The Man Who Put the Rainbow in 'The Wizard of Oz'

Thanksgiving is around the corner, and
families will be gathering to share a meal and, perhaps, enjoy another
annual telecast of "The Wizard of Oz." The 70-year-old film classic
bears close watching this year, perhaps more than in any other, for the
message woven into the lyrics, written during the Great Depression by
Oscar-winning lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. There's more to the
Scarecrow and the Tin Man than meets the eye, and Harburg's message has
renewed resonance today in the midst of the greatest financial collapse
since the Depression.

Harburg grew up in New York's Lower East
Side. In high school, he was seated alphabetically next to Ira
Gershwin, and the two began a friendship that lasted a lifetime and
helped shape 20th-century American song and culture. Ernie Harburg,
Yip's son and co-author of the biography "Who Put the Rainbow in The
Wizard of Oz?," told me, "Yip knew poverty deeply ... it was the basis
of Yip's understanding of life as struggle."

Harburg was deep in debt after the 1929
Wall Street crash. Gershwin suggested that Harburg write song lyrics.
Before long, he wrote the song that captured the essence of the Great
Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Ernie said of the music
industry then: "They only wanted love songs or escape songs, so that in
1929 you had 'Happy Days Are Here Again.' ... There wasn't one song
that addressed the Depression, in which we were all living."

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" became a
national hit and remains a kind of anthem for hard times, corporate
greed and the dignity of working people:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.

Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

In the 1930s, Harburg became the lyricist for "The Wizard of Oz." He
also added the rainbow to the story, which doesn't appear in L. Frank
Baum's original 1900 book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." This led
Harburg to write the famous song "Over the Rainbow," sung by the
then-unknown Judy Garland.

While academic debate persists over
whether Baum intended the story as a political allegory about the rise
of industrial monopolists like John D. Rockefeller and the subsequent
populist backlash, there is no doubt that Harburg's influence made the
1939 film version more political.

The film, says Ernie Harburg, is about
common people confronting and defeating seemingly insurmountable and
violent oppression: The Scarecrow represented farmers, the Tin Man
stood for the factory workers, and the Munchkins of the "Lollipop
Guild" were the union members. Ernie recalled: "There was at least 30
percent unemployment at those times. And among blacks and minorities,
it was 50, 60 percent. And there were bread lines, and the rich kept
living their lifestyle."

"The Wizard of Oz" was to be "MGM's answer
to [Disney's] 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' " Ernie recounts. It
was initially a critical success, but a commercial flop. Yip Harburg
went on to write "Finian's Rainbow" for Broadway. It addresses racial
bigotry, hatred of immigrants, easy credit and mortgage foreclosures.
In 1947, "Finian's Rainbow" was the first Broadway musical with an
integrated cast. It was a hit, running for a year and a half. When
Harburg's unabashed political expression made him a target during the
McCarthy era, he was blacklisted, and was banned from TV and film work
from 1951 to 1962. Ironically, in the middle of his blacklist period,
CBS broadcast "The Wizard of Oz" on television. It broke all viewership
records, and has been airing since, gaining global renown and adulation.

This October, "Finian's Rainbow" began its
first full Broadway revival-the first since it was originally produced
six decades ago-to rave reviews. Yip Harburg would be especially proud,
no doubt, to know that one of the actors, Terri White, who plays a
black sharecropper in "Finian's Rainbow," is back on Broadway despite
having recently been homeless. From sleeping on park benches to
starring on Broadway once again, this is just the kind of tale that
inspired Harburg.

In response to his blacklisting, Harburg wrote a satiric poem, which reads in part:

Lives of great men all remind us

Greatness takes no easy way,

All the heroes of tomorrow

Are the heretics of today.


Why do great men all remind us

We can write our names on high

And departing leave behind us

Thumbprints in the FBI.

Let's give thanks to Yip Harburg and all
heretical artists, past and present, who have withstood censorship and
banishment just for talking turkey.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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