Steyn's Song of the Week
This month marks the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest and most enduring film musicals ever made, and one of the few to match the dramatic ambition of the best Broadway shows. The Wizard Of Oz gave us a standard song that won the Oscar that year and was potent enough to provide Eva Cassidy with a posthumous hit in the 21st century. We'll get to that next week, but for this week's Song of the Week here's one of my personal favorites from a truly marvelous score:
Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead
If you associate those lines not with Munchkins but with layabout lefties, you're probably British. In early 2013, that was the bestselling song at Amazon UK and at iTunes. Why? Because Mrs Thatcher had died the previous week and the moron left, having waited 34 years to pull a somewhat lame and obvious gag, were not to be denied. For what it's worth, a record called "I'm In Love With Margaret Thatcher" was briefly just behind at Number Two on Amazon. Mrs Thatcher (whose favorite songs included "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" and the now verboten Rolf Harris hit "Two Little Boys" ) would have relished the witless but supremely flattering glee her death provoked in her ingrate compatriots. Nonetheless, "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" is a wonderful song and a terrific movie scene, with or without the great Maggie. The bit everyone knows is very short - the Amazon and itTunes download is a mere 51 seconds. But it's part of a much longer extended musical sequence, remarkable in its day and even more amazing in hindsight. It embodies what the filmmakers were hoping to achieve when they decided to bring a much adapted and over familiar story to the moviegoers of 1939.
The Wizard Of Oz had been around quite a while by the time MGM optioned it in the late Thirties. Whatever else may be said for L Frank Baum's original book, he just got on with it and told the story. There is, clearly, a certain metaphorical power to characters with no brain, no heart and no courage, but Baum, in the original Wizard Of Oz, never belabored it, leaving it to his many and varied adapters over the next century to obsess about meaning. Baum invented Oz while holding down his day job as editor of Chicago Show Window, a magazine for department-store window decorators â€“ and no, he wasn't gay: the original friend of Dorothy was not a Friend of Dorothy. He's not the fanciest prose stylist, but he's brimming with strong, visual ideas: There's a terrific moment in the third book, Ozma Of Oz, where Princess Ozma, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger, the Saw-Horse and the entire officer-heavy Royal army, cross the poisonous desert from the Land of Oz to the Land of Ev by means of a magic green carpet which unrolls under their feet as they advance and then rolls up again behind them â€“ a very literal example of how Baum's work is one continuous rolling parade of fantastic episodes.
The Judy Garland Wizard was not the first musical adaptation: that honor goes to Baum's own stage version, with rather dreary music by Paul Tietjens and A Baldwin Sloane, various interpolations by other hands, and a libretto heavily dependent on the broad clown comedy of Montgomery and Stone as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. Dorothy was something of a secondary figure, and the Cowardly Lion was little more than a bit part. But it made stars of Montgomery and Stone and was the hit of the 1902-03 Broadway season, until it was eclipsed by the producers' own follow-up, Babes In Toyland, which was to prove rather more enduring. (The Munchkin fanfare in the Judy Garland film is oddly reminiscent of Toyland's "March Of The Toys", but it's a presumably unconscious evocation of Oz's great rival.) Nevertheless, Baum made so much money from the Broadway version that he wrote the second Oz book with the stage in mind, eliminating Dorothy and the Lion entirely to give Montgomery and Stone even bigger parts. Only after the second Oz show flopped did Baum realize the books were the heart of the fantasy and knuckle down to writing the series without an eye to which vaudevillians might be available for leading roles.
By my reckoning, there are at least eight Oz musicals. There were Baum's own adaptations of his sequels, one of which, The Tik-Tok Man Of Oz (1913), has an unusual score by Louis Gottschalk. At the other end of the spectrum we have The Patchwork Girl Of Oz (1988) by lumbering London leftie Adrian Mitchell (lyricist of the popular anti-Thatcher rant "F**k-Off Friday", to which I referred in my weekend column). Somewhere in between come the all-black version The Wiz and the dark prequel Wicked. (The most recent prequel Oz The Great And Powerful is an unmusical telling, in every sense.) Yet in the end there's only one Oz that counts: When MGM came to make the third film version of the original book, they wisely ignored the 1902 adaptation and ordered up a new score from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Arlen is the composer of our Song of the Week #14 ("One For My Baby") and Song of the Week #147 ("Blues In The Night"), and one of the great figures of 20th century popular music: Not as famous as Berlin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers and Gershwin, but in the same league. Harburg is the lyricist of our Song of the Week #73 ("Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"), a good friend of Ira Gershwin, a mentor to Johnny Mercer and a man who could write big pop hits that matched his pals' ("April In Paris", "It's Only A Paper Moon") but also had a decided and sometimes very obvious political sensibility: at a time when most writers were content with basic boy-meets-girl, he inclined more towards boy-meets-girl-on-a-WPA-project.
Harburg's principal contribution is summed up in the title of his son Ernie's biography: Who Put The Rainbow In The Wizard Of Oz? In Baum's book, there was no rainbow for Dorothy to be over. Harburg was well to the left of standard Hollywood limousine liberalism, so it was assumed his Oz work must have had various socialist sub-texts going on in there. That in turn prompted a whole slew of retrospective scholarship about Baum's Oz. According to Henry Littlefield in 1964, the original book is a political parable about the failures of the Populist movement of the 1890s, when a viable mass coalition of farmers (the Scarecrow) and heavy industry (the Tin Man) was thwarted by the duplicitousness of Wall Street (the Wicked Witch of the East) and the faintheartedness of William Jennings Bryan (the Cowardly Lion). Etc.
But, in fact, what Harburg really contributed to The Wizard Of Oz was an enlargement of the story. It was because he introduced the rainbow that the studio hit on the idea of filming the Kansas scenes in drab dustbowl monochrome, and bursting into color only for Oz. The lyricist helped make a child's adventure mythic. Arthur Freed, the associate producer, had argued for hiring Arlen & Harburg on the basis of "In The Shade Of The New Apple Tree" (from a show called Hooray For What?) that Freed felt had the whimsy and lightness of touch Baum's book needed. But the songwriters wanted to do something more ambitious. "We think we've found a way to eliminate stop-plot numbers," Harburg announced. He meant that, for example, in your average Astaire & Rogers musical, you could easily drop all the songs from one film and replace them was those of another and it would make no difference: There's the plot and there's the score and ne'er the twain shall meet. Harburg wanted to use the songs to tell the story, and he succeeded brilliantly. With the famous exception of the plaintive "Over The Rainbow", all the numbers are confined to the Oz scenes: It's as if Kansas is a land without music and, just as the film can only burst into color when it leaves reality behind, so too it can only burst into song once it lands in Oz.
Or burst into ...something - extended musical scenes, recitative, sung dialogue, but more much more than just a 32-bar song. Young Dorothy Gale certainly knows how to make an entrance. As Glinda the Good Witch sings:
Come out, come out wherever you are
The Munchkins do come out. For when the tornado whisked Dorothy off to Oz, it deposited her by "dropping a house" on the bane of the neighborhood:
The house began to pitch
"Sitch-uation"? Harburg was fond of word-play, and sometimes it got out of hand. He once wrote:
I'll be your nincompoop
"Just what," enquired Dorothy Parker, "is an 'income-poop'?" Harburg stormed out of the room. But for his Oz songs the lyricist kept the whimsy under control, and in character:
I could show my prowess
Not all the lines made the final cut. This couplet is from an early draft:
She really went and blew her fuse
Just as importantly, amidst all the tricksily rhyming recitative stuff are real breakout tunes by Arlen, and none more delightful than this:
Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead
What a marvelous idea: Death as an occasion for joy! For musical comedy joy - "Ring bells! Sing songs!" "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Helps you shoo ya blues away!"-type joy. A couple of years back, my children's grade school did an Oz concert - the first half consisted of songs from Wicked (ahem), the second half from The Wizard. Afterwards, my older boy asked me what was my favorite bit of my favorite number, and I said the middle section of "Ding-Dong!" The grade-schoolers really tore it up with this:
She's gone where the goblins go
There's really no song like it, which is why, long before Mrs Thatcher's passing, it's had a long afterlife as the universally understood pop-culture shorthand for celebrating deliverance from oppression: In 1990, when Maggie was forced from office, Frank Skinner chanced to be recording one of his BBC "comedy" shows and got the crowd to singalong with "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead". I can't complain - cheap joke, but I've used it myself in other contexts. It's slightly spoiled by the fact that, in Mrs T's case, as one Marxist chum of mine complained to me on the very night of the Tory matricide 23 years ago, it was not the left who engineered her downfall but her own courtiers who stuck it to the wicked witch. That doesn't stop the sentiment recurring: Hefner's record "The Day That Thatcher Dies" ends with a group of schoolchildren singing "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead". I prefer the dottier deployment in Naked Gun 2 1/2 (I think), in which the guy in the piano bar plays it for Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley as "our song".
And, in fairness to those who use the song for such purposes, it is the only number to include an actual, formal certification of death, delivered by a four-foot municipal official holding an outsized death certificate:
Those words were sung by the Munchkin coroner, played by Meinhardt Raabe, who outlived almost all his Oz compatriots - young Dorothy, the Wizard, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion and most of the Munchkins - and ended his days in Penney Farms, Florida, where in 2010 Bob Rigel, president of the Penney Retirement Community, announced that Mr Raabe was himself not merely dead but really most sincerely dead, at the age of 94. I don't know if the Sunshine State issues Oz-sized death certificates, but they should have in this case. Those 20 words are the entirety of Meinhardt Raabe's Hollywood career - just a little over ten seconds of screen time, and, audio-wise, he became convinced his lines had been dubbed by some other fellow in post-production. But for the next seven decades he dutifully reprised them at Oz conventions and in speeches to schools and Rotary Clubs - and parlayed them into a lifelong minor celebrity complete with memoir, Memories Of A Munchkin. He grew up (if that's the phrase) in Watertown, Wisconsin, where no one had ever seen a dwarf before. Not until he was 18 and he visited the Midget Village at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago did he become aware that there were others like him. He was an accountant, and the shortest pilot in uniform in World War Two, and for 30 years the prototype "Little Oscar, the World's Smallest Chef", traveling coast to coast in the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile promoting Oscar Mayer foods - from whom he took a sabbatical in 1938 when he saw an advertisement seeking midgets for a new motion picture. If Oz became a burden to Judy Garland, Meinhardt Raabe took his ten seconds of fame and lived it to the full for the best part of three-quarters of a century.
Everything else in between the choruses is best enjoyed as a Munchkin postscript to the Gilbertian tradition. As Ernie Harburg points out in his biography of his father, the scene isn't so much "musicalized speech" as "musicalized speeches" - of the Mayor, the Coroner, various other eminences from the Munchkin equivalents of Rotary Clubs and Elks' Lodges: the Lullabye League and the Lollypop Guild. From Gilbert & Sullivan to the Gershwins' Of Thee I Sing, at some point every satirical operetta serves up a bunch of small-town officials doing a patter version of public rituals. In The Wizard Of Oz, Meinhardt Raabe was a belated participant in an operetta convention that itself would soon be most sincerely dead.
The song wasn't exactly a hit, although Glenn Miller got to Number 17 on Your Hit Parade in a version that drains all the celebration out of the tune and turns it into just another palais glide for dream-dancing. And that was it chart-wise until 1967, when a member of the rock band The Fifth Estate was at a party and, a little the worse for wear, boasted that they were so hot they could have a pop hit with just about any song. "Oh, yeah?" said a partygoer. "How about 'Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead'?" Hey, why not? Just to up the ante, they combined it with a 350-year old bourrÃ©e from Michael Praetorius' Terpsichore Suite. The resultant single got to Number 11 on Billboard's Hot 100.
Other than that, the song's most assiduous performer was Wally Stott, who ended his life as Angela Morley, acclaimed musical director for shows like "Dallas". But in her less glamorous Wally Stott days on "The Goon Show" with Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, he played "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" live on BBC Radio every week for years. I would imagine "honorary Goon" the Prince of Wales knows the song inside out. A small group of discriminating singers picked up on it - Ella, Sammy Davis, Rosie Clooney, Harry Connick Jr, the misty June Christy... But if I had to name my all-time favorite version I would go to the source. Aside from being one of the very greatest composers of American music, Harold Arlen was also a terrific singer. He didn't have as many hits as Johnny Mercer, but his recordings of "Stormy Weather" and "Let's Fall In Love" both got to Number One in 1934, and three decades later, in his early sixties, he went into the studio to make an album called Harold Sings Arlen. He called in a friend to help him out on a couple of tracks - Barbra Streisand - and she joined him for a rollicking rock'n'rolling take on "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" that's great fun and among the least mannered recordings Miss Streisand has ever made.
A few months after the picture's release, "Over The Rainbow" won the Best Song Oscar for Arlen & Harburg. They were on a roll - or so you'd have thought. Yet, aside from The Marx Brothers At The Circus (with "Lydia The Tattooed Lady") released two months later, that was it for their movie collaboration. Harold, said Yip, "felt he needed a change, and so did I." Their partnership was merely dead until Bloomer Girl on Broadway in the Forties, but even as a fabulous one-off it has its place in movie history. A year on its Thatcherite royalty bonanza is already as forgotten as those Fifth Estate and Glenn Miller hit versions. But "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" will live.
~Don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
August 25, 2014
When this weekly feature began eight and a half years ago, our Song of the Week Number One was "San Francisco", to mark the centenary of the 1906 earthquake. But, if I'd been thinking about a Number One song in more profound terms, our Number One song would have been the song we're finally getting round to almost a decade later - because this week's song was really the Number One song for an entire school of songs. As Mel TormÃ© put it, when Jerome Kern composed this melody, he "invented the popular song". If your idea of a popular song is "Call Me Maybe" or "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" or "The Tennesee Waltz", TormÃ©'s claim is a bit of a stretch. But it's not unreasonable to claim that with this tune Kern invented what we now call the American Songbook - standards that endure across the decades and can be sung and played in almost any style. It is, thus, the Number One Song, the first and most influential entry in that American Songbook...
Three hit songs from one flop Sixties musical
To mark the centenary of composer Hugh Martin, here's the second part of Mark's two-part audio tribute to the man who gave the world "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"...
As I mentioned yesterday, we're having a mini-Canadian festival on this long weekend for Simcoe Day and whatnot. This month marks the centenary of one of my favorite Canadian songwriters, albeit one who retired far too early, and we're celebrating with her two biggest hits. The section on "I'll Never Smile Again" is adapted from my book A Song For The Season: "I'll Never Smile Again/Until I smile at you..."
A few weeks back, apropos "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", I mentioned that we hadn't done a lot of "month" songs in the years we've been running this feature. Some months - mostly spring ("April Showers", "April In Paris") and fall ("September Song", "September In The Rain") - seem to lend themselves to musicalization. If "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is about as big a hit title as the sixth month of the year has ever produced, the eighth (which looms this very week) can't even manage a title ...
What with all the Jew-hate around on the streets of Europe in recent days, I thought it would be nice to have a big Europop hit from that fleeting cultural moment when the Continentals regarded Israel not merely as a normal sovereign state but in fact a rather cool and enviable one...
On Thursday I joined Hugh Hewitt for the 14th anniversary edition of The Hugh Hewitt Show, which he began by playing Mr and Mrs Hewitt's favorite song, "The Way You Look Tonight", as sung by Fred Astaire. I've been a weekly guest on Hugh's show for over a decade now, so as a tip of my hat to one of America's best hosts here's my take on that great Astaire song. This essay includes material from the Dorothy Fields section of Mark Steyn's American Songbook, personally autographed copies of which ...
I wouldn't want June to recede too far into the rear mirror without noting that it marked the 50th anniversary of a great and historic recording that, before the Sixties were out, burst the bounds of the planet. In June 1964, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie were in the studio making their second album together, It Might As Well Be Swing. The arranger was Quincy Jones, and his work for the set included a chart Frank kept in the act all the way to his very last concert...
Dominion Day looms - on Tuesday. We always like to have a Canadian song for the national holiday, and what could be more Canadian than...
Some musical advice from Mark's graduation season
The all-time great World Cup song
Steyn celebrates the song Ray Charles used to hum in the back of his car on the way to the gig - until one day his driver told him to record it.
Well, it's the beginning of June and that means June is bustin' out all over! Except that June doesn't really bust, does it..?
This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season:
Memorial Day in America â€“ or, if you're a real old-timer, Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. The songs many of those soldiers marched to are still known today â€“ "The Yellow Rose Of Texas", "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", "Dixie". But this one belongs in a category all its own...
Ninety years ago this Thursday a baby boy was born in Paris ...well, that was the first unexpected plot twist. He was supposed to be born in America...
Four decades ago, "Waterloo" hit Number One in the British charts, and the four Swedes never looked back, except to check whether their hot pants had split...
Mark explores the art of the cigarette song
One of the biggest pop standards of the 20th century celebrates its 90th birthday this month. Exactly nine decades ago - April 21st 1924 - a new musical comedy opened in Chicago on its pre-Broadway tour. The plot was the usual fluff - three couples in Atlantic City, complications ensue, etc. It should have been a breeze, but it wasn't going well...
Six decades ago - April 12th 1954 - a chubby-faced kiss-curled man pushing 30 with a backing group named after a theory published in Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae in 1705 went into the recording studio at the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street in New York and sang a song written by a man born in the 19th century...
A musical postscript to our Marlon Brando movie night
A Rodgers & Hart classic - after three false starts...
The 50th anniversary of the Beatles' only showtune
Shirley Temple - singer, dancer, actress, and rock'n'roller
Mark celebrates a classic saloon song
A song for Groundhog Day?
Pete Seeger and the "folk song" he stole
Number One in January 1934 ...and January 1959
Mark tells the story behind "his" Christmas song, and presents an audio special celebrating the man who wrote it...
Hugh Martin, composer, lyricist, vocal arranger, pianist, singer, actor and the man who gave the world the great seasonal gift of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", was born one hundred years ago this week...
As the years go by I grow less and less interested in grassy knolls and all the rest, but I am struck by one genuine, non-conspiracy-theorist feature of November 22nd 1963...
A special audio edition including a live performance of Mark's favorite wartime ballad
John Barry was a versatile musician of prodigious talent who in a half-century career worked in pop music, film and theatre. But, if he'd never done anything else, he'd have a claim on posterity as the man who singlehandedly created the instantly recognizable sound of big-screen spy music.
He was born 80 years ago - on November 3rd 1933, in Yorkshire, where his dad owned the local cinema. To mark what would have been his 80th birthday, here's an encore presentation of Mark's audio salute to John, and the man he musicalized for a quarter-century, the only spy with his own song catalogue, James Bond.
Mark celebrates the very first entry in the Sinatra Songbook - and one that stayed with him from big bands to disco
(Audio)To mark the centenary of one of the most successful songwriters of all time, Steyn presents a brand new Song of the Week audio edition, celebrating the man who wrote "Come Fly With Me", "Teach Me Tonight", "The Tender Trap", "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "All The Way", "Call Me Irresponsible", "My Kind Of Town (Chicago Is)", and many more.
It's over two hours of great music and stories, including special material from the SteynOnline archives.
For Bastille Day it seemed appropriate to have a French number for our Song of the Week. Unfortunately, this one's British, but it does have an accordion...
To mark the passing of MGM's million-dollar mermaid: "On A Slow Boat To China", and "Baby, It's Cold Outside".
How a psychedelic anthem from the summer of love became an easy-listening blockbuster
A day late for Cinco de Mayo, here's Steyn's Song of the Week: the most successful composition by Mexico's first successful female composer.
~and don't forget, if you like Mark's Song of the Week essays, some of his most requested are collected in his book A Song For The Season - including many songs for national days, from "America The Beautiful" to "Waltzing Matilda". You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
April 29th apparently marks the anniversary of the launch of the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the year 711. So I thought it would be fun to have a suitably Islamo-dominant number for our Song of the Week.
~and don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.
An audio special in which Mark traces the story of the only Easter standard in the American songbook
The SteynOnline Hit Parade
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