Oct 29, 2009

Yip Yip Hooray

The great new Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow kept reminding me of the Roundabout's The Pajama Game revival of a few years back: Not just for the score's similarly odd mix of faux-bumpkin Americorn and jazz-standard-ready showtunes, or for both books' surprisingly lefty bent, but because the flawless, idiosyncratic cast, as in Pajama Game, handily destroys the notion that today's performers just can't do the old Broadway shows justice anymore. Put Cheyenne Jackson or Chris Fitzgerald in a wayback machine, and I think it's inarguable they'd have given John Raitt or Phil Silvers a run for their money.

Whether the old shows are worth the candle is another matter; in the case of Pajama Game, I was less than convinced, while the new South Pacific, for instance, makes a beautiful, irrefutable case for its place in the canon. I guess I'd situate Finian's Rainbow's revival-worthiness somewhere uneasily between those two: Yip Harburg's impish lyrics and flakily plotted but sneakily moving book, hitched to Burton Lane's competent, crafty, occasionally bold music (check the changes in the last eight of "That Old Devil Moon"), and delivered as they are here by this brilliant cast--it's a curious artifact, no question, but ultimately it's as irresistible a package as this inimitably Harburgian lyric:
We could be oh, so bride and groomish
Skies could be so bluish blue
Life could be so love in bloomish
If my ishes could come true


Chris Caggiano said...

Rob: Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I agree with you wholeheartedly about Finian's Rainbow and Pajama Game.

But as for South Pacific, I'm sorry, but I couldn't let the word "irrefutably" pass without comment.

I'm afraid I must refute. I consider South Pacific a drastic regression on the part of R&H. Almost all of the innovation these gentlemen brought together with Oklahoma and Carousel are absent from SoPac, particularly the complex, extended musicals scenes instead of stop-and-sing songs.

As I've said many times on my blog, as well as in my course on the history of musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, I consider SoPac to be the most overrated musical of all time. Here's my full blog post defending same.


Respectfully yours,


Rob Weinert-Kendt said...


Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading it. First, I think "inarguably" and "irrefutably" are weasel words, overused by would-be know-it-all poseurs...my bad. I did actually think twice about using that word, should have thought thrice. Of course, everything's arguable. That's the point of criticism and blogging in the first place.

But I can't agree with you about SP (most overrated musical ever? I call Les Miz). Maybe because I'm in the BMI workshop, which is full of musical theatre rules hounds, I found the untraditional plotting, particularly in the first act, to be exhilarating. Maybe it was the production (I'm willing to admit that might be it), but I just felt that R&H knew exactly what they were doing with that odd first scene, starting with the romance at a crucial point then backing into the exposition, and laying out the characters' passions so nakedly right away, and so (deceptively) simply, only to have them complicate and unravel...I was blown away by the confidence to do that, and make it work, which to my mind they did.

In that context, the whole Seabees/Bloody Mary sequence played as a zoom-out of the narrative lens--what would be an opening sequence in a more conventional book. And I couldn't disagree more about the juxtaposition of "Wash That Man" and "Wonderful Guy," which conveys Nellie's ambivalence about this relationship--which was set up in that first scene--so well (and the way Kelli O'Hara pulled it off, just about perfectly). And that in turn sets up her later rejection and hard-thought reversal...all this felt exactly right.

I didn't see "Happy Talk" the way you did at all; it is inappropriate on its face, but the way it was directed and played it read in jarringly intentional contrast to the action, like a slightly desperate happy-face jingle Bloody Mary sings to smooth things over in what is essentially a doomed Madame Butterfly romance. I found Bloody Mary's willful naivete here moving; this may be a fresh take of Sher's, not what R&H intended, but boy did it work for me.

I do think the book creaks a bit in the second act, with all the military scenes and Billis etc., and the Thanksgiving show isn't as much fun as it would be in a less serious-minded production. And the biggest unearned cheat of the book is Cable and Liat's falling for each other for real and having an authentic love at first sight that's not just about tawdry at-leave booty; that just has to be believed, and "Younger Than Springtime" does its best to help. (My wife wasn't entirely convinced.)

I know what you're saying about integrating songs, advancing plot, extended scenes, etc. But to my mind, SP works beautifully as it is; I think the score's modesty and relative squareness and compartmentalization from the book suits the material. I'm not sure I'd want an extended musical scene about racism; "You've Got To Be Taught" is short and taut and entirely effective where it's placed. I'm willing to concede that the show may not survive a production less intent and surehanded than Sher's (which I guess you don't agree is brilliant), but I'm not sure how well any of their musicals hold up in less-than-brilliant productions.

Anyway, I welcome the discussion. Thanks for the comment!