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Judy Garland was a rising teenage star when she landed the part as Dorothy Gale. Even as a young performer, she had already had a very hard go.
When Garland signed to MGM in 1935, she was only 13, and at 4'11" her looks didn't quite live up to the extreme glamour of the other adult female movie stars who surrounded her. She was referred to by executives as an "ugly duckling" and a "hunchback," and by the time she played Dorothy, she had already developed an extreme insecurity about her looks. To add to her woes, her father died the year she was signed.
It has since been discovered that during this early period, leaders at MGM gave Garland and other young stars amphetamines and barbiturates to lower their stress levels; by her mid-teens, Garland had developed a drug addiction that she struggled with throughout her life—and that, along with a lifelong struggle with depression, would ultimately kill her.
Even when she landed the part in The Wizard of Oz, Garland was treated as a second-rate performer. The studio's first choice for the part was Shirley Temple, but when Temple did not accept the offer, Garland was given the part. Perhaps to everyone's surprise, her performance would become the signature work of her life and one of the most famous film performances of the century.
The Wizard of Oz wasn't a box office hit, but it quickly won much critical acclaim. Garland and crew lost to Gone with the Wind for that year's Academy Award, but the song and soundtrack took home two Oscars that year. "Over the Rainbow" also became a popular track with American GIs fighting abroad in World War II in the coming years, and a re-release of the film in the 1940s was more popular than its original release. Still, the incredibly expensive film actually only started turning a profit with the advent of television: annual broadcasts upped its visibility and helped it to become an American classic.
In the meantime, Garland's personal life and career took many troubling turns. She was married five times, divorced four times, and suffered several nervous breakdowns and bouts of hospitalization for drug addiction and depression. She nonetheless managed to become a bona fide film star, performing in a total of 32 feature films in between all the drama. She also became a successful concert singer to boot.
Commercial success and a massive fan base couldn't keep Garland away from her lifelong tendency to self-loathing and drugs. In 1969, 12 days after her 47th birthday, Judy Garland was found dead on the floor of her apartment in England. She had accidentally overdosed on barbiturates.
Garland has since been honored by countless awards, tributes, biographies, TV documentaries, and more. Her daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, have both had successful careers as performers; Luft in particular has been very involved in keeping her mother's memory alive.
Her face, voice, and especially her performance in "Over the Rainbow," will likely be with us for a long time. In 2006, The New York Times described Judy Garland as having "an almost shamanistic ability to divine the meaning of a lyric and to add an interpretation of her own to even the most overplayed tune" (source).
Yip Harburg, known to posterity as "Broadway's social conscience," was both a skilled writer of pop songs and a life-long socialist and activist. Most of his songs were devoid of any serious political content, but some could be interpreted allegorically.
We think it's possible to read "Over the Rainbow" as an allegory (some have interpreted it as an allegory for the experience of closeted gay people, for example), but, in this case, the technique might be much simpler. On the most basic level, "Over the Rainbow" is a song about a theme that many people can identify with: the desire to be in another place. It also sets the stage, as we all know, for a grand adventure to come.
"Over the Rainbow" is the first song in The Wizard of Oz, and it comes just after young Dorothy Gale is rejected and yelled at by her aunt and uncle and falls into a pigsty. Dorothy is worried about her evil neighbor, who doesn't like her dog, Toto. The emotion expressed is that of a young girl, worried and alone, longing to leave her isolated Kansas home for someplace better.
"Over the Rainbow" may be metaphorical, but we are guessing it's mostly about showing that Dorothy's young mind longs for simple things: blue skies, no worries, and birds singing. Rather than creating a pointed allegory, we think Yip Harburg created a classic song on the timeless topics of longing and escape.