The 92nd St. Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists, one of New York’s leading propagators of the Great American Songbook, featured the witty and sardonic songs of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg in its most recent edition: Yip Harburg: Follow the Fellow Who Follows a Dream. Harburg, famous for writing the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, wrote over 600 songs with many collaborators.
The show gracefully explored his oeuvre and his life using the extraordinary talents of five fine singers and a superb band led by Paul Masse who supplied the often surprising orchestrations. They were helped by vivid projections by Dan Scully that showed New York City street scenes, theater marquees, historic programs and posters as well as photos of a genial looking Harburg who tried all his life to defy all the prejudices and inequities of his time and replace them with his complex and colorful lyrics that featured witty rhymes and references.
The songs ranged from the hilariously off-color “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” (1939, with Harold Arlen, one of his most frequent and fertile partnerships)—Harburg’s favorite “love song”—sung with winking sass by Megan Sikora, to his incredibly moving last song “Where Have I Seen Your Face Before?” (1981, with Burton Lane) given a rich interpretation by Nick Spangler.
Edward Yipsel “Yip” Harburg was born in New York’s Jewish ghetto, the Lower East Side, in 1896 to poor parents. He was encouraged early by his college friend Ira Gershwin to write lyrics.
After failing as an appliance retailer, he joined with composer Jay Gorney to write what would become the anthem of the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1932), rousingly sung by Clifton Duncan finding its deepest meanings with beautiful harmonies provided by the others. Unfortunately, Harburg’s fruitful partnership with Gorney ended when Harburg stole Gorney’s wife!
Success on Broadway and then in Hollywood followed.
With Arlen, Harburg wrote the score to The Wizard of Oz (1939) selections from which were sung by the entire company. The two wrote many songs of a sardonic, world-weary nature. Harburg refused to use “I love you” in any of his songs yet managed to communicate all of love’s contradictions: “Down With Love” (1937) sung by Laura Darrell; “You’re a Builder-Upper” (1934) a competitive duet high-spiritedly interpreted by Mikaela Bennett and Spangler; the historically, winkingly referenced “Ain’t It the Truth?” (1957) sung with panache by Duncan; the breezy “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block” (1934) given a sweet gay twist by Duncan and Spangler; the bluesy “Paris Is a Lonely Town” (1962) crooned movingly by Spangler; Bennett’s torchy “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” (1943) and her bittersweet version of “Right as the Rain” (1944). Most of these from Broadway shows.
Burton Lane’s brighter music inspired all the wonderful musical numbers from Finian’s Rainbow (1947) which also allowed Harburg to express his liberal leanings in such songs as this show’s sharp opener, “The Great Come and Get It Day,” an optimistic look at the future. Harburg was never more wistful than in “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” sweetly done by Darrell, nor more joyful than “If This Isn’t Love” boisterously sung by the five singers.
The closing number, delivered after Harburg was heard apologizing for not succeeding in changing the world with his songs, was the ever optimistic “Look to the Rainbow” glowing sung by Darrell.
All the singers were energetic and vivid as was Masse’s accompaniment.
John Kelly’s lighting worked well with the projections and set off each song perfectly. The concise biographical details by Jon Marans, delivered by the singers, provided the backbone of the program which was directed impeccably by Matt Kunkel.
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “E.Y ‘Yip” Harburg: Follow the Fellow Who Follows a Dream” (January 25-27, 2020)
92nd Street Y
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92Y.org/Lyrics
Running time: two hours including one intermission