We Must Have Music on the Road to Oz!
[Above: The front cover of the two-CD edition of the original soundtrack recordings of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, as assembled and produced in 1995. This was the first and -- to date – only legitimate compact disc release of the virtually complete prerecorded library of songs and orchestral underscoring from the film.]
Scarcely a day goes by that Oz fans don’t hear – for real or in their ongoing, Ozzy subconscious – some excerpt or refrain from the 1938-39 musical tracks prerecorded for THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture. These melodic strains are omnipresent, whether one recollects the tender Judy Garland voicings of “Over the Rainbow,” the bravura, mock-operetta tones of Bert Lahr as he declaims his potential as “King of the Forest,” the Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West “bicycle theme,” the monosyllabic chants of the Winkie Guards: “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!”…or any of the other sixty-plus compositions created by MGM’s masters of melody, lyrics, harmony, and orchestration.
Earlier this week, I was reminded of this music – and much more – when two new, young Oz aficionados privately and separately asked if there had ever been a compact disc release of all of the Metro movie’s music. They were familiar with the CD compilations of the film’s songs, one of which also included extracts of dialogue. But they specifically wanted to hear, in chronological sequence, the picture’s vocals and its underscoring, withOUT the latter being obscured by the conversations between Dorothy and her friends. And enemies!
Well, it’s now long out-of-print. But for those who would appreciate or covet such a commercial product, I refer you to the 1995 two-disc set, THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE DELUXE EDITION, released as a joint effort between Turner Classic Movies Music and Rhino Movie Music. I was privileged to serve as associate producer for the project, working with superlative producers Marilee Bradford and Bradley Flanagan and engineer extraordinaire Doug Schwartz. I also wrote and provided the art for the accompanying fifty-two-page, oversize booklet, which was boxed with the set.
[Above left and right: The front and back covers of the deluxe booklet that accompanied the Rhino OZ box.]
The recordings with which we worked had been discovered – almost by accident – in the late 1980s in a Turner Entertainment catch-all warehouse of offices and storage. Their existence, on huge reel-to-reel tapes, was a miracle, as all such vintage sound-only material had been originally captured on easy-to-decompose (and easier-to-burst-into-flame) nitrate film “back in the day.” Gratefully, Scott Perry, an unquestioned hero of the Metro Sound Department, had encouraged the studio to transfer the film stock to quarter-inch magnetic audio tape circa 1960. MGM executives agreed to his proposal but stressed that the work be done extremely expeditiously and inexpensively. Consequently, not everything was successfully rescued and preserved. The issue was then compounded by the fact that (at the time of their rediscovery almost thirty years later), those audio tapes themselves had – in some instances – also begun to flake and deteriorate.
Not to be blasphemous, but God must be an Oz fan: More than ninety-five per cent of the OZ material was still extant in 1989, which is when the audio recording of Buddy Ebsen’s “If I Only Had a Heart” and the original cast recording of Judy & Co. singing “The Jitterbug” were retrieved for use as extras in the supplemental section of the fiftieth anniversary MGM/UA Home Video VHS OZ tape. Four years later, all of the surviving OZ music material was included on alternate audio tracks of THE ULTIMATE OZ laser disc set; since then, this mélange has turned up on the various DVD releases as well.
However, it was only Rhino that made possible an easily-accessible, highly listenable CD collection of each of the songs and underscoring cues – from the Opening Credits’ “Overture” to the End Credits reprise of “Rainbow.” The set sold over 20,000 copies in its initial months of release and won raves from The Los Angeles TIMES (“enchanting…a delightful package…the Turner/Rhino partnership is setting the standard of excellence in soundtrack repackaging”), BILLBOARD (“wonderfully entertaining”), and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (“properly complete, bona fide…gemlike.”) To my joy, they liked the booklet, too: “superb…highly informative…amply illustrated….”
Several hundred man-hours of work went into the Rhino release. There were multiple “takes” of some of the songs, as well as of the complex underscoring. Additionally, the latter had been composed, orchestrated, and recorded to the “rough cut” assembly of OZ, which was edited together in March 1939 at the completion of principal photography. This was a two-hour version of the movie, and during their sneak previews in early summer that year, MGM determined – from audience reaction – where OZ could be trimmed down and made a more workable ninety-five or one-hundred-minute feature. As a result, many of the original underscoring tracks were ultimately trimmed to “fit” the final edit. It was both pleasure and challenge for us in the studio – fifty-six-years later -- to determine the correct order of the original, full-length recordings, as they sometimes didn’t quite correspond to the action as seen on the screen in their later, more-familiar, and shortened forms, (The final print of OZ ran for one-hundred-and-one-minutes, which meant that something like twenty minutes of footage – song, dance, dialogue, and action – had been dropped before the August 1939 premiere.)
Our feeling – of course! – was that more OZ music was much better than less. Thus, we “laid down” everything, uncut, in sequential order, and much of the Rhino release sounds like some sort of OZ symphony. And that’s its own bliss!
[Above left and right: The interior front cover and facing “disc trays” for the OZ CDs. Each witch got her due!]
We also had the delight of presenting a number of alternate takes, bloopers, abandoned bits of underscoring, and two sensational “demo” recordings: composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E. Y. Harburg in a duo rendition of the entire five-minute-plus “Munchkinland” sequence, and the same two – joined by legendary MGM composer/arranger/vocal coach Roger Edens – in “Optimistic Voices.” Historic among these outtakes, as well, were the Ebsen “If I Only Had a Heart” (prerecorded before illness eliminated him from the movie cast), the glorious vocal arrangement of “Ding-Dong! the Witch is Dead”/”The Merry Old Land of Oz”/”We’re Off to See the Wizard” devised for the cut “triumphal return” to the Emerald City scene; a chorus of “The Lollipop Guild” sung by three of the original Munchkin actors; and Judy’s heartbreaking, tearful reprise of “Rainbow” while trapped in the Witch’s Castle.
In its finished form, the Rhino set serves as a long-deserved homage to Academy Award-winners Arlen & Harburg (for “Rainbow” as the “Best Song” of 1939), to Herbert Stothart, who won the Oscar for OZ for best “Original Scoring,” and to all those Metro musicians whose conducting and/or orchestration so richly contributed to THE WIZARD OF OZ: George Stoll, George Bassman, Murray Cutter, Leo Arnaud, Bob Stringer, Paul Marquardt, and Conrad Salinger. They (and, of course, the cast and members of the orchestra) made the soundtrack – and subsequent CDs! -- the success they were…and the listening pleasure they remain.
[In the interests of complete acknowledgement, I should also salute Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Egbert Van Alstyne, Arthur Pryor, and Modest Mussorgsky, whose classical, semi-classical, and/or popular melodies were incorporated into some of the OZ background music!]
As earlier noted, the two-CD OZ set is long out-of-print. If, however, one wishes the opportunity to sit back and be wondrously submerged in musical Ozian magic, I don’t think you could track down a better set! It was a privilege to be associated with the release – and with the extraordinary talents who made it all possible: Marilee, Bradley, and Doug.
To Oz? Of course!
Article by John Fricke