Saturday, 17 May 2014

Finian’s Rainbow

I'm not normally a fan of Broadway musicals. To be frank I often find them too screamingly camp. Some I cotton to immediately — the noirish and sexy classics directed by Bob Fosse, like Cabaret and Chicago (both of which had songs by Kander and Ebb) are just great. But, as a rule, most Broadway songs need to be put through the purifying charcoal filter of jazz before I can endure them.

On the other hand, I love the songs of lyricist Yip Harburg. His left wing masterpieces like Buddy Can You Spare a Dime and, especially, Dusty Shoes seem to me powerful, moving and relevant. Not to mention brilliantly written. My admiration for E.Y. Harburg ('Yip' is a nickname, Yiddish for squirrel, given to him when he was a skinny redheaded kid dashing everywhere) has even led me to reassess The Wizard of Oz (yes, he's the guy who penned those blood-chilling words, "Somewhere over the rainbow...").

The one Yip Harburg musical I really wanted to catch was Finian's Rainbow (Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Harburg, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy). I used to assume this was some kind of cod Irish nonsense about Leprechauns and crocks of gold. Well, it does feature both of those items, but it's set in the deep south of the USA and wrestles with issues of racism and hostility to immigrants. It features this great one-liner: "My family has been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country."

It also features some truly classic songs, including Old Devil Moon. So when an acclaimed production turned up at the Charing Cross Theatre I zipped along to see it like an eager squirrel. Smart move. It was an outstanding production with a notably jazzy score played by some gifted pit musicians. And Christina Bennington was a knockout in the role of Sharon.

If you get a chance to see this production — adapted by Charlotte Moore, directed by Phil Willmott — drop everything and rush along. In the meantime you can listen to the superb (and jazzy) version recorded in 1963 by the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre, Frank Sinatra's record label, which turned me on to the glories of these songs in the first place.

(Image credits: The poster for the production I saw is from West End Whingers. The Reprise LP cover is from EIL.)

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