I consider myself an acolyte in the church of Yip. By Yip, of course I mean E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, one of the lyricists in The American Songbook I feel closest to. Porter may be more brilliantly witty, Hart harder edged and modern, and Sondheim remains the nonpareil. But for soulful American themes, the author of “Over The Rainbow” is still my best friend. Yip writes beautiful questions in his songwriting, and in “How are Things in Glocca Morra?”, which has become something like my personal anthem, he essentially asks a bird (and the breeze) if they can bring back news from Sharon, the singers’ home, which we come to understand is a symbolic place, a peaceful place, an Arcadian place, without racism or hate.
Yip Harburg was born poor, and was a boyhood friend of the Gershwins, Ira especially. He began as a radical, and he began with a question. His first successful song, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" (with music by Jay Gorney) was the anthem of FDR's first election and of his political rise in 1932 at the height of the Depression. This question caught the pathos of “the forgotten man,” the World War I veteran who suddenly found himself out of work and living in a Hooverville, “Once I built a railroad / made it run / made it race against time / once I built a railroad / now it’s done / brother, can you spare a dime?” It’s a progenitor of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” also a song about an embittered and bewildered war veteran.
There is a line of social responsibility that runs right through the work of Yip Harburg, from Bloomer Girl, an early feminist musical (producers take note: worth reviving I would think!) about the revolution in women’s clothing that argued for women’s freedom (literally about the right to wear pants, i.e., Bloomers)—to, of course, Finian's Rainbow, which I have performed in many times. Finian's is about bigotry and the search for a better life for all.
The most recent production of Finian's Rainbow that I did opened during the 2016 presidential election, and was a runaway hit at The Irish Repertory Theater. Audiences couldn’t help but recognize real life counterparts in the lumbering, rude, and blustering senator character. Yip Harburg’s goal was to address racism and to boldly create a show in 1946 which was the first one where black and white actors shared the stage, and dressing rooms. Pioneering though it is, the show is also dated in some ways, too quaint to fully express the complexities of the Jim Crow south. Still, I was proud to be a part of it, and proud to do our best to bring Yip’s intentions to the stage each night. It was only a beginning—in the history of Broadway—but in beginnings there is hope.
During this difficult pandemic, I had an occasion to meet the classical pianist Lara Downes who wanted to bring politically-minded music to the world, and came to me to discuss Yip Harburg. Lara is a magnificent artist of Jamaican-Jewish background, and one of her greatest life memories, as she told me, was when her mother took her to see an art house viewing of Yip Harburg’s Cabin In The Sky, which was the first Hollywood musical with an all-Black cast. After much conversation we decided to do a duet of its great lullaby “Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe,” revived as a political pun, and in support of “Broadway For Biden” (We spoke to his daughter Deena, and she said Yip would have been delighted.)
As 2020 came to a close, Lara and I reconnected and decided to release a version of the song in its traditional form, with the complete original lyrics. As Lara lives in California, and I live in New York, we thought of it as a sort of coast-to-coast commemoration of 2020. It was a beautiful experience, though challenging, to choose a key and find an arrangement, all on Zoom. Eventually we filmed ourselves with something of a meditative concept, she swooning at her piano and me walking the coastline. We filmed it near Christmastime, and since neither of us had any parties to attend, we wore, for each other, a touch of sequins.
There are no questions in this song. It is a song that knows that sometimes, in some things, there is nothing more to ask, and nothing more to want.
But the person beneath those words is a man who values every soul. Not long ago, I heard about a song called “Don’t Pass Me By,” cut from Finian's Rainbow. The Yip Harburg lyrics include the lines:
Don’t pass me by
What’s your hurry stranger?
Don’t you know we only pass this way one time?
Though no doubt written for the lovers—Irish immigrant Sharon and her all-American beau Woody—one can’t help but hear in it a trademark Yip Harburg plea, an insistence that we make the world the best place it can be by embracing our differences, and that, then as now, we cannot wait another moment.