How a song is born: Over the rainbow

Known as one of the most beautiful and best-known songs of all time (US record companies voted it “best song of the twentieth century”), Over the Rainbow (also known as Somewhere Over the Rainbow) is a song written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Arlen thought of the melody while sitting in his car in front of a Hollywood drug store. Harburg was not enthusiastic at first because he considered it too slow: they submitted it to Ira Gershwin (brother of the more famous George, but a great composer himself) who accelerated the pace. The new version convinced Harburg, who adapted the text.

The song was immediately a great success: it won the Oscar for best original song the same year (in which Gone with the Wind won the Oscar) and in 1981 it won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Since 2011 it has become an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical staged for the first time at the London Palladium, and still repeated today in other theaters.

The original version is sung by Judy Garland (future Liza Minnelli’s mother) who was 17 at the time and was chosen to play Dorothy, a teenage dreamer, as an alternative to Shirley Temple, already famous at the time, but still 10 years old, too small for the part.

The text talks about the power of fantasy, and the hope that makes us believe in a better world: at the time the theme was somehow linked to Roosevelt’s New Deal which represented hope after the Great Depression.

Due to the close relationship with Judy Garland (heterosexual, but considered a gay icon) and the message of hope contained in the text, over the decades the song has become one of the greatest anthems of the homosexual liberation movement, of which the flag rainbow is precisely a symbol. Furthermore, it is speculated that this song was one of the reasons that led to the choice of the rainbow for the flag of the LGBT community, which was then waved at the first Gay Pride in history at San Francisco in 1978. Later the rainbow also became the background of the flags for PEACE.

Over the Rainbow theme has a certain harmonic and melodic resemblance to the theme of the interlude (known as Ratcliff’s Dream) by Pietro Mascagni’s opera Guglielmo Ratcliff, composed in 1895.

There are many singers who have ventured into the execution: in fact, there are over 650 covers of the song, including Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Keith Jarrett, Ariana Grande, Santo & Johnny, Nikka Costa, and the Italian versions of Caterina Valente and Neil Sedaka. It has also come back into vogue more recently thanks to the medley of the Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole called Iz, which is composed of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and What a Wonderful World (the second is by Louis Armstrong), a very suggestive version of only accompanied voice, from the ukulele. In the latter part of his life, Iz suffered severe obesity, weighing 343 kg. He was hospitalized several times and died of respiratory problems in 1997 at the age of only 38. Sad testimony of the fact that the typical problems of the modern world have today also reached the Pacific Ocean paradises, now no longer pristine.

If you want, you can also listen to the vocal improvisation about “Over the rainbow” created by Roberto Demo, live on his YouTube channel on April 6th 2022.

Patrizia Rossi