FINIAN’S RAINBOW: Back to Broadway

Following an announcement on Playbill that an expanded version of the Finian’s Rainbow concert would transfer to Broadway in that season that the Americans so charmingly call “the fall”, casting has been announced (also at Playbill) for the Broadway run of the production:

The cast will feature… Kate Baldwin (Sharon) and… Jim Norton (Finian), who starred in the Encores! run, as well as… Christopher Fitzgerald as the leprechaun Og and Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper… as Billboard. The role of Woody, played by Cheyenne Jackson at Encores!, has yet to be cast.

Come on, Cheyenne – sign on! You naysayers who don’t agree with me – take a look at this picture:

Finian's Rainbow with CHEYENNE!

What did I tell you? It’s just perfection, isn’t it?

But let’s think about Finian’s Rainbow for a second, as it’s one of those controversial plays that has historically used blackface as a technique to satirise race-related issues; in a rather central plot point, a bigoted senator from the South is accidentally turned black. Complicating things even further, the show has this odd dichotomy in the fact that it’s set in a mythic state in a real country dealing with real races.

Looking at the show in the 21st century, I think it’s a complicated challenge to get the satire of Finian’s Rainbow to work as it was intended and I’m glad I don’t have to do it. I wonder if the key doesn’t lie in somehow broaching that controversy and the theatricality and artificiality of the technique used to affect the senator’s race change more directly in the book.

I think most people consider blackface to be in poor taste nowadays. A friend of mine, when reflecting on a production of Finian’s Rainbow in which he performed during the 1960s said the following about the use of blackface: “It violates every rule of racial fairness that we hold sacred. The very idea of whites performing in blackface seems not only comical today but quite scandalous. And yet we really felt that we were doing our liberal duty, putting on a play that spoke out loudly about racial discrimination.”

The world has changed since Aida and Otello first appeared in the late 1800s, since the 1940s, since the 1960s. The way blackface is used, even as a means to an end that satirizes racial discrimination should (have) shift(ed) too. In 2004, the Irish Repertory Theatre did an Off-Broadway production in which a mask was used to indicate the change of race. Depending on how this technique is used, it seems to me a step in the right direction. I’ve seen some excellent contemporary stuff done with masks in the past year.

Contextual note: The show had an original run of 725 performances in 1947, returned to Broadway in 1955 and 1960 and a (mediocre) film version was made in 1968. Several cast recordings of the show exist, including: the 1947 original Broadway cast recording, the 1960 Broadway revival cast recording, the 1968 film soundtrack and a 2004 concert cast recording. What we’re left with today is a beautiful score and a book where the satire is somewhat outdated and tends to play awkwardly, if not inappropriately. The satire of this piece is so intrinsically linked to the 1940s context in which the show originally appeared that I feel it needs to be re-examined very carefully if one is doing a production of the show and desires it to be anything but a museum piece in the final analysis.

If we turn our minds to the film, we can see how hard it is to get Finian’s Rainbow right. As far as the satire is concerned, Coppola doesn’t know how to pitch what was edgy in the 1940s but already losing its bite in the 1960s so that it works.

Coppola was a poor directorial match as for this film in any case: he can’t decide on an overall tone for the film and the balance between what is realistic, what is whimsical and what is satirical just doesn’t work. The location shots clash horribly with the studio shots. There’s no logical sense in the construction of the dramatic world in which this story takes place and, even worse, Coppola can’t get his actors to stylistically exist as characters within the same fictional world, which is why, for example, Tommy Steele soars manically over the top as Og.

That said, there is stuff the film has going for it – like Petula Clark, the beautiful rain dance and so on. But these never come together as a satisfyingly cohesive whole – which is, I suppose, why I think it’s mediocre and not bad outright.

As I’ve been thinking about this, there is only one director I can think of that could get a film version of Finian’s Rainbow right visually – and that’s Tim Burton. Although I’m not a dedicated Burton fan and think many of his films sacrifice storytelling for visual style, I think that with the right screenplay he could do a fantastic film version that creates a world where this story and the satire inherent in it come together seamlessly for a contemporary audience.

If nothing else, Finian’s Rainbow certainly gives one a lot to think about. And I guess – in some ways – that is the point…

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One Response to FINIAN’S RAINBOW: Back to Broadway

  1. David Fick says:

    Playbill has announced that Cheyenne Jackson will be playing the role! Hurrah!

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