Why rainbows? Why wishing on stars? Why Dorothy? Of all actresses, singing all songs, in all films in American history, what makes Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow" such an overwhelmingly enduring classic?
Well, we can't exactly answer those questions, but what we can do is try to trace the history of "Over the Rainbow" from the character Dorothy's humble origins in an old children's book series to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson's 1970s adaptation of The Wizard of Oz all the way to today.
In fact, we still hear "Over the Rainbow" all the time, and new versions continue to land on international music charts.
The story of The Wizard of Oz and "Over the Rainbow" is a story with deep roots in American history, literature, and music.
It extends from before 1900, when L. Frank Baum first published the children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all the way to the present, when musicals, books, and movies continue to revisit the extended saga of Dorothy, Toto, the scarecrow, the tin man, the cowardly lion, the good and wicked witches, and the Wizard of Oz himself.
The Wizard of Oz was put to music and went on Broadway in 1903. It had a successful seven-year run, during which time Baum continued to write Oz books. An early silent film of the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was created in 1910, and in 1925, a full-length silent feature was created with the help of Baum's son (Baum died in 1919). The Oz series was extended even after Baum's death, with a total of 40 Oz books in circulation by 1940.
Some have theorized that the original book is actually a complex and thorough allegory for the politics of populism in the 1890s, but L. Frank Baum insisted through his life that Oz was invented solely for the entertainment of children.
It surely boosted the books' profile when The Wizard of Oz as we know it came into existence. Supported by advances in Technicolor and film sound, the filmmakers at MGM were ready for a full color Oz masterpiece in 1939. Technicolor was the reason that the original book's silver shoes became ruby slippers—after all, why not go ruby and glittery if you can capture the effect beautifully on film?
The film's also notable for its dramatic shift from black and white in the Kansas scenes to full color in the Oz scenes. Clearly, Oz had become a vehicle for the fun producers could have with their new technology (sort of like Avatar in more recent years). Today, most people know The Wizard of Oz more as a work of cinema than a work of the written word.
There was something even more important than Technicolor behind the brilliance of The Wizard of Oz: songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, a composition dream team who thought up "Over the Rainbow"—and then had to fight for its inclusion in the film.
Harold Arlen was a composer who, by the early 1930s, was recognized as one of the most prolific and talented in the business. His partner, the lyricist Yip Harburg, was the mind behind the hit single "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in 1932. He was an interesting character in his own right: a lifelong socialist, he has been called "Broadway's social conscience" for maintaining his anti-war, pro-labor politics even through blacklisting in the 1950s. The pair composed "It's Only a Paper Moon," one of their first collaborations, in 1933. It remained a jazz standard through much of the 20th century. They would go on to collaborate on more than 150 songs.
Harburg, though, didn't really like "Over the Rainbow" much at first. Here's how the pair came to agreement on the song:
The song came to Harold out of the blue while he and his wife Anya were driving along Sunset Boulevard. He jotted the melody down in the car. But lyricist Yip Harburg did not react to it with joy, feeling that the song was too grand. Harold played it for Ira Gershwin to get a second opinion. Gershwin liked it. Harburg, in response to Gershwin's approval, composed its lyrics. (Source)
The final product, despite having Gershwin's approval and Yip's sweet lyrics, was not a favorite of the filmmakers. They apparently deleted "Over the Rainbow" from the film three separate times, worrying that it was too mature for the supposedly 12-year-old character of Dorothy, and that it slowed the plot down. Apparently they were also not too keen on an MGM star singing for several minutes in a dirty barnyard. Luckily, Judy Garland's performance completely nailed the song's innocent emotiveness, and producer Arthur Freed finally argued successfully that the song should stay.
Of course, the critics loved the song more than just about anything in the film: the 1939 release was nominated for five Academy Awards and took home awards for "Best Original Song" ("Over the Rainbow," obviously) and "Best Original Music Score." It lost in the "Best Picture" category to Gone with the Wind, whose director, Victor Fleming, actually spent a while working on Oz, too. Tough luck.
Judy Garland's youthful performance as Dorothy tapped into an enduring theme: the desire of children—and maybe the desire of all people—to escape their surroundings and go to a fantastical place where they have greater powers and opportunities (see also: Harry Potter, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Oliver Twist, and many more).
Just before her dream takes her to Oz, "Over the Rainbow" captures Dorothy in the depths of loneliness and longing, wishing for pretty things, rainbows, and lemon drops—basically, she'd like to be anywhere but Kansas.
There was also a subtext to Dorothy's Kansas lament that was especially relevant to the late 1930s. Lest we forget, the 1930s were the period of a terrible disaster known as the Dust Bowl, an environmental and human catastrophe caused by overworking of the fields in the plains states. A long drought combined with severely depleted soil and strong winds led to increasingly dramatic dust storms throughout the central U.S., but especially in Kansas and Oklahoma. Between 1933 and 1939, tens of thousands of people from the plains became refugees due to the combination of economic depression and dust storms, fleeing Kansas in droves for places like California (where they heard there was work—but that's another story).
We can't help but think that Yip Harburg, who had written plenty of songs dealing with Depression-era dynamics, and others behind The Wizard of Oz knew that this get-me-the-heck-out-of-Kansas sentiment would be especially resonant in 1939. Of course, the theme of escape central to "Over the Rainbow" translates to all kinds of situations, and ultimately transcends history, but the theme of not being in Kansas anymore is also about as historically relevant as you can get.
Judy Garland's version of "Over the Rainbow" became the signature song of her ultimately very successful career as a singer and movie star. Later in life, she said, "The song has become a part of my life. It is symbolic of everybody's dream and that's why people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I have sung it dozens of times and it's still the song that is closest to my heart." (Source)
Indeed, Garland kept the fires burning for "Over the Rainbow," reputedly performing it with depth and emotion every single time she gave a life performance. The song has also been covered by other singers almost countless times since. A search on Billboard for "Over the Rainbow" yields hundreds of versions. Everybody's trying to get over that rainbow—and in every decade, a new group or singer has given it a shot.
A few covers stand out either for their success or their uniqueness: The Demensions did a cover of "Over the Rainbow" in 1960 that got the song into the Billboard charts for the first time, peaking at #16. Hawaiian singer Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole recorded a medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" in 1993 that features him on the ukelele. The track got some attention in the 1990s, but it was several years after his death in 1997 that his version of "Over the Rainbow" climbed up the charts internationally, peaking at #8 on the European Hot 100 in 2010 and #11 on Billboard's Digital Songs chart in 2008. The track was certified 2x Platinum in 2011. In 2010, the Season 1 finale of Glee featured a cover of Iz's version of the song. And last but not least, it's hard to be a classic without at least one cover by the Muppets.
Dorothy, Toto and the rest have also endured as characters, so thoroughly mythologized and explored that they might even verge on American archetypes. The 1978 film The Wiz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, reimagined The Wonderful Wizard of Oz through the lens of African-American culture, and used a whole new soundtrack. (The film was actually based on a stage version, which was more successful than the movie managed to be). In 2010, several other remakes and prequels were announced by both Warner Brothers and Disney.
Did the "great recession" inspired a resurgence in Oz-like escape fantasies? Or is the market for kids' movie remakes just going strong in Hollywood?
Well, we may never know. But the facts are the facts: "Over the Rainbow" was the American song of the 20th century, and it could well go on to be an influential part of the 21st. We will be amazed, but not surprised, if that's exactly what happens.