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Harold Arlen

Harold Arlen and his lyricist Yip Harburg were hired to write the songs for the MGM movie musical The Wizard of Oz in July 1938 and given two months to complete their work. The first three songs -- "We're Off to See the Wizard," "The Merry Old Land of Oz," and "Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead" -- came quickly, but Arlen felt the score needed a big ballad. "I felt we needed something with a sweep, a melody with a broad, long, line." The melody for the refrain came to him while he and his wife were driving down Sunset Boulevard to see a movie at Grauman's Chinese Theater. As he later said, "It was as if the Lord said, 'Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'" Arlen wrote the bridge the next day and then showed it to Harburg, who was less impressed. He thought it was simply too big and too grand for a teenage girl from Kansas. But after consulting with Ira Gershwin, Harburg changed his mind and gave Arlen's song its title and its lyrics. The song won an Academy Award for Best Song that year and went on to become the theme song for singer Judy Garland, who, of course, was the teenage girl from Kansas in the movie. The song itself starts with an octave leap, a leap that embodies the hopes of all people who long for a happiness that can never be theirs, and slowly, phrase after phrase, it descends back down to the tonic through harmonies that start in the major but turn more and more to the minor. The bridge has a simple tune of seconds and thirds with a rising phrase at the end over harmonies both major and minor and closes on the dominant for the return of the verse. The coda rises to the top of the singer's range, literally rising over the rainbow to close on the eternal question "why can't I?"