– Best known in our area as the choreographer of those show-stopping numbers at Arena Stage for Oklahoma! and The Music Man, Parker Esse returns to give back to the talented students at Catholic University. –
Looking to feel something sort of grandish? Look no further than Finian’s Rainbow, the 1947 musical that introduced such perennial favorites as “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?,” “Look to the Rainbow,” and “Old Devil Moon.”
One part whimsical fantasy and one part social commentary, the musical Finian’s Rainbow follows Finian McLonergan and his daughter Sharon who travel from Glocca Morra, Ireland, to Rainbow Valley, USA, in the mythical American state Missitucky. Finian has stolen a leprechaun’s gold and wants to plant it in ground near Fort Knox so it will grow and he can be rich. Og, the leprechaun, follows the McLonergans to reclaim his pot of gold and return it to Ireland before his magic powers fade.
The 1947 tuner took home three Tony Awards and a prestigious Drama Desk Award, playing 725 performances on Broadway.
The Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University of America (CUA) brings the musical comedy classic to the Hartke Theatre, October 25 through the 28, 2012. N. Thomas Pedersen, head of CUA’s musical theatre division, leads the music for Finian’s Rainbow.
The director and choreographer Parker Esse is no stranger to the show. For the 2009 Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow, Esse served as the associate choreographer. He was also in the musical Fosse, soon after graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, through the CAP 21 Musical Theatre Training Program.
Pedersen invited Esse to come to CUA to direct this production of Finian’s Rainbow. “When I approached Broadway, actor, director, choreographer Parker Esse about coming to CUA to direct and choreograph the show I was thrilled that he was excited about the project,” said Pedersen.
Professor Pedersen knew that the production would not be a remounting of the recent Broadway revival. Esse said his plans were focused on providing an enriching theatrical experience for the students. It was about more than working on Finian’s Rainbow.
“It wasn’t about the piece so much, as it was a chance for me to share my knowledge with the students at CUA. I love sharing my experiences and trying to give back, by encouraging and working with our future generation of performers.”
“Parker is not only a creative director and choreographer,” said Pedersen. “He is master teacher and fits beautifully into the teaching life of CUA.”
They brought in dance coordinator Pauline Grossman to complete the onstage production staff to lead the students in their journey to Missitucky.
Esse said his work as associate choreographer on the 2009 Encores concert and subsequent Broadway revival was rewarding, but his job at CUA was not to recreate work done elsewhere.
“I have approached this production with a fresh set of eyes. My direction and choreography for this production is also unique due to the talented group of students I have from the school. For me, directing and choreographing has always been a collaborative process.”
During rehearsals, the collaboration took form early, as the actors discovered their characters, said Esse. Borrowing a technique from mentor and friend Molly Smith of Arena Stage, the director had each performer present a solo improvisation exercise to show their character’s background story.
“I find this always informs any of my actor/dancers I work with on how they personally relate to one another in the world we are creating on stage.” Esse said the results pay off.
“For me as a director, I find the more my cast knows about their on-stage world and the people in it, the more invested they become in creating and breathing life into that world, every time they step on the stage.”
From the beginning, the CUA students in Finian’s Rainbow have been eager participants. “The actors are so eager to hone their craft, as they are students wanting to apply their newly learned skills,” Esse said.
“I am proud of my students at CUA, the work they have accomplished and the growth they have made. They have been dedicated and hard working.”
Thomas Pedersen said he heard a lot of people asking, “Why Finian’s Rainbow?”
His answer: “Because it’s relevant today. Not only is the score superb, lush and melodious, but the themes of tolerance, hope, living beyond one’s means, community, racism and optimism are very much on everyone’s minds.”
The timing couldn’t be better, Pedersen added. “It’s an election year, and what is better than using satire to help move social commentary along and help spread optimism as much as we can.”
Another part of the learning experience for CUA’s production of Finian’s Rainbow was introducing the students to the score. For many members of the cast this was their first encounter with Lane and Harburg’s enchanting songs.
Pedersen said the score is full of hit songs: “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?,” “Look to the Rainbow,” and “Old Devil Moon.” But it offers more than just some popular hits, thanks in large part to the lyrics of E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. “His lyrics and book drive this show and still do so today.”
Harburg is best known for his lyrics with Harold Arlen’s music for The Wizard of Oz. Among his other American standards are “April in Paris,” with music by Vernon Duke, and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” another Arlen collaboration.
But Yarburg’s social activism was never far from his writer’s pen. He wrote the lyrics to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” – an anthem for the economic hardships of the Great Depression. As lyricist and book writer, he worked on shows with an anti-war theme (Hurray for What?, 1937), pro-feminist and anti-racial theme (Bloomer Girl, 1947).
When he partnered with composer Burton Lane in the late 1940s to create Finian’s Rainbow, the social commentary was present, but with a childlike approach to the story and songs. Pedersen said the social issues and intolerance are seen through the eyes of Og the leprechaun.
When Finian and Sharon arrive in Rainbow Valley, toting the stolen leprechaun gold, they find unhappy workers who are being told they have to vacate the land they work. What’s more, thanks to the “law of the South,” whites and blacks cannot work together side by side.
Senator Billboard Rawkins is the archetype of a blustery Southern politician. When Sharon wishes for the senator to feel first hand what racism feels like, her proximity to buried leprechaun’s gold helps to transform Rawkins into a black man. Racial issues had been handled in musical theatre before (Showboat, South Pacific) but never with a magical twist.
Pedersen said Burton and Yarburg incorporated a variety of musical styles for their satirical tale.
“The lyrics drive the numbers throughout, each one demanding a new and very distinct style. Some songs evoke Ireland (“How are Things in Glocca Mora?,” “Look to the Rainbow”), American Gospel (“The Begat,” “Necessity,” “On that Great Come and Get it Day”) and even Gilbert and Sullivan (“When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich”).”
For Esse, Finian’s Rainbow speaks for itself. The aspects of social commentary tempered with wit and a light touch are important, but making the story real for the performers and the audience was vital, said Esse.
“For me, I never approach a show by labeling it. I personally want a show to be based in reality and created by the actors who breathe life into it.”
Esse said his for the CUA Finian’s Rainbow was educational, not merely theatrical.
“During the rehearsal process I try and approach each rehearsal as a classroom. I feel I am continuing to educate the students about character background, intent, overall objectives and their goals for accomplishing those objectives in both their scenes and musical numbers equally.”
As they prepare Finian’s Rainbow for a weekend of performances, Esse said the end product is not the ultimate goal.
“It is not about the final product, it is about the process and learning development of the students. They are truly gifted; I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with them and have been continually impressed by their talent.”
Audiences who want to see the work of Esse, Pedersen and the cast of Finian’s Rainbow have just four chances to take a trip to Rainbow Valley at the Hartke Theatre at Catholic University of America.
Finian’s Rainbow. Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg. Book by E. Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, Parker Esse, director and choreographer. Hartke Theatre, School of Music, Catholic University of America, October 25, 26, & 27, 7:30 p.m. and October 28, 2 p.m.
Tickets available at http://music.cua.edu