Bustin’ with Bliss: 5Q4 Ernie Harburg

Bustin' with Bliss: 5Q4 Ernie HarburgSome things are worth working for and waiting for. A commemorative stamp. A book. A pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, for instance.

Ernie Harburg is used to waiting. It took him five years to convince the United States Postal Service to feature his dad, lyricist Yip Harburg, on a 37c stamp that was finally issued in 2005. Harburg traveled around the country meeting members of a selection committee that shifted every couple of years. Eventually, Yip’s great friend, actor Karl Malden, was part of the committee, and Ernie knew who to approach. The rest is postal and theater history.

It took Harburg even longer to get a book out about the Del Rio, a bar and restaurant he co-owned in Ann Arbor, where he was a University of Michigan social psychologist and epidemiologist. From 1970 to 2003, owners and workers shared in a unique collaboration that included decision by consensus and some profit sharing. Like father Yip, Ernie’s interest was less in running a business than in creating a world.

With his late wife, Torry, daughter of a labor union activist, and two other partners, he invented a space that welcomed everyone. Local members of the Democratic Party gathered. Lesbian, gay and straight couples felt equally at home. And budding jazz musicians developed their chops at the Del; there was never a cover charge. Harburg wanted to tell the Del story even before the place closed, but finding a collaborator and a publisher took time. This month, the book hit the shelves, and Harburg’s selected collection of his dad’s lyrics is likely to see print next year.

“With a little bit of luck and a little bit of tenacity, you can make a lot of things happen,” HarburgBustin' with Bliss: 5Q4 Ernie Harburg said, as notices for the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow began to pour in, these ranging from favorable to out-and-out raves. Now he’s waiting and working toward a national tour of the show, a CD, maybe an animated version.

But this is far from an overnight success story. In 1981, shortly after his father’s death, Ernie became president of the Harburg Foundation and began planning the revival.

I asked him to tell me about the obstacles he encountered on the road to a pot o’ gold.

DN: So why didn’t we see this show in the early 80’s?

EH: It was hard for the producers to get financial backing for the original because of the belief that the show indicated liberal or left-wing positions in an atmosphere of Cold War. In the 80’s, we couldn’t get any producer on Broadway to take it up because of what they called ‘racial matters.’ The senator is based on two real people, a senator and a representative who used to talk about “Communist Niggers” on the floor. But you weren’t supposed to say anything in the 80’s because of the PC thing. Producers didn’t like the social agenda and racial aspects, but they all admitted the score was fantastic.

DN: What changed? Was it hard to find a producer to do this in 2009?

EH: A maverick producer, a young guy, second generation, David Richenthal, had an unusual track record. He just did straight plays, the best American plays, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller. He dug the serious intent of Finian’s Rainbow. Almost ten years ago, he said he wanted to do it, then he disappeared for three years, then he came back, and then he disappeared again. The third time, he showed up when Obama got elected. They wanted to try it out first in Encores to see what happened, and they got very positive reviews.

David set out to put the show on. He met with the director and artistic director. Deena [Deena Rosenberg, who created the musical theater program at NYU, is Harburg’s wife] got the producers to hire an excellent playwright, Art Perlman, to adapt it to the current year, and Deena found some of the actors. All in all, it shaped up good.

Although “socialist” has again become an oft-used accusation by conservatives, the major issues of our time include easy credit and its consequences, the pressure of necessity versus pleasure for poor people, the way people divided by race work against each other instead of together for mutual economic benefit.

Finian’s Rainbow opened in ‘47, but everything in there is just as contemporary today. Then, it was one of the most daring shows in the musical theater. It required collaboration among 50 people, and it was very difficult. Yip was always the muscle on his shows. He would be everywhere and do everything, so he was a one-man executive putting up shows. The same thing with Finian’s, at that time, racism was very very strong, even though the civil rights movement started when guys got out of army. This was not a musical comedy and not a musical play. It was a musical satire, and it was original, not an adaptation of a novel. He could say whatever he wanted, and consequently he said a great deal about racism and about the economy. The critics couldn’t knock it because the score was sensational. Every song was show-stopping quality.

Racism is not as overt as it used to be, but it still exists. Black and white are not the only factors any more. By the way, there is still no black person in the Senate. All are white and rich. Some things haven’t changed at all, the huge divide between rich and poor, Southern racism. The mark of a great work is that it is timely and timeless at the same time.

Of course, the satire of our economic system is particularly relevant right now, given the nation’s deep financial woes. Yip and his collaborators, Fred and composer Burton Lane, didn’t like to hit people over the heads with political messages. They couched their politics in witty whimsical dialogues and songs that are classics–but also, in the case of the satiric ones, are more than entertainment. They’re social commentaries in miniature–Necessity, When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich, and so on.

DN: So George Bush did one good thing—he made this revival relevant. Still you made a lot of changes in the book, and maybe the most talked about has to do with a white senator who learns to empathize after a leprechaun transforms him into a black man. In the 1947 original production, a white actor wore blackface for those scenes. Now, you have two actors of similar builds, one white, one black. Is this a change you wanted?

EH: I’ve been watching different versions since 1982, and I had a list of wants. First on the list is you can’t have a man putting on shoe polish. We Harburgs and the director and producers accepted that there be two actors, one white, one black. The press and the public completely buy into this, and I’m amazed and delighted at how well it works.

We also talked about the use of sharecroppers. It can’t be just a chorus line, the usual routine that came up in 1920s with Ziegfield. It had to be a Greek chorus, a community losing land.

The ending has changed over the years, too. Yip and Fred changed the ending in 1980 and since then it has been different in every production from Goodspeed to Hess to Irish Rep to Broadway. In 1947, Yip and Fred thought nuclear energy could be a positive force for peaceful change. When they realized countries wanted nuclear energy to make bombs, they took out the lines near the end implying this. They put in the ending lines, “Sharon, where is Glocca Morra,” “It’s that faraway place, a little beyond your reach but never beyond your hope.” Finian is a character who brings hope wherever goes. He brought it to Rainbow Valley when he arrived, and he takes the power to give it away with him when he leaves. After those lines, in the new ending the ensembles sings, “So to every weeping willow…,” a reprise of Glocca Morra. Glocco Morra in Gaelic means “Lucky Tomorrow.”

DN: People love Yip’s lyrics now as much as they did in 1947. Is it partly because we crave a lucky tomorrow?

EH: In 1947, no one had ever heard them, so the score was brand new and immediately highly praised. Since then, musical theater aficionados know many of the songs, and most people have heard Devil Moon and Glocca Morra. But most are not in everyone’s ear like, say, Rogers and Hammerstein songs. So for most people, it seems they are hearing a new score, for the first time. When that score moves from Gospel and blues to folk music to Broadway ballads to Irish-inflected gavottes and Americanized European waltzes, each song tops the next.

DN: You were raised by your aunt in a working-class home, while Yip was in California, writing lyrics. When he brought you out there, it was culture shock. You had a first-hand look at the idle rich. How does this inform your understanding of Yip’s work?

EH: After that, I went to Antioch, then to the Army, and I had plenty of time to read and think about things, like religion, which I rejected. After the War, I went to Europe with Tori, and we saw the devastation there. It reminded me of Yip’s parents coming over from Russia and settling on the lower East Side [of New York] in a six-floor walkup with no electricity and no hot water. Yip learned to play the harmonic and the guitar, and the first thing you hear in Finian’s Rainbow is a harmonica, after the orchestra stops. Then the hero, Woody, has a guitar, which he Bustin' with Bliss: 5Q4 Ernie Harburgcan’t play—those were the two musical instruments.

When I cameback to New York, it was the Depression, and Yip wrote his first major song, the anthem of the Depression, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Then he wrote April in Paris and Paper Moon, in the space of three months. But in college, he majored in science because he wanted to make money and get his parents out of the sweat shops.

He was captain of the neighborhood baseball team when I was growing up, and he taught me how to throw a curve ball and explained the Bernoulli’s principle. He paid me to write poetry, and I did–five cents a poem was a lot at that time–but I followed the research path.

Yip wrote the first feminist and civil rights musical, Bloomer Girl, and the first an anti-war musical, Hooray for What! He was a Rooseveltian social democrat, but he was labeled a Communist pinko and blacklisted from Hollywood. He said Broadway was the only place an artist could practice his craft, if he had money.

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Photo of Ernie Harburg and stamp courtesy of Harburg Foundation, photo of Finian’s Rainbow courtesy of Richard Kornberg and Associates

Davi Napoleon is a theater historian and journalist who writes widely about the arts. Schoolbiz, her column on theater training, ran for four years in TheaterWeek, and her features on design have been ...read more

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