Mar 13, 2015 -- “The hills are alive…with THE SOUND OF -- OZ!”
[Above left: I got to “sit in” while lights, cameras, angles, backgrounds, and audio were tested on the first day of production for THE SOUND OF OZ in New York City, October 7, 2014. Above right: Later that same day – and after his interview – legendary Broadway/ Hollywood songwriter Stephen Schwartz was joyously flanked by THE SOUND OF OZ director Ryan Jay (left) and producer Aaron Harburg.]
I don’t think the readers of this blog need to be actively told (least of all by a fellow fan…) about the marvels of the E. Y. “Yip” Harburg /Harold Arlen lyrics and music for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 motion picture, THE WIZARD OF OZ. It isn’t often that something regarded as first class “of its time” also turns out to be as timeLESS as that motion picture script, its performances and visuals (costumes, make-up, scenery, special effects), the Herbert Stothart -- et al -- underscoring , and those Arlen/Harburg songs.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the internet and social media have been alive for the past eleven days with postings and news about an innovative, in-progress documentary, THE SOUND OF OZ. Produced by Aaron Harburg (Yip’s great-grandson) and directed by TV-and-radio movie critic Ryan Jay, the finished film will tell the back-story of the composition and writing of the OZ songs as never before presented elsewhere. Both men are primed to share all the details, the detours, and the dramas attendant to the manner in which Yip and Harold provided MGM with the necessary integrated melodies and words for its major production of the 1939 season.
THE SOUND OF OZ now has entered its primary fund-raising campaign; details may be found in the official press release below. But in what turned out to be a stirring four-minute demonstration of their creativity and capability, Harburg and Jay already have assembled a brief promotional trailer for the project. It’s comprised of material from the initial four interviews they conducted during a “shoot” here in New York last October. It’s musical, it’s Ozzy, it’s informative, and it’s exciting. (True… I’m not precisely “unbiased”; both men are good friends and, as you’ll see, I’m one of the four on-camera subjects! But that doesn’t make the pleasure of sharing any the less, especially when even a preliminary showcasing turns out this well: http://thesoundofozmovie.com )
As a somewhat more-than-average aficionado of the topic at hand, I additionally spent the entire day of the shoot on-set with the staff, crew, and other Ozian “conversants.” This proved to be a long nine hours, but they were one-and-all undeniably exhilarating and Ozzified; the former due to the latter, in all probability. A few seasons back, Ryan worked as Story Producer for the Bravo TV show, THE MILLIONAIRE MATCHMAKER. Through one of the combined professional/personal associations established at that time, he arranged for THE SOUND OF OZ to do its first photography in a private, sixty-fifth floor apartment overlooking Columbus Circle—which meant the astounding view encompassed Central Park, Central Park South, Fifth Avenue, a long look up Broadway, and etc. He likewise commandeered the services of an exemplary crew, acquaintances as well from his years of credits in New York. They not only delivered the goods in terms of picture, lighting, and sound, but helped Aaron and Ryan create four different visual backgrounds in one room: an alternate setting for each speaker.
Aaron was the overseer of all of this – en route into the planning, on “the day” itself, and in the wrap-up. THE SOUND OF OZ, as you’ll read below, is his personal dream. And his own expertise in video production and graphic arts (coupled with his totally understandable family pride and passion) made him the most enthused and focused of superintendents.
Two of the principal subjects captured on October 7th were people I already knew. Jane Lahr – daughter of Bert Lahr, MGM’s “Cowardly Lion” supreme -- is a friend of many years. I believe we originally encountered each other during my early days in NYC entertainment publicity and promotion; she then was (as she remains) a highly-regarded presence in book editing, publishing, packaging, and marketing. Across subsequent decades, we’ve “shared stage” at Macy’s for the “Second Generation of OZ” panel discussion in 1989; appeared – together with her author/daughter Maya – at the Chittenango, NY “OZ-Stravaganza!”; and talked about her dad on-camera for one of the earlier Warner Bros. Home Video OZ documentaries. Jane invariably brings wisdom, insight, and authority to any recounting of her father’s life arc and personal and professional characteristics. At the same time, her remarks retain warmth, affection, and appreciation. Ryan and Aaron desired her input on the basis of all of those qualities, of course, but as Bert Lahr also toiled on Broadway with Arlen & Harburg pre-Cowardly Lion, her reflections on that period of his career were incremental in telling the saga of THE SOUND OF OZ.
I similarly had met and enjoyed the company and reminiscences of Ernie Harburg – Yip’s son – on a couple of prior occasions. He stands as a font of facts and comprehension when it comes to his dad, and no one else is more definitive than Ernie when it comes to statements about Yip’s OVERALL contribution to Metro’s OZ. In case not every reader is aware of that aspect of history, Yip’s task didn’t end with the film’s lyrics. He further worked on its dialogue scenes, wrote spoken segues to better-introduce some of the songs, advised as “script editor,” and – as Ernie proudly indicates in THE SOUND OF OZ teaser trailer -- it was (indeed!) his father who added an immeasurably important natural phenomenon to the perspective and world of Dorothy Gale in the picture.
The “stranger” to me in the day’s line-up (at least in terms of earlier fraternization) was stage and screen composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz. I’ve been fortunate to be around professional show business since I was fifteen -- and privileged to meet and/or labor with a lot of major talents and personalities. But all of us involved last October felt enormous anticipation at the thought of spending time with (and hearing from) the man who wrote the songs for WICKED, GODSPELL, PIPPIN, THE BAKER’S WIFE, and CHILDREN OF EDEN, and the lyrics for ENCHANTED, THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, POCAHONTAS, and RAGS. Factor in three Oscars, three Grammys, four Drama Desk Awards, one Golden Globe, and six Tony nominations -- that’s just up until now – and you’ll understand the expectancy.
Yet, as in so many similar cases: The bigger they are, the nicer – and all the more cooperative. Stephen sat down in a chair, raved intelligently about the MGM OZ score, and (without being asked) pulled up a keyboard and volunteered to demonstrate how he had, in homage, incorporated brief note-phrases of the 1938 Arlen melodies into his tunes for WICKED. Now, to be honest, Ryan and Aaron had put the keyboard within the man’s reach, in plain hopes of achieving such an exhibition. But Stephen himself, all on his own, was endlessly accommodating, energetic, and enthusiastic.
He fit right in!
In brief, the entire day was a memorable onset to what it is hoped will be a significant and entertaining film.
I mentioned above the fact that fans have been discussing the trailer and THE SOUND OF OZ project for the last week or so, but I wanted to bring it to light here as well. Thanks to this blog, I’ve also been able to offer anecdotes about its premiere day of “construction” that haven’t been shared anywhere else. While I willingly and once again admit that I’m not exactly unprejudiced, I do think THE SOUND OF OZ deserves attention, consideration, and support. Ryan and Aaron have a long list of Grade-A singers, celebrities, and informed subjects who need to be interviewed for posterity about their affinity for – and knowledge of -- the Harburg & Arlen work for OZ.
The accurate, in-depth narrative behind some of the world’s most favorite songs merits this kind of conscientious showcasing and preservation!
The link to the trailer is above; the press release is right here:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact: Jeff Dorta, Project Publicity: 212-445-0099 JeffDorta@ProjectPublicity.com
Great-Grandson of THE WIZARD OF OZ Lyricist
Plans THE SOUND OF OZ, a New Documentary Film,
Celebrating the History and Impact of Songs from the Iconic Motion Picture
NEW YORK, NY − 3/3/15: Everyone knows the songs from THE WIZARD OF OZ; in fact, “Over the Rainbow” is often cited as the greatest movie hit of all time. Few, however, know the names of the men who wrote “Rainbow” and the rest of the classic OZ score.
The remedy for their anonymity now is in the hands of Aaron Harburg -- great-grandson of THE WIZARD OF OZ lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg -- who has begun production on THE SOUND OF OZ. The feature-length documentary honors both his great-grandfather and OZ composer Harold Arlen.
The twenty-eight year old Harburg already has assembled a teaser trailer that heralds the two men and their OZ work. It also discusses the history and impact of the Harburg lyrics and Arlen melodies. “So many lives have been changed by the songs from THE WIZARD OFOZ,” he explains. “From ‘If I Only Had a Brain’ to ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ to ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead,’ there are countless untold stories of people who have found inspiration and joy in my great-grandfather’s words. Yet few people know who he is. I hope to use the power of film to introduce the OZ songwriters -- and their creative process -- to the world.”
While the making of THE WIZARD OF OZ has been documented in numerous books and on home video, the specific story behind the film’s songs has yet to be told. THE SOUND OF OZ will detail the magical (and sometimes-combative) relationship Harburg’s great-grandfather shared with composer Arlen. “They were very different personalities, almost opposites,” notes Aaron. “My great-grandfather was sanguine and chipper, while Mr. Arlen was a classic melancholic.
“Yet the first time my great-grandfather heard the melody for ‘Over the Rainbow,’ he hated it,” admits Harburg. “It wasn’t until their friend, lyricist Ira Gershwin intervened and suggested Mr. Arlen play it differently − less symphonically − that Yip began to see how it could work.”
“Over the Rainbow” won the Academy Award for “Best Original Song” just seventy-five years ago. Since then, it’s been honored as the “#1 Film Song of All Time” by The American Film Institute and “#1 Song of the Twentieth Century” by The National Endowment for the Arts and The Recording Industry Association of America. The irony of this – to be explained in THE SOUND OF OZ – is that the number was nearly dropped from OZ, not once, but several times.
“Each brilliant musical moment in THE WIZARD OF OZ has a behind-the-scenes story of Hollywood politics, teamwork, and negotiation,” offers the film’s director, Ryan Jay. “We plan to finally share those stories.”
THE SOUND OF OZ also will explore the genius struck between composer and lyricist, as divulged in interviews with descendants of the original cast and crew, including Jane Lahr (daughter of “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr). The documentary will contain additional insights and comments from filmmakers of other Oz movies; Oz historians (including Emmy Award-winning producer/writer and Grammy Award-nominated journalist John Fricke); and several contemporary artists who sing, play, or are influenced by the OZ score to this day.
“THE WIZARD OF OZ wouldn't have remained as iconic as it has without the songs,” says Stephen Schwartz, composer/lyricist of the multi-billion dollar Broadway sensation, WICKED, who sat down with Harburg and Jay last autumn for an on-camera interview. For the first time on record, Schwartz reveals – and plays -- the strategically-hidden melody fragments from the songs of THE WIZARD OF OZ that he incorporated in his score for WICKED.
Given his unique family background, it’s likely that only Aaron Harburg could gather such a cast of participants. THE SOUND OF OZ grew out of his passion, and it was his initial hope that the project would carry on his family legacy, providing long overdue recognition for lyricist Harburg and composer Arlen. But it has grown into more:
“I see now how important their story is to fans of THE WIZARD OF OZ. From very humble beginnings, my great-grandfather partnered with Mr. Arlen, and together they crafted words and melodies that launched the golden era of movie musicals. Their story will inspire everyone to pursue their dreams, to never give up…and to always keep chasing the rainbow.”
To view THE SOUND OF OZ trailer and to contribute to its fundraising campaign, please visit www.thesoundofozmovie.com .
PROJECT PUBLICITY, INC. · NEW YORK, NEW YORK · 212.445.0066 · WWW.PROJECTPUBLICITY.COM
Article by John Fricke