Gerard Alessandrini: The Wizard of Oz—The World’s Greatest Original Movie Musical?

Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Judy Garland, Bert Lahr

MoviefiedNYC and Chelsea Clearview Cinemas are celebrating the March 8 release of Oz, the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi. We are pleased to journey back to the beginning of Oz, in brilliant Technicolor style, with Gerard Alessandrini as he explores the original Hollywood musical—when MGM introduced the world to one of the most beloved and greatest movie musicals of all time—The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz—The World’s Greatest Original Movie Musical? 
The Wizard of Oz is many things to many people. A favorite. A fantastic fantasy film. A beloved memory of childhood. A great motion picture. But it’s rarely remembered as being a high point in a dead film genre—the original movie musical. It’s not a film adaption of a Broadway musical, as most later movie musicals are, but it’s perhaps the best example of a musical created and written directly for the screen, a practice that has all but vanished today.  From the dawn of sound motion pictures in the mid 1920s up through the 1960s, movie studios regularly created film musicals where the stories and songs were not adapted from hit Broadway musicals but created, written, and assembled in Hollywood.

Most of the studios in that era controlled the music publishing rights themselves and were eager to write new songs for film and sell the printed music and lyrics themselves. This was a large moneymaking venture, especially in the ’30s and ’40s, and led the studios to hire all the best New York songwriters (e.g., the Gershwins, and Rodgers & Hart) and cultivate Hollywood’s own writing talent (e.g., Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer, and Arthur Freed & Nacio Herb Brown). Almost all movie musicals in the early talkie era are fine examples of song-plugging. Just think of 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, or The Broadway Melody series.

By the late ’30s, when film had reached an unsurpassed era of excellence, Hollywood was as good at creating integrated song-and-story lines as Broadway. Indeed, many of the musical-film creations of that era influenced Broadway and help lead it to its greatest era of the integrated musical in the 1940s.

At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film musical was highly prized and its greatest moneymaking genre. It was therefore never in doubt that The Wizard of Oz would be anything but an original screen musical. Harold Arlen (music) and E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg (lyrics) were employed to write an entirely new song score. What they created was one of the most lovely, clever, and infectious group of scores ever to come out of Hollywood.

But these geniuses—like Gershwin, Berlin, and Rodgers—were more than happy to draw from their Broadway roots to create a hybrid of movie/theater/pop songs. If one looks at the history of Broadway music, you can hear the influence of American Broadway operetta in The Wizard of Oz. Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland is well sampled during the elaborate Munchkin sequence with “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.” Arlen also includes a touch of Romberg-like melodies while at the same time keeping right up with the contemporary Broadway of Rodgers & Hart when passages launch into a 2/4-time or bright show-biz tempo. Think of “the house began to pitch . . .” Even though much of the score is a fantastic pastiche of American musical theater, it also includes “Over the Rainbow.” This classic is totally character-appropriate and plot-driven yet also managed to be the top pop song of 1939!
The Wizard of Oz was a great critical success in its day and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1939. It didn’t make the kind of money the Best Picture winner of that year did (Gone with the Wind), but The Wizard of Oz went on to have several moneymaking re-issues and ultimately many highly-rated network-TV broadcasts. Those broadcasts, along with home-video reissues, have undoubtedly made it the most-viewed movie of all time, if not the most beloved.

Gigi, Hermione Gingold, Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron

The success The Wizard of Oz originally enjoyed in 1939 spurred Hollywood and MGM to create even more original screen musicals. Arthur Freed, who was associate producer on The Wizard of Oz, was given his own producing unit at MGM. His unit alone produced dozens and dozens of glorious film musicals written directly for the screen, including Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Singin’ in the Rain, and, ultimately, Gigi, which is the most sophisticated and dramatically integrated original movie musical ever made. Other studios also continued the art form through the middle decades of the 20th century. Just think of gems like White Christmas, Hans Christian Anderson, Star is Born (1954), and MGM’s other big original hit, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Ultimately, these wildly successful musicals were transferred to the Broadway stage, but it’s important to remember they were conceived by, written at, and filmed in Hollywood first.

But in the 1950s, producing an original film musical became expensive and risky. Broadway musical transfers from stage to screen became less of a risk and ultimately far more profitable. Titles like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and Annie Get Your Gun were already well known to the public and were sure-fire hits.

Yet original film musicals, while always fresh and interesting, could produce a dud too. Just like a Broadway season, Hollywood had its musical flops. Have you ever seen The Girl Rush with Roz Russell, The Girl Most Likely with Jane Powell, or Let’s Dance with Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton? Probably not, and you’re blessed for it. For these reasons, along with changes in music publishing and recording royalties, the original Hollywood film musical began to wind down. Most all the original film musicals created for the screen in the 1960s were family-fantasy films, which always worked better on film anyway. These included Mary Poppins, Dr. Dolittle, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Other more serious musical ventures like Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark and Darling Lili with Julie Andrews were disappointing and only proved to Hollywood that it was only worth making a movie musical if it was an enormous international stage hit like Fiddleron the Roof or Cabaret

Victor/Victoria, Julie Andrews

There were a few wonderful attempts to revive the dying art form in later years of the century, and New York, New York and especially Victor/Victoria are as fresh and expertly done as anything from the Golden age of movie musicals. However, as successful as Victor/Victoria was, there have hardly been any noteworthy original song-score film musicals in the last 30 years. The only exceptions are Disney’s animated musicals, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. By the way—all of these movie musicals have made the reverse trip of film-to-Broadway stage. But even animated films have ceased to be wholly film musicals today, and at this point the original film musical is a totally dead art form.

But as we celebrate and extol the joys of The Wizard of Oz, it’s also nice to remember it’s not only a great fantasy film but a fantastic journey back to the era of the original Hollywood musical—a time long ago and far away, like Oz itself, where it seemed the whole world lifted its voice in song and everyone could dance in the streets. It’s an over-the-rainbow fantasy indeed—the Technicolor rainbow of the lost genre of the original movie musical.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals. He is most famous for creating and writing the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway. Since 1981, he has written and directed all the versions of FB in New York, LA, London, and around the world. He has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. As a lyricist (and sometimes composer), he has written over a dozen original musicals—including Madame X, The Nutcracker & IScaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador. He’s also written many special material songs for stars like Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, and Bob Hope.
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