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Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on July 7th, 2010, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 11, Issue 17 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 11, Issue 17

Hear the music of history

Leap over rainbows with Gale McNeeley


Lyrics immortalized by a modest movie called The Wizard of Oz and written by Yip Harburg, also known as E.Y. Harburg, are ingrained into the public consciousness: “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby … .”

But Harburg’s name doesn’t have the same familiar ring as those words. Harburg, perhaps the most famous American lyricist nobody knows, will be brought back to life for a night in Santa Maria at Café Noir by Broadway actor and singer Gale McNeeley.

McNeeley is a veteran in the Santa Maria theater scene. Appearing in shows such as Gypsy and Billy Bishop Goes to War, he now returns with a cabaret titled. Over the Rainbow, a tribute to Yip Harburg.

McNeeley has been performing since the age of 12, and with a career spanning more than 50 years, it looks like he is just getting started.

“I couldn’t get any acting auditions immediately out of school, but I got casted in Broadway choruses,” he told the Sun in a recent interview. “But I didn’t really enjoy that. Yet I’ve always been a singer, but never a solo singer. I wasn’t proud enough to sing solo. But once you’ve found your voice, you discover there are all sorts of fun songs to sing.”

After doing a show called The Wizard of What?—a 2004 Wizard of Oz parody—McNeeley found Harburg’s songs starting to stand out.

“I was singing his songs not knowing he was the lyricist,” he said. “He wrote so many of the songs I already knew, it was easy to bring out his songbook and learn new ones.”

McNeeley’s creative interest expanded, inspired by Harburg’s words.

“When I sing the lyrics, I feel the feeling is coming from me,” McNeeley said. “The way he sees the world is the way I see it.”

Harburg started his career writing lyrics, but he didn’t think he could make a living with that, so he became co-owner of an electrical appliance company. When the company went bankrupt following the stock market crash of 1929, he went into debt.

“When the Great Depression happened, he lost everything,” McNeeley said.

But Ira Gershwin, a childhood friend of Harburg’s, convinced him to keep writing. So he wrote song lyrics that eventually led him to some successes.

“But the real turning point was one day, as he was walking across Union Square, a World War I veteran came to him and asked if he could spare a dime,” McNeeley said. “This inspired him to write the song, ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ with composer Jay Gorney. The song was released right before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech for the election to presidency and became the American theme song of the Depression.”

Harburg’s newfound fame led him to work with composer Harold Arlen in 1939. He wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, “Over the Rainbow.”

Melt your troubles like lemon drops
Café Noir, 1555 South Broadway in Santa Maria, will feature an ongoing performance list from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday nights. Over the Rainbow is an exception; see it on Saturday, July 31, at 7 p.m.

The show will feature songs from The Wizard of Oz, Finian’s Rainbow, and more. There’s a suggested donation of $10 at the door. The show is appropriate for all ages. For more information, call 361-0402.

The popularity and influence of “Over the Rainbow” was overwhelming. It became the song of the century, which gave Harburg a lot of power in the entertainment world, power other people can’t even imagine.

In 1947, he created the socialist musical Finian’s Rainbow, which became his most famous Broadway show. It had the first socially integrated chorus and a plot filled with socialistic ideas that poked fun at large corporations. The show generated controversy, but his sense of humor carried it along.

“As you can imagine, the politicians weren’t happy with the way they were portrayed, so naturally the show didn’t run very long. But that was his style,” McNeeley said. “He had a vision in politics, which he expressed in comedic words.”

A political visionary with a sense of humor? That’s a combination McNeeley shares with the powerful lyricist.

“He wrote from his heart about issues we’re all affected by,” McNeeley said. “He wanted the little man to win. I’m inspired by his lyrics and his music; that’s why I love doing political satires. I like peeling the onion to see what’s underneath it. Sometimes after you peel the skin, you realize hey! That’s something I’ve never seen before! You learn something new.

“The universal quality of Harburg’s work lives on even after his death in 1981 because his cries of the past echoed the whimpers of the present. We’re still fighting a war, the economy crashed mercilessly, and the veterans who were lucky enough to make it home still find themselves on the streets asking ‘Hey, brother, can you spare a dime?’

“In essence, nothing has really changed,” McNeeley said. “He can put words that move people even till today. People tear up when they hear his songs dedicated to our soldiers. We like to think they’re more appreciated now, but they don’t ever get the respect they deserve.”

McNeeley hopes he can bring a new perspective to the audience through religious and political farce. His stories may be constructed through comedy, but the undertone is anything but comedic.

“It’s not propaganda. Harburg is throwing out ideas that you don’t have to accept what the government throws at you,” he explained. “People’s feelings matter, their lives matter, and they have to fight for what we believe in. Has that changed? No.”

What McNeeley is trying to accomplish is no small feat, but his voice can reach great heights by collaborating with fellow actress and talented pianist Betty Faas, with whom he worked for Pope: the Musical.

When McNeeley found out local coffee shop Café Noir had acquired an entertainment license, he immediately jumped at the chance to perform.

“I thought his show sounded interesting,” commented owner of Café Noir Garrett Sabin. “So we booked him for a show. We didn’t expect to have entertainment in the shop, so we didn’t apply for a license until a few months ago. It took a while, but we got it.”

The café will focus on local performances, especially

“We’re starting with acoustic guitar players and singers,” co-owner Silkia Hoyos said. “The first show starts on July 16, featuring a very talented guitarist, just outstanding.”

Find freelancer Catherine Shen above the chimney tops. Contact her through Arts Editor Shelly Cone at

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