RAINBOWS FOR CHRISTMAS

My melodies always sounded better with a Yip Harburg lyric.  –Burton Lane, composer (Finian’s Rainbow)

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I have the rainbow reflection of Yip Harburg’s lyrics on, and in, my mind as I write this review of a biography I received for Christmas. The book, titled Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?  was co-written by his son, Ernie Harburg, and Harold Meyerson….but in a sense, it was written by Yip himself, suffused as it is with the words of his songs, his quotes and, above all, his spirit.

Yip, as you no doubt know if you know anything about the Golden Age of popular music and movies in America, is the man who put the rainbow in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (as well as in the 1947 Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow). Actually, there was no reference to a rainbow in the book on which the film is based, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The idea of a rainbow was the creation of Yip Harburg, who “told Harold [composer Harold Arlen] about it and we went to work on a tune.” That “tune” was, of course, Over The Rainbow, which went on to win  the Academy Award for Best Original Song and was named #1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top songs. How hard was it to write? It was the first song in the film, but the last to be written, after the whole score had been finished: a score which included We’re Off To See The Wizard, The Merry Old Land Of Oz, If I Only Had A Brain, If I Were King of The Forest and Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.

But….the witch wasn’t dead. Little did Yip know that little more than a decade later, he would be off to see the witch hunters of the McCarthy era and blacklisted for suspected Communist sympathies (he was never a Communist Party member, though admittedly “an avowed democratic socialist,” which wasn’t/isn’t unlawful but was and continues to be conflated with Communism in some circles, even today). Shunned by Hollywood, TV and radio throughout the 1950s, Harburg still had standing on Broadway, but his shows never again attained his previous success.

In addition to his creative talent and sense of social justice, Harburg had a great sense of humor: One of the things that bothered me about my society was that there were so many problems in the world. My approach to solving these problems was to make people see the folly of them, the foibles of them, or the mythology of them. If you look at them like Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and say, “What fools these mortals be,” then you can make people laugh and see their follies.
That doesn’t say humor is the only approach. Everybody approaches his art through his own psyche and methods. I am giving you mine. My approach is through satire because humor is the greatest solvent that I know of. It takes the arrogance out of people. We all hear many different political views. People disagree so strongly they even want to kill each other.

Just as Harburg’s socialism ran afoul of political spoilsports like Joseph McCarthy, so his humor was hounded by the Hayes Office (Hollywood’s censorship czar) in the late 1930s. The following song, which he wrote for Groucho Marx in AT THE CIRCUS,  was censored until he added a final verse (listen for it) to legitimize it. Say, have you met Lydia?

www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4zRe_wvJw8

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4 comments on “RAINBOWS FOR CHRISTMAS

  1. How extraordinary and welcome are your thoughtful comments on Harburg and his refreshing look at the world. The Harlem Repertory Theatre is in the middle of producing a double bill of “Finian’s Rainbow and Flahooley, both with books and lyrics by Harburg. The latter was written in response to Harburg’s grossly unfair treatment in Hollywood and truly Puck-like, he thumbs his nose at the injustices of those witch hunts. If you are anywhere near New York City, please pay us a visit and thank you for your comments. Your prose merits at least a free front row seat! (Tell them I told you so!)
    Sincerely and gratefully …

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  2. mistermuse says:

    I am extremely pleased by your comment, Daniel, and would certainly take you up on your invitation to visit if I lived anywhere near NYC, but unfortunately I do not. It is good to know that “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Flahooley” are still alive and well at The Harlem Repertory Theatre, and I urge my blog friends in the area to pay you a visit in my stead and enjoy the show. Look to the Rainbow!

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  3. Don Frankel says:

    I actually saw Harburg on TV getting interviewed years ago. He was explaining how he had come up with the lyrics to Somewhere over the Rainbow. He was playing the opening notes and showing how the word somewhere seemed to be the only word to fit. It was priceless. You don’t get to see stuff like that very often.

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  4. mistermuse says:

    Thanks, Don. The book of which I write in this post devotes over four pages just to the difficulty Harburg and Arlen had writing this song, including this Harburg quote: “he [Arlen] gave me a tune with those first two notes an octave apart. I tried I’ll go over the rainbow, Someday over the rainbow [etc.]. For a while I thought I would just leave those first two notes out.. It was a long time before I came to Somewhere over the rainbow.”

    I would love to have seen that interview you saw.

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