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Harlem Repertory Theatre presents Jamaica as part of its Yip Harburg series
Most theatre artists can point to the show that served as their gateway drug. For Broadway performer turned Harlem Repertory Theatre artistic director Keith Lee Grant, it was Finian's Rainbow. "You know that first thing you do in high school? I never forgot it," he says about appearing in the musical. "I'm African-American and from the South Side of Chicago. When I was 13, the theatre group did Finian's Rainbow with an all-black cast! That was the beginning of my love for Yip Harburg."
E. Y. Harburg, nicknamed Yip, was a prolific lyricist who penned many standards and movie tunes -- his oeuvre includes "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", "April in Paris," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Old Devil Moon," and all the songs in The Wizard of Oz. He also worked on a number of Broadway shows, especially during the period when he was blacklisted. Finian, which is revived fairly regularly, and the stage adaptation of Oz are his best-known theatre works. But Grant hopes to introduce audiences to some of his more obscure material by producing five Harburg musicals in repertory. The project kicked off last fall with a one-hour reimagining of Oz for families. It continues with a rare revival of Jamaica, which hasn't been seen in New York City since the original 1957 Broadway production starring Lena Horne.
Like Finian (which HRT will revive in 2018 along with Flahooley; the final Harburg show, Bloomer Girl, is set for 2019), Jamaica is a multicultural musical with incredibly liberal politics for its time. On the surface, it's a love triangle set on a Caribbean isle with catchy Calypso songs by Harburg and his Oz composer Harold Arlen. But the book, co-written by Harburg and Fred Saidy, and lyrics address some very heavy themes, including racism, classism, consumerism, cultural appropriation, and even nuclear annihilation.
Grant, who directs, and adapter Arthur Perlman have made some changes: a few songs have been moved, a plot twist has been added, and the Big Apple businessman who tries to steal the island girl away from her local love is now white. Yet much of Jamaica remains just as it was 60 years ago, which makes it amazingly prescient. Just take these witty couplets from "Leave the Atom Alone:"
Ever since the apple in the garden with Eve
Man always foolin' with things that cause him to grieve
But not since the doom day in old Babylon
Did he fool with anything so diabolical as the cyclotron
"When I listened to the cast album, I was shocked that no one's done it," says Grant. "The 'Atom' song evokes inciting nuclear war with North Korea. Unfortunately, it is all still relevant."
Grant, who is also a professor at CUNY, founded HRT in 2004 to bring affordable professional theatre to the neighborhood. Although the company has moved around a bit, it now makes its home at the Tato Laviera Theatre on East 123rd Street, sharing the space with a charter school. There are always several shows running in rep (the current lineup also includes A Raisin in the Sun, The Colored Museum, and In the Heights), mostly featuring actors of color. While production values are modest by necessity, Jamaica boasts a live band -- a rarity for HRT.
"We have a very limited budget, so we usually do musicals with tracks or a piano," admits Grant. "But Arthur said, 'You've got to get live musicians!' It's hard because we've got to do shows in ways that aren't expensive. I couldn't ask $50 or more for tickets and be in a building surrounded by people who couldn't afford to come in. That's important to me to be in Harlem and keep the prices down."
Perlman -- a longtime Harburg scholar who worked on the 2009 Broadway revival of Finian -- met Grant when he consulted on HRT's previous mounting of Flahooley. "Jamaica is Shakespeare in comparison to Flahooley," Perlman says about Harburg's politically charged musical comedy, an indictment of Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunts, which opened and closed on Broadway in about a month in 1951. "Yip had a playful way of using words but, more than that, he used his shows to try to make the world better. He was very aware of injustices. He called humor the soft underbelly that was the way he could get you to think. He wasn't trying to take a sledgehammer and hit you over the head; he was trying to tickle you."
Meanwhile the mid-19th-century set Bloomer Girl "deals a lot with feminism, slavery, and anti-war themes," says Perlman. "Yip was always looking for a way for his musicals to advance a progressive agenda, but he was very careful to be entertaining. And Jamaica is a good example of that. There are a lot of great and funny satiric songs and that's really the engine that drives the musical."
While Grant is committed to seeing this Harburg project through, he admits that it's most likely his swan song. "I'm in my sixties now so I'm looking to finish my career," he says. "I do want to close it out with this festival. I started in high school with Finian's Rainbow and I think I'd like to end my career with five by Yip. We've got two down -- and three to go."
Top image: the cast of Jamaica. Photos courtesy of Harlem Repertory Theatre.