Over the Rainbow: 80 Years of The Wizard of Oz

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

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The Wizard of Oz is one of the most cherished films of all time. August 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the 1939 film’s release. The Library of Congress ranked The Wizard of Oz as the most-watched film in motion picture history. It is often ranked among the top 10 films of all time in various polls.

The Wizard of Oz is one of numerous musicals produced by the legendary Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios. The film is a perennial classic and has been adapted as a stage musical. The film is based on the first Oz book by L. Frank Baum The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900. The majority of the film is in Technicolor, while the opening and closing sequences are in sepia (brown-tinted) tones.

Oz Music and “Over the Rainbow”

The brilliant and catchy music in The Wizard of Oz is owed to three artists: composer Harold Arlen, lyricist Yip Harburg, and orchestrator Herbert Stothart, who provided the orchestrations for the vocal songs as well as for the background and incidental instrumental score. Stothart earned an Academy Award for his work on The Wizard of Oz.

“Over the Rainbow,” the song that Dorothy (Judy Garland) sings foreshadowing the entire Land of Oz dream, was almost cut from the film! MGM executives believed that the song slowed down the farm sequence because it is toward the beginning of the film. Fortunately, the musicians fought to keep the song; songwriters Arlen and Harburg ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Song for “Over the Rainbow.” Harburg was driving in Hollywood when he saw a rainbow above, which inspired him to write “Over the Rainbow.” In 2004, the song was rated the Number One song in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years . . . 100 Songs List.” Judy Garland won a special Juvenile Academy Award for her work on The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms.

Learning Scenarios

A number of Wizard of Oz activities can be treated in the music and performing arts curriculum. Consider the following:

MGM Students research musical films produced by MGM Studios besides The Wizard of Oz. Students could be assigned one or more MGM musicals and speak or write about them. 

Singing and playing Students can learn one or more songs from the Oz score on a particular instrument, or an ensemble can learn the various instrument parts of a specific Oz song. One or more students can perform the vocal parts.

Soundtrack activities Using the deluxe Wizard of Oz soundtrack, students analyze alternate tracks, alternate takes, and unused background music. They could choose a specific track to analyze. This could include analyzing how an alternate track or take compares to the final one used in the film. This can be done individually, in groups, or as a class. 

Overture Using the film’s overture, students identify the melodies they hear from The Wizard of Oz score.

Over the Rainbow Students analyze the song “Over the Rainbow” in terms of AB patterns. Teachers can present the opening verse to the song on a recording (e.g., Barbra Streisand’s version on her “One Voice” album). This opening verse went unused in the film.

If I Only Had a Brain/a Heart/the Nerve Students analyze the character songs of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion. What do the lyrics reveal about each of Dorothy’s friends?

Optimistic Voices Students perform the song “Optimistic Voices” vocally, with or without accompaniment. This can be done with an all-female, all-male or mixed ensemble.

The Jitterbug Students listen to the unused song “The Jitterbug” on the deluxe soundtrack from 1995.Why was the song not included in the final film? Students learn about the Jitterbug dance, popularized during the early twentieth century, and perform it with classmates.

From demo to final Students learn about the process of creating a demo and comparing it to a final version. Have students listen to the rehearsal demo of the Munchkinland sequence as performed by Arlen and Harburg on the deluxe soundtrack. They can then compare this demo with the final version in the film.

Underscore Students choose one or more scenes from The Wizard of Oz that include background music. For each scene, students analyze the music and determine whether the music is a variation of one of the songs with lyrics, original music, or classical music borrowed from other composers.

Character music Students watch the film or listen to the soundtrack and determine specific music or motives that can be attributed to specific characters. For example, Dorothy has “Over the Rainbow,” Miss Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West has specific music, Toto has his escape music, the hourglass has specific music, and Glinda has her fanfare comprised of six notes heard at the overture’s beginning, during the finale ultimo, and whenever Glinda’s bubble appears.

Mauceri suite Students listen to the Hollywood Bowl’s recording of “The Wizard of Oz Concert Suite” conducted by John Mauceri and describe what is happening in terms of action on the screen. Their descriptions can be done orally or in writing.

Classical music in Oz incidental music Students listen to recordings of “Home, Sweet Home” and “A Night on Bald Mountain” and hear how Stothart integrated these melodies into his Oz score.

Wicked Students compare the musical Wicked by Stephen Schwartz based on Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked to The Wizard of Oz. What do we learn about the two witches in Wicked that helps us understand them in The Wizard of Oz?

The Wiz Students compare the 1970s musical The Wiz with The Wizard of Oz. They can present their findings through technology or traditional means.

Summary

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most renowned and cherished musicals in U.S. cinematic history. The music and concepts of The Wizard of Oz can undoubtedly enhance both the vocal and instrumental music curriculum and bring you and your students Over the Rainbow.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musical theatre and film works.

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