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A Tale of Two Finians

A Tale of Two Finians

By Peter Filichia

Not often does a musical run 12 performances and get a cast album. But that’s what happened to a show that RCA Victor recorded 50 years ago this week: The 1960 revival of Finian’s Rainbow.

Actually, the production could be said to have run a little longer than that – 28 performances, if you count the number it amassed while first playing at City Center on West 55th in April-May, 1960. It was one of the many City Center revivals produced in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Jean Dalrymple. Her policy was to buy the sets and costumes from a just-closed hit Broadway musical and store them; then, some years later, she’d take them out for a new production that would run two weeks. Dalrymple would charge what was known as “popular prices” – about half the then-Broadway rate of $9.90.

The 1960 City Center Finian’s, though, was such a surprise success during its two-week run that Robert Fryer and Lawrence Carr – who’d produced Auntie Mame and Saratoga — decided to bring it to Broadway. They put it in the same 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) where Finian’s first struck gold in the original 1947 production of 725 performances.

Alas, it didn’t succeed, as those 12 performances will attest. So why would a failed revival get a recording? After all, there was already a perfectly good Columbia original cast album that had been consistently selling for more than a dozen years.

Two reasons, really. One: In those days Columbia and RCA Victor were bitter rivals in the cast album race. Because Columbia had a Finian’s in its catalogue, RCA wanted one, too. Here was the ideal chance for the company to get it.

The second reason was the more potent: While Columbia’s album was recorded in high fidelity – the state of the art in the late ‘40s – now RCA could record Finian’s in stereo — the state of the art in the late ‘50s. Even those who had bought Columbia’s Finian’s way back when might well be enticed to buy a new recording simply because of that six-letter word: S-t-e-r-e-o.

Today, we take stereo for granted. Chances are these days few people dutifully sit by their two speakers and concentrate on what sounds are coming from the left and which from the right. But in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — when stereo was THE technological innovation to end all technological innovations — people did just that. They were found frittering away their noon-time, supper-time, chore-time, too, smiling with pleasure as the brass emerged solely from one speaker, while the strings emerged from the other.

Had stereo been around when the original Finian’s opened, this revival would have undoubtedly gone unrecorded. So we’re fortunate to have cast albums from the first two Broadway productions of Finian’s Rainbow. It is, after all, one of Broadway’s most glorious scores. Burton Lane’s music is tuneful, memorable, and absolutely enchanting. The lilting “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The suave “Old Devil Moon.” The songs for Og, a leprechaun (David Wayne in the original, Howard Morris in the revival) are suffused with melody.

E.Y. Harburg’s lyrics are among the best to grace a Broadway musical. He was famous for stretching to make a rhyme. But even when he did, there was a definite method to his madness. The line that talked about “stickin’ to the rules” was paired with “birds and bees and other animules.” The fact that a mule is an animal (with long funny ears) makes the rhyme-stretch oh-so-delicious.

He was just as famous for creating words. We find in no dictionary “groomish” or “bloomish.” But we’re glad to find them, as well as “adorish” and “l’amourish,” in “Something Sort of Grandish.” It’s a song that is much more than something sort of grand.

Harburg’s greatest wordplay in Finian’s, though, occurs in “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near).” What can compete with “When I’m not facing the face that I fancy, I fancy the face I face?” Well, how about, “When I can’t fondle the hand I’m fond of, I fondle the hand at hand?” The lyrics are so tricky that when Harburg sang them at an evening in his honor (nicely captured on the original cast album as a bonus track), he had to pause a bit in each line to make sure he was getting everything right.

But here was a lyricist who had a great deal more to offer than just clever rhymes. In “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day,” he envisions a world when the have-nots suddenly have. And what does he see these previously downtrodden people doing with the money? “Keep it,” he admits, before he adds democratically, “and share it.”

Ella Logan is a big reason for getting the original cast Finian’s. Though she was born in Glasgow, Scotland, she sounded Irish to most ears. That made her a natural for a musical about a leprechaun who dealt with immigrants from Eire. Although Logan had done four Broadway musicals in the dozen years before Finian’s, this was the one where she finally became the talk of the town. The role of Sharon McLonergan, the Irish lass who fell in love with an American, allowed her to use her unique voice and her solid confidence. She was sure to have a great Broadway future ahead of her.

Alas, she never made another Broadway appearance. The closest she came was in 1965, when she was cast in the Broadway-bound Kelly. After the show’s dismal showings in Philadelphia and Boston, as Howard Taubman of the Times told us in his opening night review: “Ella Logan was written out of Kelly before it reached the Broadhurst Theater Saturday night. Congratulations, Miss Logan.” Four years later, she died.

Jeannie Carson played Logan’s role in the revival, where she showed a nice chemistry with her leading man Biff McGuire. But there should have been, for he was her husband. Now, 50 years later, they’re still together. Ironically, the billing for this Finian’s went: Jeannie Carson – Howard Morris – Biff McGuire. It is the only time – we hope and presume – that someone came between Carson and McGuire.

There’s one big lyric change between the original and revival cast albums. Back in 1947, Harburg wrote “If this isn’t love, I’m Carmen Miranda. If this isn’t love, it’s Red propaganda.” But by 1960, Miranda was dead, succumbing to a heart attack at a much-too-young 46 in 1955. Besides, the McCarthy Red scare was over, and no one wanted to be reminded of it. So we got, “If this isn’t love, there’s no Glocca Morra. If this isn’t love, I’m Zsa Zsa Gaborra.”

The new lyric probably took Harburg all of three seconds. Wouldn’t you assume that of the man who rhymed “Slav in you” with “avenue”? In “Necessity,” he rhymed “tennis” with “menace” and “Venice” – finding three perfect rhymes with words that on the page look so different. Yes, by the show’s second act when he coined the word “Sons of habitués,” his rival lyricists must have said, “Son of a bitch! That guy’s great!”

All these lyrics appear on both cast albums. Funny that the original cast album actually sports a bit more dialogue than the revival cast. Columbia cast albums were famous for not having much dialogue, per producer Goddard Lieberson, who thought that listeners would tire of it after a few hearings. Ah, but Finian’s was produced by Mitchell Ayers, which explains the extra talk.

The CD booklet for the original caster also offers a winsome advertisement from 1947, showing the scale of prices for the original production. It will make a theatergoer’s heart sink to see $9.60 for the orchestra, $7.20 for the mezz, and $4.80 for the balcony. Then his heart will sink deeper when he notices that these are New Year’s Eve prices – much higher than usual.

One last note: Much has been made of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in baseball on April 15, 1947 in Brooklyn. But Finian’s Rainbow shattered the racial barrier on Broadway more than three months earlier on Jan. 10, 1947. For the first time, black performers and white performers danced together in production numbers. You won’t be able to tell that from either album while listening, but it’s certainly a fact worth noting, and one of which Finian’s Rainbow can be proud.

You may e-mail Peter at [email protected] He also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia