The welcome Broadway revival of Burton Lane (born Burton Levy in 1912) and E. Y. Harburg’s 1947 musical “Finian’s Rainbow,” opening October 29 at the St. James Theatre offers a fresh opportunity to relish its wish-fulfillment overturning of racism and economic inequalities in the mythical American state of Missitucky, when the “Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” to cite one of its catchiest, most socially conscious tunes. “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” is a fierce vision where “all your neighbors/ Are upper class/ You won’t know your ‘Joneses’/ from your ‘Ass-tors.’”
Also the lyricist of 1932’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” Edgar Yipsel Harburg, known as Yip, was born Isidore Hochberg to Orthodox Russian Jewish parents on the Lower East Side. Five years ago, the Forward’s doughty “Philologos” addressed the thorny subject of Harburg’s nickname. Biographers Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg in “Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? Yip Harburg, Lyricist” (University of Michigan Press ) quote Harburg himself, claiming that his nickname Yipsel derived from “yipsl…the Yiddish word for squirrel,” since he was a hyperactive boy. As “Philologos” points out, “yipsl” and “yipsel” are not Yiddish words, and the Yiddish word for squirrel is veverke.
To Harburg’s generation, a Yipsel was a member of The Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), which Harburg, as a lefty blacklisted during the McCarthy era, might have preferred to gloss over later on. Still, the New York Public Library among other websites about Harburg, still reproduces the Yipsel-as-Yiddish-for-squirrel canard as gospel truth.
Harburg was a fire-breathing activist (his 1944 musical “Bloomer Girl” vaunted women’s rights) yet the gentler, more lyrical Burton Lane could be a visionary as well, as seen in his 1966 ESP-psychiatry musical film “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” starring Barbra Streisand. Together, these disparate Jewish creators managed to produce a lastingly intriguing and ferociously joyful musical.
Watch previews of Lane and Harburg’s “Finian’s Rainbow” in its new Broadway revival below.