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'Finian' Begins Again

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'Finian' Begins Again
"The Lord says go out and have fun, but the landlord says, 'Your rent ain't paid!'" Truer words were never said than these from "Finian's Rainbow," which begins previews Oct. 8 at the St. James Theatre in New York following a successful spring stint in the New York City Center Encores! series. While many musicals become dated, this Broadway revival comes at a time when the issues of racism and recession are as relevant now as when the piece was written.

First performed on Broadway in 1947, "Finian's Rainbow" tells the story of an Irish immigrant, Finian McLonergan, who follows a misguided notion and buries a pot of gold in the fictitious Southern state of Missitucky, hoping that it will multiply and solve his money problems. Along the way, his new state's bigoted senator, Billboard Rawkins, magically transforms into a black man.

At the time Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy wrote "Finian's," the cultural tensions that culminated in the civil rights movement were just beginning to boil, while memories of the Great Depression were still fresh in most Americans' minds. The impact of both historical factors can be seen in the controversial topics laced throughout the play.

Producer David Richenthal says his revival is "62 years and coming," and topics like race, credit crises, and hope in trying times are still at the forefront of discussion. "The piece is timeless," Richenthal says. "It should have been done far more frequently."

Just consider the similarities to today. More than a handful of Americans could use a pot of gold to pay off debt, relinquish the worry of selling a house, or even buy weekly groceries. And just last year, the U.S. elected its first black president, pushing the issue of race back toward the forefront of our national conversation. As it did six decades ago, "Finian's" puts a fantastic twist on these issues, releasing some of the pressure that surrounds them while inviting the audience to evaluate the ways they impact the way we live now.

The revival differs slightly from the original after a recent book adaptation by Arthur Perlman for the upcoming production. Kate Baldwin, who plays Finian's daughter Sharon in the new production and worked in "Finian's Rainbow" 10 years ago in its original format at the Marriot Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., explains how Perlman beautifully streamlined the story to better emphasize its themes. "He took a lot out," she says, "but he got to the heart of the matter." 

But will a story that last saw life on Broadway more than 60 years ago translate for a new generation? "Finian's" leading man, Cheyenne Jackson, thinks the "'Spring Awakening' crowd and bloggers" may just go nuts over the new production. "You say what you mean and you mean what you say in 'Finian's Rainbow,'" Jackson says. He believes young audiences will find that refreshing.

Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle embraced the opportunity to work with the classic story and add his own touch. "'It's a musical from the Golden Age with a modern spin,'" Carlyle says when asked about shaping "Finian's" for a new audience in a new time. "I just looked for the magic."

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