Irish star Jim Norton makes 'Finian's Rainbow' a critic-proof Broadway musical


The search for home and the rootlessness that takes over until you find it are the show’s central themes, and because of that there’s a tenderness in the way that Finian and his daughter are accepted by the people of Rainbow Valley that mirrors Carlyle’s own experience in New York. Both the material and the actors have gotten under his skin, he says.

The show’s poignant score (written by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg, two gifted Jewish composers, as a sort of valentine to the Irish) is unforgettably moving too, a legacy shared between two wandering tribes. Norton seems to know this in his bones and he handles it delicately, giving the whole production an injection of smarts that lifts it to another level.

“Now these songs are so famous to us,” Carlyle tells Irish America. “We know, or we think we know, ‘Glocca Morra’ and ‘Look to the Rainbow’ and ‘That Old Devil Moon.’ But it was fascinating to watch the audiences at the City Center performances because there’s something powerful about them realizing that [the songs] all come from the same show. It’s one of the greatest scores ever written and frankly, it’s one of the greatest casts I’ve ever worked with. These actors come from all of these different backgrounds and places and yet they somehow unite in the telling of this story. That’s a very American thing, isn’t it?”

In theory a syrupy old ballad like “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” should have audiences reaching for an airbag, but in practice – thanks to Norton and Baldwin’s performances and English director Warren Carlyle’s guidance – it hits you square in the chest, bringing both delight and tears in equal measure.

“There are so many shows about Ireland that we can find a little offensive because of the manner in which they’re presented,” Norton tells Irish America. “But I think that this one is handled so delicately. My character is just looking for what we’re all looking for – a bit of peace and happiness. That’s really all of my focus through the show.”

Norton admits that he was startled by the strength of the public’s reaction to the show during the Encores! performances. “It was unbelievable what happened. The last time we did this show it was all based on fear. We had less than ten days to rehearse it. Then we performed it at City Center and we were hit by this giant wave of affection. It was so exciting and great.”

Because this is a postwar Broadway musical it’s almost a given that all roads lead to the happiest of happy endings. In this magical section of the Deep South, an Irish family live with African American sharecroppers, they dance and sing with them, and good fellowship always wins out in the end.

For Norton the real danger of the show wasn’t the subject matter, it was finding the right tone to present his character in. “There’s always a danger that when you play a part like Finian, it can tilt toward the Darby O’Gill side of things. But I think we’re better than that, I think we’re brighter than that. What I try to do is to play the truth of the character because I find him deeply affecting. He’s a very gentle soul. His wife has died and he’s left with the responsibility of looking after his young daughter. Obviously he takes that responsibility very seriously, to find a better life. Back in 1947 it was a time when people did come to America from Ireland to do exactly that – looking for their pot of gold, for their dream to be realized. That guides me.”

For Cheyenne Jackson, the young man who has become the uncrowned king of Broadway since he first arrived on the scene in 2002, all that remains now is to get it right on the night. “This is my fifth or sixth Broadway show and you never know from the get-go what the outcome is going to be, but we all keep coming back to the word magic. As long as we don’t mess with it there’s going to be a nice niche for us on Broadway. A lot of people are going to discover and rediscover this show.”

Although Jackson is a square-jawed all-American poster boy, he also has Irish blood too, he says. “My dad is Irish. His father was too. He identifies heavily with that part of his heritage. Now I’m playing an Irish American and it’s not such a stretch in that sense.”

Finian’s Rainbow plays at the Saint James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6262.