By Bobbie Katz
Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
One click of our heels and we're off to see the WiZaRD – in New York, this coming December.
That would be the show by that name, which brings to the fore the music of one of the most prolific – and least known– songwriters of the Great American Songbook, films and Broadway, Harold Arlen, who wrote the entire musical score for The Wizard of Oz (with lyrics by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg). After being workshopped in 22 cities around the country in an 18-month period, this production that transports audiences to a magical time in entertainment history has proven that it has all the courage, heart, and brains behind it that it needs – the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow aside. WiZaRD is now ready for a trip down the Yellow Brick Road to bestow some long-deserved name recognition on the man who gave the 1939 movie, and more than 500 songs, musical life.
Although Arlen, who was inducted into the songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and died in 1986 at the age of 81, wrote some of the Great American Songbook's biggest hits and well-known tunes, many people are simply unaware of that fact. That’s what this concert production seeks to remedy.
“People are always surprised to find out that he wrote the songs he did,” notes Sam Arlen, the songwriter's son and the publisher of most of his father's catalog. “Once I started licensing his catalog and talking to all the different publicity companies, licensers and performers and found out how little they knew about the catalog in my father’s name, I began a mission to have his name recognized. Even where The Wizard of Oz alone is concerned, both the film and the music have become an anthem to so many people.”
“My father never had a publicist – by choice,” continues Arlen, talking about why his father doesn’t have the name recognition of a Gershwin or an Irving Berlin. “He felt that his music would do the talking for him. Plus, he wasn’t part of a writing team so there was no name recognition there – he worked with a lot of different lyricists such as Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler, Dorothy Fields, and Leo Robbin. However, he wrote over 550 songs and was nominated for an Oscar nine times. He won, of course, for 'Over the Rainbow.'”
WiZaRD was written by acclaimed singer/crooner/pianist George Bugatti and is being produced by The Harold Arlen Foundation, created in 2009 by by Arlen, Bugatti, and Mary Shriver Bugatti. The Foundation's mission is to provide free music classes and theater tickets to the under-served children of public school systems across America So far, in Clark County, Nevada, alone,where the foundation has been given a grant from the Nevada Arts Council, Bugatti and Arlen have reached more than 7,000 elementary, junior and high school students via their classes.
“Over the Rainbow” on its own could have earned Arlen a major place in musical history. It became Judy Garland’s signature tune and has been rated the No. 1 song on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Songs” list and on the Recording Industry Association of America's and the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Songs of the Century” list.
But while Arlen may have been best known for composing the musical score for The Wizard of Oz, he also wrote many of music’s great standards, including “Stormy Weather,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Man That Got Away,” “I’ve Got The World on a String,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “One For My Baby” and others too numerous to mention.
He also wrote “Down With Love,” which was the focal point of a 2003 movie called “Down With Love” starring Renee Zellweiger and Ewan McGregor (Judy Garland was actually seen in the movie singing the song on TV). Additionally, Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, proclaims Arlen to have been her mother’s favorite composer and tells an anecdote about him in her stage show “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”
It took Sam Arlen's meeting Bugatti back in 2005 to set the wheels of WiZaRD in motion. Both were in New York and had retained the same publicist. Arlen, who is also a talented saxophone player, was working on the Centennial Celebration Tour in honor of what would have been his father’s 100th birthday (for which Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand were the co-chairmen). Bugatti, who was discovered by the late Steve Allen and was mentored by Tony Bennett and, to this day, remains the only singer Bennett has ever pulled up from the audience to sing with him on stage, was releasing an album at that same time. Bugatti, who was also in the process of branding his Three Crooners group, had always been a fan of Arlen’s music and had sung his songs in live performance and on his CD’s.
“Everyone who is a fan of this kind of music or who sings it does it because they know that this is what the craft is all about,” expresses Bugatti. “I’ve always been a fan and I’ve always sung his songs because Harold Arlen composed some of the best-written songs ever. While, to me, that’s because he wrote sophisticated melodies and chord structures, sometimes it’s also because of his song’s simplicity – it takes a lot of craft to write something so simple and so beautiful.”
“It was an easy decision to do this show because the quality of Arlen’s work is so high,” he continues. “Everything in it focuses on him and his music. We wanted to make sure that all his biggest hits, the ones that the audience would be familiar with, were covered. We wanted to bring back memories for people. But every song, even the more obscure ones, is artistically a home run.”
There are approximately 22 Arlen hits in the two-hour show (with 15-minute intermission), which covers the three periods of Arlen’s songwriting life – The Cotton Club, the Broadway stage, and the Silver Screen. WiZaRD takes place at ficticious radio station WZRD. It stars Bugatti’s Three Crooners, in which Bugatti is featured. Making her debut will be 23-year-old Jenny Gulley, the winner of an 11-city “Be the Next Dorothy” competition sponsored by the Harold Arlen Foundation. The collection of vignettes that make up WiZaRD, based on Arlen's most nostalgic songs, includes a Wizard of Oz scene, culled from the imagination of Frank Baum on the eve of the creation of his Oz characters.
“Harold Arlen’s music makes a singer sound great,” Bugatti sums up. “A classic is a classic. Like a solid piece of furniture or a good suit of clothes, his melodies are timesless and hoid up even today. History has proven it.
Arlen and Bugatti are hoping to one day turn WiZaRD into a TV special. No one knows better than they do that somewhere over the rainbow, dreams come true.
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