Technology with attitude

Flahooley, anti-McCarthy puppet musical by Finian's Rainbow creators, December 18 to January 3

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The success on Broadway of “Finian’s Rainbow” has given renewed attention to the other works of lyricist Yip Harburg and musical book writer Fred Saidy, including a revival of the 1951 Broadway musical “Flahooley”, which tells the story of a toymaker but is also a satire of the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950’s; the musical includes “genie hunts” and “doll burnings.” The new 90-minute adaptation of “Flahooley” by Keith Lee Grant, Artistic Director of Harlem Repertory Theater, will be performed at The Theater for the New City from December 18th to January 3rd.

Jonathan Slaff, publicist for the show, offers some interesting history:

“Flahooley” is an allegorical musical tale that takes place in the fictional Midwestern city of Capsulanti, USA, where B.G. Bigelow, Inc., an aggressive manufacturing company, bestrides the toy industry like a colossus. An Arabian sheik has arrived to beseech the owner, Mr. Bigelow, for help in repairing a magic lamp, with which the kingdom hopes to revive its oil industry against competition from atomic power and sneak attacks from Communist oppressors. A puppet designer named Sylvester Cloud has created a talking doll called Flahooley, with which Bigelow intends to achieve domination in the toy industry once and for all. Cloud is struggling for money to wed his fiancee, but he is being exploited by the toymaker. Bigelow is struggling to maintain his grip on the market amid a business climate of anti-communist suspicion (even the doll cries “dirty red, dirty red, dirty red!”). The doll conjures the Genie out of its bottle; the spirit sides with Sylvester against Bigelow and chaos breaks loose.

The formula was not destined for success in 1951, though. Reviews were mixed and there was stiff competition from “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “Kiss Me Kate.” The show closed, supposedly to reopen in the fall. The following year, a nonpolitical version of “Flahooley,” adapted by William Friml and Burton Lane [the composer of “Finian’s Rainbow”], renamed “Jollyanna,” died quietly after performances at the San Francisco and Los Angeles Civic Light Operas. The original Broadway cast recording of “Flahooley,” released by Capitol Records, is now one of the rarest of all Broadway records.

The Yip Harburg Foundation has planned this production closely with both Theater for the New City and Harlem Rep. Deena and Ernie Harburg, son and biographer of Yip, live in the apartment building above Theater for the New City and have been fans of the theater’s work for many years, being especially drawn in by its Street Theater productions. Keith Lee Grant directed “Finian’s Rainbow” for Harlem Rep two years ago. He discovered “Flahooley” by reading “Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz,” co-authored by Ernie Harburg. His adaptation is three years in the making. Grant describes being attracted to “Flahooley” by the passion of the piece. There were two small workshops in 2007 and 2008 and in October, 2009 the show had several workshop performances at Aaron Davis Hall.