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Steyn's Song of the Week

Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead

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
Which old witch?
The wicked witch!
Ding-dong! The wicked 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 – 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 – 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
And meet the young lady who fell from a star
She fell from the sky, she fell very far
And Kansas she says is the name of the star...

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
The kitchen took a slitch
It landed on the wicked witch
In the middle of a ditch
Which was not a healty sitch
-uation for a wicked witch!

"Sitch-uation"? Harburg was fond of word-play, and sometimes it got out of hand. He once wrote:

I'll be your nincompoop
Just be my income-poop.

"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
Be a lion not a mow-ess
If I Only Had Da Nerve...

Not all the lines made the final cut. This couplet is from an early draft:

She really went and blew her fuse
There's nothing left of her but shoes...

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
Which old witch?
The wicked witch!
Ding-dong! The wicked witch is dead
Wake up, you sleepyhead
Rub your eyes
Get out of bed
Wake up, the wicked 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
Below!
Below, below
Yo-ho!
Let's open up and sing
And ring the bells out!
Ding-dong the merry-o
Sing it high!
Sing it low!
Let them know the Wicked Witch is dead!

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:

As coroner
I must aver
I thoroughly examined her
And she's not only merely dead
She's really most sincerely dead.

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 bourrée 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

 

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