“I’ve an an elegant legacy / Waitin’ for ye, / ’Tis a rhyme for your lips / And a song for your heart, / To sing it whenever / The world falls apart! Look, look / Look to the rainbow. / Follow it over the hill / And the stream. Look, look / Look to the rainbow. / Follow the fellow / Who follows a dream.”
– “Look to the Rainbow” lyrics from Finian’s Rainbow
It seems appropriate that Ted Kennedy and Frank McCourt share the cover with Finian’s Rainbow, which is back for another run on Broadway. Its combination of immigrants’ quest for the American dream, political satire, beautiful lyrics, and social message is one that Ted and Frank would have identified with.
You are probably familiar with the songs – “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?,” “Look to the Rainbow” – but there is more to the show than meets the ear. The plot involves an Irishman and his daughter arriving in the mythical Southern state of Missitucky, followed in hot pursuit by a leprechaun whose crock of gold the father has “borrowed.”
The land where they bury the gold turns out to be worked by black sharecroppers, who are under threat of eviction for back taxes by the racist Senator Billboard Rawlins. At a crucial point in the plot, Finian’s daughter, Sharon, exclaims angrily at Sen. Rawlins, “I wish you were black, so you would know what it would feel like to be in their skin.” And, since she is unwittingly standing above the buried crock of gold, Sharon gets her wish, and the senator becomes black.
That was quite a message to take to the American public in 1947, when the show opened on Broadway. It was also the first time that white and black actors danced together on the Broadway stage.
Yip Harburg, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Burton Lane. Harburg was reading James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold, “a beautiful book with all the lovely Irish names and leprechauns” which gave him the idea of using an Irish theme for the show. He said later, “I love Irish
literature – James Stephens, Sean O’Casey. I felt easy working with an Irish idea. ”
It’s nice to think of standing up for minorities as an “Irish idea.” Certainly, Frank McCourt and Ted Kennedy exemplified the idea that our own history of poverty and discrimination is best put to use when it causes us to have empathy for others.
The success of Frank’s unsparing memoir Angela’s Ashes began a huge debate in Ireland, which led to the recent Ryan Report that chronicles the abuse suffered by children in industrial schools (see our piece on Danny Ellis in this issue). Frank, who traveled to Haiti with the Irish relief organization Concern Worldwide, was also a key supporter of the Irish Repertory Theater (his wife Ellen heads the board) which showcased Finian’s Rainbow in 2006, the success of which probably served as the impetus for the current Broadway production.
The Kennedys, like no other American family – let us not forget Eunice who founded the Special Olympics and Jean who founded Very Special Arts – championed the cause of minorities and immigrants, the disabled, the poor and the neglected. I always thought that they must have had imprinted in their DNA some memories of the troubles that their Irish ancestors went through. And where their own suffering could have made them bitter, it made them more sensitive to the pain of others.
Of the many moving tributes to Ted Kennedy, Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, struck a chord when he reminded us that Jack Kennedy had been listening to a recording from Finian’s Rainbow when he learned that his sister Kathleen had died in a plane crash in Europe. “Camelot became a metaphor for the Kennedys in the aftermath of Jack’s assassination,” Herbert wrote. “But I always found Finian’s Rainbow to be a more appropriate touchstone for the family, especially the song ‘Look to the Rainbow,’ with the moving lyric, ‘Follow the fellow who follows a dream.’ That was Ted’s message at Bobby’s funeral. The Kennedys counseled us for half a century to be optimistic and to strive harder, to find the resilience to overcome those inevitable moments of tragedy and desolation, and to move steadily toward our better selves, as individuals and as a nation.”
Frank and Ted, you shared your gold with all of us. And showed us that the most terrible storms can bring the most beautiful rainbows.