‘Finian’s Rainbow’ relaunches in NYC – and relaunches debate over lyricist’s nickname

by Heather Newman on November 12, 2009

Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg’s 1947 musical “Finian’s Rainbow” opened October 29 at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in New York, also reopening the debate about the celebrated lyricist’s nickname.

Edgar Yipsel Harburg, whose son Ernie coauthored the biography Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist (University of Michigan Press) with Harold Meyerson in 1995, was commonly known as Yip.

Benjamin Ivry’s recent blog entry for The Forward quoted the biography when discussing the nickname, noting that “Harburg himself [claimed] that his nickname Yipsel derived from ‘yipsl…the Yiddish word for squirrel,’ since he was a hyperactive boy.”

However, another volume asserts that yipsl and yipsel are not Yiddish, and the Yiddish word for squirrel is veverk.

No matter what you called him, the blog goes on to note, Harburg’s fiery activism and his partner’s more gentle, lyrical voice gave birth to a tremendous piece of entertainment that is now in front of a brand-new audience.

“Together, these disparate Jewish creators managed to produce a lastingly intriguing and ferociously joyful musical,” Ivry writes.

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