Yip Harburg and The Wizard of Oz

2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the release of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film spectacle, The Wizard of Oz. Panned on its 1939 opening by The New Yorker as “…a stinkeroo…which displays no trace of imagination,” Oz has evolved into a cherished trademark of popular culture.

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Few viewers realize how difficult it was to produce this cinematic treasure, based on L. Frank Baum’s novel, often seen as a political allegory in the guise of a children’s fairy tale. The film became a kind of crusade for songwriter Harold Arlen and lyricist (E.Y.) Yip Harburg, as they battled with bottom-line producers and directors, to sustain their level of artistic integrity.

When Harburg and Arlen were chosen to write the Oz score, there were envious rumblings among fellow songwriters. MGM, perhaps in response to the commercial success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, would spare no expense on Oz, even if it was a so-called “prestige loser.” Ultimately, costing the studio nearly $3 million, it was one of the first feature-length musicals to be filmed in color.

The Harburg-Arlen duo had their work cut out for them. Even though associate producer Arthur Freed believed that the team was capable of dealing with serious material in a whimsical and farcical manner, he could not control the artistic conflicts they would encounter.

Harburg created waves at the beginning of their assignment by suggesting that the picture have a fully integrated score, whereby the plot unfolds through the music and dance itself. Oddly enough, this remains a fairly unusual technique in musicals. It requires a very tight coordination of song, script, casting and direction. The script must be shaped around the songs.

“The process of putting music in is very intricate,” Yip Harburg told Aljean Harmetz for his book The Making of the Wizard of Oz. “One function of the song is to simplify, to take the clutter out of too much plot and too many characters…And lots of things not in the script have to be invented to make the songs work…”

Working through this integrated process was the basis for most of Harburg/Arlen’s creative wars with directors and producers; wars that would substantially affect the film’s final look. Take a look a one of the film’s classic numbers below.

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