The Rhyming Radical
With very few exceptions, the successful Broadway and film musicals of the genre’s so-called “golden age”—with their romance-driven plots, often nostalgic settings, and (mostly) happy endings—were notable for their lack of political content. Hence the recent and rapturously received Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow came as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the show, which has not been seen on the Great White Way since the original production closed in 1948. For not only is the subject matter of Finian’s Rainbow frankly political, but the plot—in which a biracial community of poor sharecroppers thwarts a racist senator by persuading a leprechaun to turn him into a black man and is in turn corrupted by wealth that turns the “idle poor” into the “idle rich”—amounts to an openly left-wing critique of the United States and capitalism.
The man who put the politics into Finian’s Rainbow was E.?Y. “Yip” Harburg (1896-1981), who wrote the lyrics and collaborated with Fred Saidy on the book. An inspired craftsman who was universally esteemed by his colleagues for his crisp wit and fluent command of rhyme, Yip Harburg was the only one of the major lyricists of the golden age of American popular song who regularly addressed political themes in his work—as well as the only one who would openly describe himself as a socialist. In fact, Harburg was affiliated with numerous Communist front groups, and a biography co-written by his son acknowledges that his political positions “moved in and out of alignment with those of the Communist party by a calculus that he alone professed to understand.”
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.