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The charming politics of Finian's Rainbow
For all the magic in its plot – including a leprechaun and an enchanted pot of gold – the most fantastical thing about Finian's Rainbow may be its approach to politics. In contrast to our current addiction to bare-knuckled ideology, this musical imagines a small American town that overcomes its class and racial divides with cooperation, wit, and choreography.
"It's courageous, this piece," says Charlotte Moore, who adapts and directs the show's current revival at Irish Repertory Theatre. "It has these strong feelings that it can make beautiful."
There's certainly beauty in the score, with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Since Finian's Rainbow premiered in 1947, numbers like the yearning "Look to the Rainbow" and the flirtatious "Old Devil Moon" have become standards. There's also beauty in the book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy. Anyone who loves old-fashioned romance can swoon as Sharon, an Irish girl who has traveled to the American South, falls for a tenant farmer named Woody. And when Sharon's dad explains his hopes for the future of all mankind… well… it's hard not to be stirred.
In the midst of the loveliness, however, is a raucous subplot about a racist, white senator who gets magically transformed into an African-American. This leads to political commentary that's still sharp after 70 years, like when the newly black senator discovers that the color of his skin has instantly turned his former cronies against him.
And yet for all its social commentary, the show is still funny. The message of tolerance is wrapped in a layer of twinkling foolishness that arguably makes it easier to hear. There are constant one-liners, for instance, and cheeky songs with titles like "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," not to mention that leprechaun who strolls around making wry comments and wreaking havoc.
For Moore, who is also the Irish Rep's artistic director, the lightness actually deepens the play's loftier ideas. "There's a difference between punching you in the face with everything and making it fun," she says. "You can make it fun and still say what you want to say. Find a witty way to do it. Find a beautiful way to do it. Find a song, for goodness' sake! Everybody in this piece ends up being close friends. They all end up good, and they haven't killed anybody or condemned anybody or damned anybody. They've all achieved hope and love and beauty and humility without stabbing anybody in the heart. We could all learn something there."
Follow TDF Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: The cast of 'Finian's Rainbow.'
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