The political witch hunts of the 1950s in Washington led to a dark era in entertainment. Writers and actors were “blacklisted,” because of their association, real or imagined, with Communists. While many considered the practice odious, few dared to protest about it quite like E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.
Harburg created Flahooley, a Christmas musical satire of the era in 1951 at the height of the “Red Scare,” and it’s being revived by Theater for the New City and The Harlem Repertory Theatre.
The musical not only satirized the McCarthy witch hunts, but also big business and conformity in general. Back then, however, the public had little desire to challenge the establishment. Flahooley closed soon after it opened and was largely forgotten.
But the musical, with book by Harburg and Fred Saidy, lyrics by Harburg and music by Sammy Fain, has been newly adapted by Keith Lee Grant, artistic director of Harlem Repertory Theatre.
It will be presented from Dec. 18 to Jan. 3 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. in Manhattan. It’s only the second revival (the first was in 1998) since the musicial closed in 1951.
Before his own blacklisting, Harburg was one of Hollywood’s most successful lyricists. He wrote the words to such standards as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “April in Paris,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and all of the songs in “The Wizard of Oz,” including “Over the Rainbow.”
While his career in Hollywood was ruined, Harburg found work on Broadway and wrote the book for the Broadway classic Finian’s Rainbow. He made history of another sort with Finian’s, because it was the first show on Broadway to have an interracial cast. The new production of Flahooley will have an interracial cast of nine as well. Nearly all of the original score will be used.
Flahooley is an allegorical musical tale that unfolds in the fictional Midwestern city of Capsulanti, where B.G. Bigelow, Inc., an aggressive manufacturing company, bestrides the toy industry like a colossus, according to the show’s production notes.
An Arabian sheik arrives 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 creates a talking doll called Flahooley, and Bigelow intends to use it to dominate 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.
Reviews of the show were mixed when it opened in 1951. It also faced stiff competition from “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “Kiss Me Kate.” The original Broadway cast recording of Flahooley, released by Capitol Records, is now considered one of the rarest of all Broadway records.
Grant, who directed Finian’s Rainbow for Harlem Rep two years ago, discovered Flahooley by reading “Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz,” co-authored by Ernie Harburg, Yip’s son and biographer. His adaptation was 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.
Grant’s collaborators include Art Perlman (script editing) and Daniel Fergus Tamulonis (puppet design). Musical direction and arrangements are by Michael Roth.
Costume design is by Ann-Marie Wright. Set design is by Mary Myers. Lighting design is by Brian Aldous, and Mabel Gomez is assistant choreographer.
The cast includes Natalia Peguero, Yaritza Pizzaro, Alexandra Bernard, John Wiethorn, Primy Rivera, Daniel Fergus Tamulonis, Ben Harburg (grandson of the author), Eric Myles and Bianca Disarro.
Dates: Decr 18 to Jan 3
Theater for the New City (Cino Theater), 155 First Ave. (at East Tenth St)
Presented by Theater for the New City and The Harlem Repertory Theatre
Please note irregular schedule:
Fri, Dec. 18 at 8; Sat, Dec. 19 at 2 & 8, Sun, Dec. 20 at 3
Th, Dec. 24 at 8; Sat, Dec. 26 at 2 & 8; Sun, Dec. 27 at 2 & 8
Th, Dec. 31 at 8; Sat, Jan. 2 at 2 & 8; Sun, Jan. 3 at 3
$18 general admission, $10 students and seniors.
Box office: SMARTTIX (212) 868-4444;
Online: Theater for the New City