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Review: "The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen"

by Photo of Paul Hansen

Learn more about the man who’s responsible for some of the greatest songs in movie history.


In this article…

Three Crooners "On Air" (L to R): Marcus Goldhaber, George Bugatti, Joe Shepherd
Photo by Anabelle Gogley

In the depths of winter, if you're feeling a little cold, perhaps your heart would be warmed by attending The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen. The revue is devoted to a man whose name is not quite as familiar as his music.

While George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin are obviously universally known, for whatever reason Harold Arlen's name does not have quite the same currency, even though his contribution to American songwriting was immense. Arlen’s signature tune "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" was composed, of course, for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The ballad was voted the Twentieth Century's Number One Song by the Recording Industry Association of America. The American Film Institute also ranked "Over the Rainbow" the greatest movie song of all time.

While Arlen may best be remembered for the Oz ballad, it is only one of many classics he created. He was definitely not a one-hit wonder. In fact, The Wonderful Wizard of Song is something of an education in the standards Arlen composed, including "Stormy Weather," "The World on a String," "Get Happy," "Paper Moon," and "One for My Baby," among many others. Even if you are fairly well versed in the Great American Songbook, you may find yourself saying throughout the show "I didn't know he wrote that."

The retrospective touches on Arlen's biography. He was born in 1905 in Buffalo, New York. When he was young, his family rented an apartment to an African American family whose music may have influenced Arlen's compositional style. Arlen also worked in The Cotton Club in the early 1930's which also probably impacted his music.

The vocalists of The Wizard of Song are The Three Crooners (George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber and Joe Shepherd) and Antoinette Henry. All four have lovely voices, with Henry in particular having a natural, vibrant stage elan. A small onstage band provides lively accompaniment.

Two dozen or so of Arlen's songs are performed during the show, featuring an impressive array of the composer’s musical styles. The revue showcases how talented Arlen was in capturing varied emotional moods, from the buoyant "Get Happy" to the darkly meditative "The Man That Got Away" (transformed in this production to "The Gal That Got Away" for the male crooners). Arlen collaborated with a number of prominent lyricists, including Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin. In effect, the retrospective is also a celebration of gifted wordsmiths of the Great American Songbook.

The show also features several memorable anecdotes, including how Arlen agreed to write a song for Ethel Waters only if he could first meet her and observe her personality. The result was "Stormy Weather." Behind the scenes footage photographed by Arlen of the production of The Wizard of Oz is also shown. Amazingly, "Over the Rainbow" was almost cut from the film because studio executives felt that the song was slowing the movie’s pace.

At a running time of seventy minutes or so, The Wonderful Wizard of Song is brisk, perhaps even a bit too short. A few more biographical details of Arlen's life may have helped round out the evening. After watching the retrospective, Arlen as a person still seems elusive.

Considering the fact that Arlen composed over 500 songs, for the curious there is obviously a lot of music still to be explored. The Wonderful Wizard of Song is an entertaining introduction to a man whose name, but not whose music, has somehow largely evaded the spotlight. If you are suffering from the winter blues, head down to St. Luke's Theatre at 308 W. 46th St. and "Get Happy."

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Comments (1)
  1. Kelly Parker's profile

    Kelly Parker

    February 21st, 2013 @13:19

    Way to go, George. Happy for you. kp

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