Friday, June 10, 2011

The Hit That Amost Wasn't: "Over the Rainbow"

“Over the Rainbow” sits at the top of two impressive lists: The American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Songs” and the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century.” So it may come as a surprise to know that the song was almost cut three times from the film in which it debuted.

To begin at the beginning: although there were many eager songsmiths waiting in the wings to write the music to the newly updated musical (there had been a Broadway version produced in 1903) the team of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg was the surprise choice. Apparently producer Arthur Freed thought that their “a sweet little ballad” (Arlen’s description) called “In the Shade of the New Apple Tree” made them ideal to compose music for a film featuring a little girl at its center.

Arlen and Harburg, however, initially disagreed about the type of song the little girl should sing. Harburg thought “Over the Rainbow” was a grand tune for the likes of Nelson Eddy, not Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale from Kansas. “It’s not a little child’s nursery song” he said later. “It’s a great big theme that you could easily build a symphony around.” Arlen and Harburg asked Ira Gershwin for his input and he proposed a quicker tempo and a simpler harmonic structure. Harburg was satisfied.

But there was trouble at the studio. The song was deleted from the film three times (something about the story line coming to an abrupt, albeit musical, halt) and each time producer Freed argued it back in. Good thing because it went on to win the Academy Award and the hearts of millions for years to come, becoming the show stopping personal theme song of the actress who first sang it so poignantly on the screen.

Why does “Over the Rainbow” continue to move us so? Harburg put it like this: “I’ll admit that at first the song bothered me because it was so powerful. But then we brought it down with those colorful and childlike words. I don’t think there’s more poignancy to anything that is adult than there is in a child’s idea. Children are so clear about life.”


"All the Years of American Popular Music" by David Ewen.

"They’re Playing Our Song" by Max Wilk. Quotes taken from page 146, 147.

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