All the Oz score was lacking, as Arlen and Harburg moved into the final week of their contract, was the song that would establish their main character, a spunky but discontented 12-year-old girl from Kansas named Dorothy. Narrative shows of the post-Oklahoma! Golden Age of American musicals usually had a song up front in which the main character told the audience what he or she was yearning for. It became such a formula that it was known as the “I want” song: Think of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady, or “Somebody, Somewhere” from The Most Happy Fella. Years before this convention became established, Arlen and Harburg knew they needed a similar kind of musical introduction to Dorothy’s character, before her adventures spin her into Oz. It would “ground” her character before the overwhelming pageant of fantasy commandeered the story. This was an important song—it was no “lemon drop” song (although, ironically, it was the only song in the score to literally refer to them). The studio clock was ticking, inspiration was eluding Arlen and Harburg, and it was driving them both nuts.
Harburg had some ideas, but didn’t want to push them too hard on Arlen. As he told Morley Safer in a 60 Minutes interview in 1978, “I didn’t want to box him in, because when you give [a composer] a few words, a great musician like Harold Arlen starts to accommodate you.” Left to his own devices, Arlen was pulling out his carefully coiffed hair trying to find a way into the song. Frustrated with his lack of progress one night, he asked his wife to come to Grauman’s Chinese Theater to catch a movie instead. As he told an interviewer in 1963, his wife was driving the car and “as we drove by Schwab’s Drugstore, I said ‘Pull over—please.’ And bless the muses, I took out my notebook and starting jotting down the melody.” When he played the melody for Harburg the next day, Harburg said that he knew from the first eight bars that “it was not a lollipop song.” It was, however, a problem.
The melody was rangy, with its first two notes an octave apart, and Arlen had played it with a particularly symphonic intensity. Harburg recalled his first comment:
My God, Harold, it’s for a twelve-year-old girl—it isn’t for Nelson Eddy! And I got frightened—‘Let’s save it, let’s save it for something else’, I told him. He was crestfallen, as he should be. ‘Let’s put it away for another day.’ Well, we kept trying and trying for another week. I was worried for him and I called Ira Gershwin over and Ira said, ‘Harold, could you play it in more of a pop style?’
That did the trick. It was an intense, sophisticated song for a 12-year-old, but Dorothy Gale was, of course, no ordinary 12-year-old. She was, recalled Harburg in a 1963 interview, “a little girl in Kansas, which is an arid, colorless place, almost no flowers there because it’s so dry. The only thing in her life that was colorful, I thought, was the rainbow.”
In turning to the rainbow as a metaphor for happiness, Harburg also drew on decades of American songs. In 1918, a minor Broadway show, Oh, Look!, gave the world a major tune, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, one of the most popular of its day. (Its closing lyric runs, “I’m always chasing rainbows./ Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.”) Ten years later, Billy Rose and David Dreyer contrived a popular hit, “There’s a Rainbow Around My Shoulder”, for Al Jolson around a similar theme. The trope had become so common that by 1932 Irving Berlin invoked it affectionately as part of a catalogue of songwriting clichés in “Let’s Have Another Cup o’ Coffee” from his Broadway show, Face the Music. Its refrain runs:
Just around the corner There’s a rainbow in the sky. So let’s have another cup o’ coffee And let’s have another piece o’ pie!
Why would Yip Harburg, a man of considerable imagination, take yet another drink from such an oft-dipped well? Part of it was his conviction that the rainbow image would be useful for the rest of the picture—especially if the Kansas sequences were shot in sepia tone while Oz used all the colors of the rainbow. (This idea had originated with Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the first writers to tackle the screenplay.) Also, Harburg must have intuited that such an image would have seemed ridiculous and corny if were sung by, say, a Manhattan cigarette girl singing on a penthouse balcony. But for an untutored farm girl from Kansas, living in some indeterminate point early in the 20th century, the very predictability of the rainbow image speaks to her old-fashioned values and lack of pretense. And after all, mightn’t Dorothy’s Auntie Em have sung “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” to her at bedtime, once as a lullaby?
Harburg had a hard time wrapping his first lyrical ideas around Arlen’s first few notes—“on the other side of the rainbow” was quickly discarded. Eventually the songwriting process went smoothly, but the evolving song needed a “bridge”—a variation in the tune after the first two verses. Harburg suggested that Arlen employ the strange little whistle he used to call his often errant dog. This became the accompaniment to “Someday I’ll wish upon a star/ And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.” Ira Gershwin then suggested reprising “If happy little bluebirds fly . . .” as a final tag, and thus was the work of “Over the Rainbow” concluded by its two collaborators, Arlen and Harburg.