The Clare Spark Blog

October 19, 2009

Finian’s Rainbow washes out Red

This blog is about the NYT presentation of the upcoming revival of Finian’s Rainbow.  See . I still remember all the songs, for it had a glorious score with clever and witty lyrics (Burton Lane and Yip Harburg, thank you), and was wildly popular and reproduced in high schools and summer camps from 1947 on. (Those were the days when we all knew Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, and other comical songwriters, connoisseurs of art and romance, whose lyrics aspired to poetry.)

    This is how Healy presents the theme: “…arguably the most racially provocative production to reach Broadway in its day. The white residents of utopian Rainbow Valley live and work happily alongside blacks and immigrants. The production featured white and black performers dancing and holding hands, which was almost unheard of at the time [See Showboat, 1927? C.S.] One character, a racist white senator, is magically turned black so he can experience bigotry firsthand — just one of the musical’s satirical subplots about racial reconciliation.”  Although it is represented as concerned solely with “racial reconciliation,” everyone knew during my youth that Finian’s Rainbow was a commie play. And of course communists like to take credit for their leadership stand against racism and imperialism in the 1930s and afterwards as if no one had ever thought of it before. But for the new production to ignore or erase the expropriation of upper-class property by lower-class blacks united with poor whites as THE major theme would be to deform beyond recognition the original conception of the musical. Are they planning to excise “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” or “On That Great Come-and-Get-It Day?”  And what about the leprechaun’s “When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love, I Love The Girl I’m Near?”  Will that go too because it is off message, which is obviously the racial angle. And “The Begat.” Wonderful send-up of the Bible, and naughty too.

    Or was it a New Deal fantasy about redistributive justice? American communists have not had a great record in producing light-hearted and fanciful art that isn’t canned and predictably didactic; the original Finian’s Rainbow laughed at class rule by fools, Southern Bourbon white supremacy and dirty politics, and, by celebrating romance and even the waywardness of sexuality, hinted at the anti-sex hangups of many Catholics and evangelical Protestants (the only thing missing was the gay issue, but in those days the Reds and their Pop Front allies (?) were not supporting equality for homosexuals). 

    It is an awful prospect that confronts us: so-called liberals worried about offending blacks with blackface or “the shuffle” may be destroying the most popular [quasi-red?] play ever, and it is apparently turning toward “perspectivism”– a kind of resegregation that the original musical did not countenance.  Here is what one of the unfunny producers said to the New York Times:

“One of the senator’s lines, after he has been both white and black, is, ’I can see both sides of it now’ — which speaks very specifically, I think, to the age of Obama, to the ability to see both sides of the way people live in this country,” Mr. [David] Richenthal said.

   You don’t have to be an academic to see the uptight pandering to black nationalism in such a statement: All blacks are in the same socio-economic class, as are all whites, if I read this sentence correctly, hello Whiteness Studies. If class, romance, and charm are still in the musical, along with my favorite songs (as listed above), I’ll eat my little pointy green cap.


  1. From what I can gather, they didn’t cut the red songs, but the play is still being written about as non-threatening, i.e., as a populist statement condemning “economic greed.”

    Comment by clarespark — December 28, 2009 @ 12:25 am | Reply

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