A populist with a savvy business sense, a romantic with a cynical view of love, an optimist with a hard-edged realism, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg belongs to the small pantheon of musical theater lyricists from the golden age of popular song who set unforgettable words to music and changed the American musical theater.
Unlike his contemporaries Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin, political convictions were as much a part of Harburg' s work as romantic moon-June to love. He created songs and shows that spoke for the less fortunate of society: the poor, immigrants, blacks, women and others excluded from the American dream.
Equally at home in the dual worlds of Tin Pan Alley and the integrated musical, Yip Harburg brought an adult complexity to the American popular song. Masking his social passions under a cover of whimsical fantasy and biting humor, he created some of the songs in the American musical canon.
Born to Russian immigrants on April 8, 1886 in New York's Lower East Side, Harburg was no stranger to poverty and social inequity. In a six-story walk-up in New York's Lower East Side, the Harburg family lacked even furniture; Yip and his sister were forced to sleep on two chairs pushed together. His father, mother and sister were all veterans of the notorious immigrant sweatshops, tiny underground factories where a typical worker (and often, a young child) made less than 3 cents an hour and worked under brutal conditions for 14 to 16 hour days.
Young Harburg spent time in the shops packing clothes, as well as other small jobs to bring in money. A quick-witted St. kid, Harburg was dubbed "Yip" (a diminutive of "yipsl" or "squirrel" in Yiddish) for his constant clowning and unbounded energy.
Faithful Orthodox Jews, his parents immersed Yip in the positive aspects of the world around him, including the arts. Yiddish theater had a profound effect upon him; the deft blending of humor, fantasy and social commentary left an indelible mark on his own work.
His career took a sudden unexpected turn when he met fellow student and versifier Ira Gershwin at New York's City College. Both boys were fans of the witty rhymes of W.S. Gilbert and began collaborating on the college newspaper. Although Ira would soon depart, leaving Yip to finish his degree alone, the two remained lifelong friends.
He was immediately offered a job in South America by a fellow alumni and found himself in Uruguay, supervising several hundred factory workers. Proud of his earning ability, Harburg moved back to New York in 1920 to found an electrical appliance company. By 1929 the company was worth a quarter of a million dollars.
But Harburg was unhappy -- his ambition to write lyrics taking a back seat to his business. Mounting tensions in his professional life were finally exacerbated with the collapse of the stock market in 1929.
As with many businessmen of the time, Yip was ruined. Unlike his fellow capitalists who threw themselves out of windows in their suicidal despair, Harburg saw his disaster as an opportunity to throw himself into the business of songwriting. Ira Gershwin loaned Harburg the necessary money and introduced him to a number of talented composers and writers.
His breakthrough finally came in 1932 when he and composer Jay Gourney were asked to contribute material to a new revue, Americana. Yip looked at the financial ruin about him and penned the poignant, satirical masterpiece, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" The political lament was an instant hit with critics and audiences; the intricate rhymes and matter-of-fact phrasing combined to create a brilliant, rambling man-on-the- St. monologue that perfectly reflected the mind of the average American.
Considered by Republicans to be anti-capitalist propaganda, "Brother" was almost dropped from the show and attempts were made to ban it from the radio. But it was too late -- the American public had already eagerly embraced it as the unofficial anthem of millions out of work during the long, hard years of the depression.
Harburg continued to write for a variety of revues after the great success of "Brother", demonstrating an amazing versatility and special knack for an arresting turn of phrase with the beautiful "April in Paris," "I Like the Likes of You," and "What is There to Say?"
Between 1929 and 1934, the energized Harburg worked with 31 different composers, including Vernon Duke, Sammy Fain, Arthur Schwartz, Oscar Levant and Dana Suesse -- but it would be his collaborations with Burton Lane and Harold Arlen that would change the American musical theater.
His friendship with Arlen began auspiciously, with delicate song "It's Only A Paper Moon," which reflected Harburg's realistic view of romance. They followed up with a successful revue, Life Begins at 8:40, which included lyric collaborations with his old friend, Ira Gershwin -- "Fun to Be Fooled," "You're a Builder Upper" and "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block."
Arlen and Harburg quickly moved to a Hollywood starved for talking pictures. They began to build a reputation as a songwriting team who could write dynamic material for great performers: "Last Night When We Were Young," for Dick Powell, "I Love to Sing-a" for Al Jolson. They returned to Broadway to write the musical "Hooray for What?" for Ed Wynn.
Harburg quickly made the project his own -- it was a plot that seemed ready-made for social satire. The protagonist has invented a terrible weapon capable of conquering the world; he is plagued by spies eager to obtain his formula. An hilarious send-up of fascism, jingoism and war-profiteering, Harburg wrote several songs to match, including the anti- nationalist "Hooray For What?" and "God's Country", a gentle chiding of American pop culture. The traditional love song was also parodied in the scathing "Down with Love," which wickedly demanded, "Brother, let's stuff that dove."
It was the wild humor of "Hooray For What?" that led to Harburg and Arlen's next project -- a new musical picture based on the children's classic The Wizard of Oz. Harburg and Arlen decided to approach the material as an integrated whole, crafting much of the dialogue as well as the lyrics in a rhythmic patter that forwarded the action and commented on the plot, prefiguring the modern musical.
At the same time, they would write special material for some of Broadway's greatest revue performers like Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger, cast as the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow.
This combination of the old vaudeville style and the newer, plot-driven musical allowed audiences to enjoy the best of both worlds. Harburg's delicious, daffy lyrics perfectly fit the fantastical setting, allowing the performers ample opportunity to show their talent without slowing down the action.
The Academy Award-winning "Over The Rainbow" was a continuation of Harburg's optimistic philosophy, his belief that men and women could rise above their differences and create a better world. Once again, Yip's craft in writing for a particular performer shone; Judy Garland's soulful rendition would be a defining moment in the history of film.
Despite the obvious quality of the film, The Wizard of Oz received mixed reviews from the critics, who found it too precious and fantastical. Harburg shuttled from New York to Los Angeles, working on projects with Arlen and Burton Lane, including the all-black Cabin in the Sky, which introduced the classic, "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe."
Always sensitive to change, Yip sensed that a new art form was evolving on Broadway. In 1943, the new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein premiered their new musical play, Oklahoma! The show was a seamless blend of song, story and dance that entranced audiences and broke box office records during the troubled World War II years with its cheerful nostalgia for the American past.
Following Hammerstein's lead, Harburg saw an opportunity to create an integrated musical that would combine the wholesome Americana of Oklahoma! with a more realistic depiction of the nation's troubled past during the Civil War. It was a landmark show in the history of the American musical - Bloomer Girl. Unlike the typical musical of the day, the show addressed slavery, the woman's reform movement and the horrors of war. Celeste Helm starred as a rebellious young daughter of a hoopskirt manufacturer, who refuses to wear hoopskirts and marry her father's choice of a husband. Joining forces with her progressive aunt, Dolly Bloomer, the two women work together for abolition and women's rights. The score ranged from the haunting "The Eagle and Me," to the witty "It Was Good Enough For Grandma," and the romantic "Right as the Rain."
It was daring material for a war-torn United States in 1944, written long before the advent of the civil rights movement and feminism. The show became a surprise hit under Harburg's astute direction and he began to plan his next show, which would make an even larger statement about American racism and social injustice.
With composer Burton Lane, Harburg wrote his masterpiece, Finian's Rainbow, a fantastical story of a pot of gold, a leprechaun and three wishes that masked a daring attack on American greed and racism. An Irish immigrant and his daughter arrive in the state of"Missitucky" -- they believe they can become rich by burying gold in the fertile soil of America. The complex plot also featured a racist senator who learns compassion when he is turned into a black man through one of the leprechaun's three wishes. The 1946 score included the nostalgic "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," the exquisite beauties of"Old Devil Moon," and a reiteration of Yip's hopeful philosophy, "Look To the Rainbow." Harburg outdid himself in verbal dexterity with "If I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," a tongue-twisting palindromic wonder that songwriter Stephen Sondheim has called the greatest eleven o'clock song in the history of the musical theater.
Finian's Rainbow would prove to be one of the enduring works of the musical theater, performed endlessly in theaters around the world. Harburg would never have such success again. America at the end of the 1940s was a precarious time for a political satirist. The panic of McCarthyism swept over the nation and Yip found himself suddenly blacklisted. Critical of hard-line communism, Harburg never officially joined the party, but his activist credentials were enough for many to pull offers of work.
He was not helped by the failure of his next project with composer Sammy Fain. Flahooley opened in 1951 to uncharacteristically bad reviews. The plot was difficult even for the most intellectual of theatergoers. Set in a toy factory, Harburg parodied the rabid anti-communist sentiment and witch hunts that pervaded 1950s America through fantastic storyline. A toy manufacturer's secret, a laughing called a Flahooley, is stolen by rival corporates. A genie appears and creates so many dolls for the owner that they the world. The uneven cast included the Bill Baird Marionettes, Yma Sumac and a young Barbara Cook. Despite the lovely score, (which included another Harburgian sentiment, "Here's To Your Illusions,") audiences stayed away from the strange mixture. Harburg's usual blend of fantasy and politics had failed him in a difficult time.
The 1956 musical Jamaica reunited Harburg with Arlen -- Yip saw satirical possibilities when the team was asked to create a vehicle for Harry Belafonte. He wrote a witty plot about a simple island community that fought to avoid being over-run by American commercialism. Sadly for Harburg, Belafonte dropped out of the production due to illness and Jamaica was tailored around the talents of his replacement, Lena Horne. Harburg's subtle message was lost as the show slowly turned into a dazzling revue for Horne. The songs remained sharply satirical and Harburgian, however, especially "Push de Button" and "Leave de Atom Alone."
In spite of the blacklist, Harburg continued to write poetry and musicals, including 1961's The Happiest Girl in the World (set to music by Offenbach). Based on Aristophanes' anti-war Lysistrata, it presented Yip with an opportunity to mock growing militarism of the industrial nations. A collaboration with Jules Styne produced the charming Darling of the Day in 1968.
It was Yip's last musical on Broadway and he was now 72 years old. The blacklist was now over and a younger generation of songwriters and critics began to view correctly as one of the great giants of American popular Ever looking towards the future, he conducted workshops young lyricists and collaborated on songs with a young rock composer.
He died on March 5, 1981. He never gave up his battle injustice to the end. His sense of social outrage was by an optimistic view of life. The magnificent list of songs he left behind all attest to Yip's clear-eyed view of human frailty and endless human possibility.
42nd St Moon is proud to present a new revue celebrating 100th Birthday of E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. As far as we're concerned, he and his work have always been something sort grandish.
by Kathleen Phillis Lorenz
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