“I’ve always taken The Wizard of Oz very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.” – Judy Garland
When developing The Wizard of Oz, producer Arthur Freed engaged composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg to write the songs, believing that they could capture the spark necessary for the fantasy tale.
The pair only had two months to write the original music. It was an especially big task because it was extremely important for the music to be integrated into the story.
Despite the challenge, the songs came easily enough – so much so that the duo called them “lemon drop songs.” But one song caused quite a hitch.
Arlen said, “We had finished all of the songs except the one for Judy in Kansas. And I knew what I wanted, but when it doesn’t come, it becomes one of those things that bugs you.”
After struggling with it, Arlen finally decided to take his mind off of his work and get outside. As his wife drove him around town, inspiration suddenly hit.
On his inspiration for the lyrics, Harburg said, “The only thing that was colorful in her life at that point was, I thought, the rainbow. So I said, ‘I must have a song with rainbow in it.’”
That rainbow was enough to get the juices flowing, and the song was completed shortly after that.
When the film was finished in June 1939, the total runtime was close to two hours long. Worried about the length, the studio used sneak previews to test out where they should trim and cut. Among the portions cut included a reprise of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead," a dance portion of “If I Only Had a Brain," the entire “The Jitter Bug” sequence outside the witch's castle, and… “Over the Rainbow!”
Recalling some of the studio executives' thoughts, Judy Garland said, "They didn’t think that it was a very good idea to have the song in the movie. They seemed to feel that it would hold the story up.”
In fact, some of them didn’t understand why a Kansas girl would sing a ballad at all, especially by a barn.
Harburg said, “Harold and I just went crazy... We knew that this was the ballad of the show. This is the number we were depending on. And we decided to take action. We went to the front office, we went to the back office, we pleaded, we cried, we tore out our hair.”
It wasn’t until Arthur Freed stepped in with an ultimatum that the song was saved. He made it simple – either the song stayed or he left. So the song stayed.
The creative team's convictions were proved right when “Over the Rainbow” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1940. Today, of course, the song is considered a classic. It's also closely associated with Judy Garland, who not only made it famous, but continued to sing it throughout her career.
In fact, when asked if she ever tired of singing it, she replied, "Tired of 'Over the Rainbow'? Listen, it's like getting tired of breathing. The whole premise of the song is a question. It represents everyone's wondering why things can't be a little better."
"'Rainbow' has always been my song. I get emotional one way or the other about every song I sing. But maybe I get more emotional about 'Rainbow,'” Garland confessed. “I never shed any phony tears about it. Everybody has songs that make them cry. That’s my sad song.”
Garland would add another standard to her repertoire with Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” while filming Summer Stock in 1950, her last MGM musical (read about that here).