian’s composer Burton Lane, opened the program by introducing Richenthal, who then shared how he came to be part of this classic musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1947 and is enjoying a hit revival at the St. James Theatre.

Richenthal was first offered the chance to produce the show back in 1996 when he received a call from Burton Lane, whom he had never met, asking if they could talk. “I was a bit awed,” Richenthal said.

Lane told him he was unhappy with the plans for a revival of Finian’s that would have it playing in a 3,500-seat house, which conflicted with Lane’s vision of “something more suitable to the intimacy of this score,” Richenthal said.

The composer wanted Richenthal to take over as producer. Much as he would have liked to, Richenthal declined, saying it wouldn’t be right to take the show away from another producer. The show subsequently closed quickly out of town.

But Richenthal had told Lane that if the show ever got to New York, nothing would please him more than to produce it. Lane died shortly after that, but Richenthal has now honored Lane’s wishes by producing this first Broadway revival.

Besides speaking fondly of Lane, Richenthal also praised lyricist Yip Harburg as being the driving force behind the show Finian’s Rainbow was to become.

“The principle that motivated him was his abhorrence of racial segregation,” Richenthal said.

At the time of the show’s creation, in the mid-1940s, an anti-lynching bill was before Congress. Southern lawmakers opposed it.

“That was the atmosphere that gave rise to Finian’s Rainbow,” Richenthal said. “Yip had an ideal of illuminating how awful this bigotry was.”

So he created the racist southern Senator Rawkins who is turned into a black man as a way of forcing him to see life from the other side. But once he had that story line, Harburg thought it would be “a bit grim for a musical,” Richenthal said, so he put the work away for a year until he could “take it to the next step by marrying literary devices.”

Harburg discovered a book called The Crock of Gold about leprechauns whose pot of gold, which has the power to grant three wishes, is stolen. And as you know, this fit quite nicely into the story, giving it the playful spin it now has in connection with the antiracism theme.

And as for the great music, Richenthal explained how the winning song “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” came about. The name comes from two German words meaning lucky tomorrow.

“It’s the most important song because it introduces the heroine,” Richenthal said Harburg had felt. “He knew it should be a song that makes you cry.”

And that it can do, especially sung by Baldwin (the photo is a production shot from the musical) who, interestingly, had been an understudy in that ill-fated revival from the mid-90s. She sang it for us, as well as “Look To The Rainbow.” Hearing her in that intimate setting was a joy. I had loved her in the show and on her CD, Let’s See What Happens, and was so glad to experience her up close to see how down-to-earth and sincerely she is. I was glad to have the chance to tell her how much I loved her show and CD, and how much I enjoyed the studio cast recording of the 1926 musical Kitty’s Kisses on which she is featured. When I mentioned that, her face lit up even more and she gave me a hearty thanks and a two thumbs up.

What a sweetheart. I’d love to have her sing for us one year at Broadway Blessing. She’d be a natural. Keep your fingers crossed -- and stay tuned!

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