Finian’s Rainbow at the Irish Repertory Theatre: An interview with Melissa Errico
‘A Light Heart Lives Long’ — Old Irish Proverb
When I was 18 in my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, I took a film studies course called “The History of the American Musical Comedy.” Growing up in Brooklyn, my parents had been taking me to musicals on Broadway since I was in short pants. “Annie Get Your Gun,” “The Pajama Game,” “The King and I” and, of course, “The Sound of Music.” All of those musicals had some dancing, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer exuberance and robust vitality of the dancing in MGM’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which I first saw in that Wisconsin film class.
Based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Sobbin’ Women” (itself based on “The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women,” a Roman legend dating to 750 B.C.) the film was directed by Stanley Donen and starred Howard Keel, Jane Powell and NYCB principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise. The amazing choreography was by Michael Kidd, born Milton Greenwald, the son of Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia, who was raised and educated in Brooklyn where he attended and graduated from New Utrecht High School. After being accepted at City College of New York, Kidd studied chemical engineering his freshman and sophomore years, but left after he received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (founded by George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg), which was the “feeder” school for the New York City Ballet. In 1947, Kidd abandoned ballet to become a Broadway choreographer. He would go on to win five Tony Awards for choreography, the first of which was for his Broadway debut as a choreographer: “Finian’s Rainbow.”
My reason for recollecting this is the enchanting and oh-so-timely revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Irish Repertory Theater. I say “timely” because if there was ever a time all blue-state New Yorkers could use an antidote to the disheartening election results, it is now. And the delightful goings-on in Rainbow Valley, Missitucky are just the tonic. There’s a leprechaun, a crock of gold, a fetching Irish lass (more on that later), virtuous and righteous sharecroppers and lots of great standards by lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Burton Lane — ”When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “On That Great-Come-And-Get-It Day” and “Old Devil Moon.” Oh, and just so we don’t think we’ve completely entered an alternative universe, there is also a bigoted, corrupt politician. If you’ve haven’t yet made your Thanksgiving or Christmas theatre plans, there’s not a more perfect holiday gift than taking your family to “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Irish Rep.
And, although this cozy, pocket-size production doesn’t have Kidd’s choreography, it does have a secret weapon that not even the 1947 production had: Melissa Errico, whose warm, winsome and mischievous performance as Finian’s daughter Sharon is pure gold. To hear her sing “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” is to be transported back to prelapsarian, i.e., pre-Trump, times.
Recently, I had the good fortune to interview Errico by telephone. Here are edited excerpts.
Eagle: Did you grow up listening to music; was your family musical?
Melissa Errico: I grew up in a happy, ebullient Italian-American family (my father is from New York, my mother from Brooklyn) and they loved music and performing. They listened to a very eclectic playlist: Chopin and Rachmaninoff and the Great American Songbook: Arlen, Gershwin, Rogers and the two H’s — Hart and Hammerstein — and more contemporary musicals like “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line.” The family was so eager and uninhibited about performing that after we moved to Manhasset, my mother, father, brother and I would entertain our neighbors with recitals and musical comedy excerpts. [Note: In addition to being a doctor, Errico’s father is an accomplished pianist.]
Eagle: So, it sounds like you grew up in this sort of “Meet Me in St. Louis” musical home, where your creativity was not only encouraged but also on display. No inhibitions.
ME: (Laughing) No, none. And in addition to loving music, my parents were very practical. So, for example, when [I was] in the sixth grade and I told my parents I wanted to be an actress, the first thing my father did was to go out and buy a book called “How to Get Your Child into Show Business.” They always made it seem like they could figure it all out, which gave me so much confidence! They didn’t set any limits, they encouraged me unconditionally. My mom’s philosophy was “Ask” and “Mingle.” Sort of a variation on “just do it,” but long before that was a Nike slogan. Meaning, if I wanted to be an actress, go for it. They’d be there for me
Eagle: Yet at Yale you majored in art history and philosophy. Why didn’t you major in theater?
ME: For one thing, when I went to Yale there was no undergraduate theater major. Because of all the APR courses I had taken in high school, I entered Yale as a sophomore. I knew they had a world-class art history department. In addition, even as an art history major I felt I was still keeping a hand in the theater world. My area of concentration was medieval art of the late Middle Ages, and so much of the art of that period, even if ostensibly portraits of nobility or devotional depictions, was also about presentation. It wasn’t that much of a stretch from there to theater.
Eagle: What was the genesis of your August New York Times theater section piece “I’m 46. Is That Too Old to Play the Ingénue?”
ME: One of the editors at the Times had read a few things I had written and that I’d said in interviews. I think actually it was my interviews that got them curious. The editor asked if I’d like to write something for the paper. I had just been offered the role of Sharon in “Finian’s Rainbow.” [Note: a role Errico had already played twice before]. I thought, “I’m 46, can I still believably play the innocent Ingénue?” Everyone, even an actress, has to accept they’re getting older. But, you know, if a songwriter, a poet, a painter gets older it’s not a big deal. In fact, it probably denotes evolving, going in different directions. And that’s what I’ve wanted to do. So I wondered, “Does accepting the role of Sharon mean I’m in denial?”
Eagle: But you did accept it — and if you hadn’t written your clever, witty Times piece telling everyone your age, my guess is no one would have given it a second thought. You also broke one of the last taboos: an actress revealing her actual age. Did that feel groundbreaking?
ME: No, it didn’t feel all that significant. I wanted to just put it out there in a funny, tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
Eagle: You’re minimizing it, but having been a talent agent for many years, I know that age for most actresses is the one inviolable secret. You’re letting the cat out of the bag counts as major courage.
ME: (Laughing) Well, all I can say is that I’ve had nothing but positive feedback about the article and I certainly have no regrets I wrote it. One of the things I’ve gotten from my mom is that I’m never guarded in my feelings; I’m not able to manipulate or dissemble. Even if it often seems an asset to have that ability in show business, especially regarding actresses and aging.
Eagle: Hey, think about all the great roles you can play now: Desiree Armfelt, Mrs. Lovett, Nellie Forbush, Rose in “Gypsy.”
ME: Oh, believe me, I know. I’m ready for any of those roles. I can’t wait!
“Finian’s Rainbow” runs through Dec. 31 at the Irish Repertory Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit www.irishrep.org.
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