“His songs live. His songs seep into the heart of a people, a nation, of a world and stay there.”E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Lyricist
Harold Arlen (1905 – 1986) wasn’t queer, but he’s certainly important to LGBTQ culture for writing, among many great songs, our special Gay Anthem. In my not particularly humble opinion, after Stephen Sondheim, Arlen is the greatest composer of music for theatre and films, in my humble opinion
Arlen wrote extraordinarily complex melodies and harmonies that somehow still remained accessible to a broad popular audience. He collaborated with the greatest lyricists: E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler, Leo Robin, Ira Gershwin, the underrated Dorothy Fields, and Truman Capote.
Arlen composed over 500 songs, but to civilians he is best known for writing the songs for The Wizard Of Oz (1939), including Over The Rainbow, named the Number One “Song Of The Century” in a list compiled by the Recording Industry Association Of America and the soon to be defunded National Endowment for the Arts. The American Film Institute ranked it “”The Greatest Movie Song Of All Time” on their list of “AFI’s 100 Years: 100 Songs”. It was adopted by American troops in Europe during World War II as a symbol of the good old USA. Arlen’s contributor to the Great American Songbook is considerable, to say the least.
For all his work writing smart songs for six decades, the standout of his legacy continues to be the unforgettable score for the The Wizard Of Oz. Even that score reflects Arlen’s true loves: Jazz and Blues. Listen to how swingin’ Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead can be:
If you don’t think you might dig his tunes, try Ella Fitzgerald‘s two volumes Ella Sings The Harold Arlen Songbook (1960) on Verve.
By the 1960s, Arlen had been writing unforgettable songs for often forgettable Hollywood and Broadway musicals for more than three decades. For most of his life, his name was not familiar to most people, even if they could probably hum at least one Arlen song; if not Stormy Weather then That Old Black Magic or, certainly, Over The Rainbow.
Arlen had spent the 1950s writing scores for three less-than-popular Broadway musicals House Of Flowers (1954), Jamaica (1957) and Saratoga (1959), after abandoning his longtime Hollywood to return to New York City. The extraordinary quality of music he supplied for each of these shows did leave an impression, making it a mark of sophistication in the Kennedy-era to toss off Arlen’s name.
Then, it became fashionable to rediscover Arlen. Barbra Streisand was one of those who rediscovered him, when she was just a teenager, an unknown from Brooklyn singing Arlen’s A Sleepin’ Bee for auditions and in her act in Manhattan nightclub stages all over town. There was an all-Arlen television special starring Peggy Lee in 1961; Garland ostensibly rediscovered him, championing Arlen songs on The Judy Garland Show, her short-lived CBS variety hour. In fact, Garland never lost contact with Arlen after they made that famous film together.
The arrival in America of The Beatles, changed everything for pop music. At the height of Beatlemania, Harold Sings Arlen With Friend (1965, the “friend” being Streisand, by now a Broadway star) was a lovely coda to Arlen’s brief cultural reemergence. But by 1970, Arlen was just part of the pop culture buried by the Woodstock generation.
Arlen was quite the enigma. Behind the music were secrets that he rarely shared: alcoholism, depression and a wife who was in and out of psychiatric institutions. He was a Jew, a cantor’s son, who found early success writing for black performers; an urbane New Yorker whose greatest achievement was the Hollywood score for a fantasy film; a composer who crafted brilliantly original songs for dumb, B-movies; a Broadway songwriter who longed to write hit shows like Richard Rodgers, but failed, even while composing some of musical theatre’s most beautiful, soulful, unique individual songs.
At 21 years old, he first pursued a career as a singer, not a songwriter. Cast in the Broadway musical Great Day in 1929, he filled in for the show’s missing rehearsal pianist one day, entertaining everyone around him by improvising until it was pointed out that what he really had was a song.
Arlen was introduced to lyricist Ted Koehler, a Tin Pan Alley pro, who supplied Arlen’s inadvertent composition with lyrics and a title that emphasized the music’s innate rhythmic hedonistic joy: Get Happy. Koehler’s lyric captured the Black spiritual’s language of salvation: “Shout Hallelujah, come on, get happy!“. But, Get Happy was significantly more sophisticated melodically than any spiritual. It nevertheless typecast Arlen and Koehler as a white guy writing team who wrote in Black parlance. Which was nonsense, but highly lucrative nonsense in 1930. Today it might be labeled “cultural appropriation”, which is sort of sad. The popularity of Get Happy propelled Arlen toward songwriting as a career.
It was Arlen’s odd good fortune in 1930, an era before our current woke epoch. With his partner Koehler, he was offered jobs writing Black-sounding songs for Black singers to perform in front of white audiences at Harlem’s notoriously segregated Cotton Club. However, Arlen and Koehler created timeless songs that went way beyond racial stereotypes: Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, I’ve Got The World On A String, and Stormy Weather.
Arlen’s songs far outlived their supper club setting. His poignant affinity for both Jewish and African-American sounds brought an exhilarating, jazz-based syncopated rhythmic and a profound, sincere, soulfulness to hiis compositions.
When Hollywood called, Arlen was ready to go. From 1934 to 1954, Arlen wrote over 150 songs for 29 Hollywood films. His lyricists were quite simply the best, most significantly, Johnny Mercer. The movies themselves were, with a few exceptions, pedestrian at best. The music, however, was a catalog of greatness in an astonishment of styles and nearly all of them became Number One hits: Hit The Road To Dreamland, That Old Black Magic and Ac-centchu-ate The Positive, all with Mercer.
Mercer, the laconic Southerner, drew from Arlen, a pair of torch songs that rank among the best songs to come out of in Hollywood: One For My Baby, the best saloon song of all time, and Blues In The Night, a great aria of loss.
In the summer of 1938, Arlen telephoned Harburg to tell him he had finally found the final tune for their Wizard Of Oz score, the song that had eluded them: the big ballad for the little girl from Kansas. Harburg considered it too grandiose for Dorothy, and out of scale with the whimsical score he and Arlen had written. MGM executives agreed with Harburg. They cut Over The Rainbow from the film’s final print, citing the song’s gloominess, its length and melodic intricacy. It was Arthur Freed, a songwriter himself, and the ambitious executive at MGM behind The Wizard Of Oz, who insisted that Over The Rainbow stay in the movie. In the end, the song won the Academy Award and, in 2004, it was named the top movie song of all time by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Wizard Of Oz proved that Arlen was capable of writing a sophisticated, integrated musical score, creating songs that advanced the plot of a story, rather than songs that merely tacked on to scripts. Sadly, Arlen would never again manage to replicate the seamless narrative beauty of his Wizard Of Oz score, despite returning to Broadway repeatedly. Bloomer Girl (1944), with Harburg, was about as close as he got. St. Louis Woman (1946), written with Mercer, starring an all-Black cast, was mostly dismissed, despite an Arlen score that was one of the richest ever written for Broadway, including Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home and the incandescent Come Rain Or Come Shine. House Of Flowers was written with Truman Capote. It nearly killed Arlen. He developed an ulcer and Capote worked on the House Of Flowers songs at Arlen’s hospital bedside.
Not only did Arlen survive, estranged from his wife, he managed throughout it all to carry on at least two affairs simultaneously: with the Broadway star Lisa Kirk, and the other with Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich was juggling as many as ten lovers at the time, including Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Adlai Stevenson, Yul Brunner and Edith Piaf. Yet, her devotion to Arlen was strong and lifelong.
Two Arlen songs seem to sing of what he left unspoken. First, there is the epic The Man That Got Away, written with Ira Gershwin for Garland and her triumphant A Star Is Born in 1954. That’s the version where the female lead doesn’t have an Afro. This song is an emotional roller coaster that perfectly expresses the stark, tortured beauty of Gershwin’s lyric. The other song is Last Night When We Were Young, Arlen’s own favorite. Harburg’s lyric, is a fiercely wistful reflection on lost youth.
I was going to list cover versions of Over The Rainbow, but lost track at 77 when I became distracted by my two barking terriers. It was used in other films. James Stewart sings the song while carrying a drunk Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Vincent Price warbles it in the cult classic horror film, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). In a lovely nod to Judy, Lady Gaga briefly sings it in her version of A Star Is Born. Ariana Grande sang at her benefit concert One Love Manchester after 22 people were killed in the Manchester Arena bombing at her concert in 2017. And, of course, you win an Oscar when you do this:
Arlen left this world in 1986, taken by cancer when he was 81 years old.