Over The Rainbow, An Anthem For Our Times? 

Over The Rainbow, An Anthem For Our Times? 

The song Over The Rainbow written by Yip Harburg (lyrics) and Harold Arlen (Music) for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz has had wide-reaching effects.  I have recently been trotting down the Yellow Brick Road of research and the history of the song is fascinating. I also found potential for future inspiration for social change through the message of the lyrics. The song has been woven into American culture and International awareness for the last 80 years. The song has been the anthem for refugees historically and contemporarily as a symbol of hope. 

It’s hard to imagine that Over The Rainbow, an iconic ballad that has affected many for the last eighty years, was almost removed from the film The Wizard of Oz by producers Louis B. Mayer and Mervyn LeRoy, because it “slows down the picture”. In Western culture we are often too concerned about keeping up the pace and tempo of our lives, and thus risk losing genuine unhurried moments of yearning and reflection. When Dorothy sings the song five minutes into the movie we are witness to the paradox of her desperate need and her courageous optimism that cause her to call for a miracle. Judy Garland’s performance of the song is both gorgeous and painful. Her heart seems to be reaching out of her chest as the lyrics beg the universe for a new geography somewhere far above the troubled reality of life on earth.

This is a song which my grandmother sang to my mother, my mother sang to me, I sang to my daughters, and I can almost guarantee that they will sing to their children. This song is one of the most crucial landmarks of my childhood: the good and the bad of it, the frightening, the joyful, the lonely, and the hopeful. I grew up in a time and place when and where the world was bleeding out its ears. I was just a few years too young to eat the magic mushrooms or throw the homemade bomb over the corporate fence or join the revolution. But I sure went to a lot of protest marches. And parties. I grew up in San Francisco. My neighborhood was the Haight Ashbury of the late 1960s. The apartment where I lived was across the street from Janis Joplin’s place. The Grateful Dead’s house was a few blocks away. Daily life included free concerts in the park, peace marches, rallies for justice, picket lines adults who were too stoned to make dinner and a hippy school where we celebrated free will with very little guidance. There were bright colors and loud music. There was also violence and fury. It was a strange time to be a kid. In this turbulent world, Over The Rainbow was an attachment object for me, a private lullaby and a personal prayer. It was a promise of imminent rescue from above (where happy little bluebirds fly). 

I don’t know what kid doesn’t want to go someplace where “there isn’t any trouble” (Aunty Em’s directive to Dorothy just before she sings the song), but I certainly remember wanting to get away from the tumult and find peace. So, like Dorothy I sang to my dog in hopes that the song would induce a tornado to whisk me away to Oz. I lived in earthquake country, not tornado land, so that from of escape wasn’t very likely. Still, I told my dog that where we needed to go was “not a place you can get to by a boat or a train”, it was somewhere we could be invisible to the grown-ups, somewhere over the noise, over the smoke, over the rainbow.

I imagine that for so many children this is a song of magic and flight. For adults it is memory and therefore a kind of homing message. However, for many of us who have lived with the song through the generations, it is also a reminder to keep singing out so that dreams really do come true.  

The lyrics of the song tell us that somewhere way up high there is a natural order to things and anyone courageous enough to wish for aspirations to be realized can see her/his wishes come true. Up there in the land over the rainbow troubles melt and bluebirds fly.  All she/he has to do is open her/his heart and dare to dream. The song gives all of us earthbound dreamers something to reach for.

Dreamers are essential and our so deeply entwined in the fabric of America from the dreams of the early settlers to the dreams of today’s undocumented youth, the ability to live the American Dream has been an essential component of our national identity.

Our current Dreamers now unprotected by DACA (Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals) arrived in the US before turning 16 and lived here continuously since. DACA was a compromise devised by the Obama administration after Congress failed to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act, which would have offered those who had arrived illegally as children the chance of permanent legal residency. The Dream Act and has repeatedly failed to pass a vote in congress. But over the rainbow dreams really do come true. Over the rainbow dreams surpass congress, surpass fear and hate, and by singing this song perhaps we can somehow keep daring to dream for ourselves and for others.

Although as a child I believed the song to be mine, a subjective hymn to my own secret and personal rainbow, I learned later that the song was just as important to millions of children and adults worldwide. In the United States it was particularly vital. It was the audio wake up for a space shuttle mission, adopted by American troops during World War II as a symbol of home. In 2005 Yip Harburg the lyricist was commemorated on a postage stamp with the first line of the song.  The song has sometimes been written off by the intelligentsia, and by radical listeners desiring a more obvious protest tune. But much more than a sentimental ballad from a children’s movie this song is a vibrant and long lasting piece of near perfect musical poetry that has attracted some of the best musicians in the world.

It has been sung by many great artists aside from Judy, including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Tony Bennet, Sarah Vaughn and IZ, just to name a few. Each version of the song has spoken different generations from different eras. And there is no doubt the song will continue to be sung by musical stars in times to come. 

Over The Rainbow has become the second national anthem for many of us. A song ALL of us regardless of race, class, or creed we can stand up proudly to sing. 

The anthem sung at the Super Bowl is our official theme song– it too has been sung by great artists and speaks to a foundational human desire: freedom. 

However, these two songs have a different methodology for getting to that dream of liberty, one uses a country’s flag the other nature’s rainbow. In one song bombs are bursting in air above our heads, in the other song blue birds are flying. Both celebrate American values in very different ways. Let’s look at the opening lyrics of both songs. 

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high

There’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow blue birds fly, birds fly over the rainbow

Why then, oh why can’t I?

Say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?

Whose broad strips and bright stars through 

the perilous fight, o’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming.

And the rocket’s red glare

The bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night

That our flag was still there

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner still wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

“The Star-Spangled Banner” can be a source of conflict across politics and party lines. But “Over the Rainbow” is a force of unity, an example of music without borders. Little children in Red States sang it with their conservative parents as enthusiastically as little children and their liberal parents singing it in Blue States.

Here we go further into what an anthem is, and how this song serves as one – including examples and interviews from kids and grown-ups around the country…


Most humans in crisis long for somewhere safe. Somewhere to be who we are, love who we love, pray how we pray and look how we look. Somewhere all of our races, religions, genders, sexual identities, sizes, and ages are accepted. Somewhere we are not only tolerated but celebrated. Somewhere we can be free, be secure, and be proud.

The first word of the song Over the Rainbow is “somewhere”. That word has had meaning to human beings throughout history. Especially to those who do not have a safe somewhere to be. We will dive into several examples:

The Holocaust: We will look in depth at the effect the song had on people in concentration camps. Released just as the war was breaking out in Europe, the song became a secular prayer for those suffering through torture, incarceration and death. The somewhere in the song became a small shining light of distant hope. We will use interviews will survivors to hear the story of the song’s effects during WWII.

The reprise of the song cut out of the film sung by a frightened and weeping Dorothy in the Witch’s castle as she waits for her sand of her life to run out. This version of the song is filled with the anguish and fear we know that refugee children experience when they are homeless, hopeless and there is not a rainbow to be seen. When Judy Garland sings in a shaky tear stained voice: “Someday I’ll I wake up and rub my eyes and in that land behind the skies you’ll find me...” we don’t know if she is giving up on her dream, or if singing the song is replenishing her reserves. If we look at news stories of refugees while listening to this rendition of the song, the experience is heart wrenching and very recognizable.

Here we will talk more about Somewhere – the concept in the song, in the musical, and in the world.


Reaching over a problem verses going through it, is the province of music. My medium the theatre require conflict to make good art. I know musicians who get warring factions to sing together. I have colleagues in Palestine and Israel who get music from both sides of the Gaze barrier wall to unite human beings from two different worlds. The Israeli’s on one side of the wall and the Palestinians on the other cannot get together in person, but the music carries over the wall to create a temporary peace. The treaty is in notes and lyrics (in two languages) in melody and in rhythm- peace lasts as long as the song. So, they keep singing.

Dorothy is reaching over the rainbow for her somewhere – it isn’t in another state or a different city it’s up and over not under or through. Here we will look more deeply at the concept of Over and Reach – giving examples of how this song reaches over troubles even though the story leads us right down the middle of them.

The Rainbow

Rainbows have long been symbols of peace and freedom. In the 18th century Thomas Paine wanted a rainbow maritime flag for neutral ships. A Buddhist rainbow flag was created in Sri Lanka in 1885. In Peru and Bolivia, the rainbow flag honors the legacy of the Inca Empire. In Italy a rainbow Peace flag has been waving since 1961. The Rainbow Coalition was a coalition active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, founded in Chicago by Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party. Jesse Jackson later founded Rainbow/ PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and the rainbow represented diversity within the Black community.

In 1978 artist Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag at the request of Harvey Milk in San Francisco before Milk was gunned down. During the Stonewall riots in 1994, a mile-long rainbow flag was created in New York. Now the rainbow or Pride flag waves all over the world as a symbol of tolerance, freedom and pride. Here we will look in depth at the significance of the rainbow in the song….

Can a Song Save the World?   The action of singing Over the Rainbow to children is a more effective childhood ritual than the tooth fairy. The song is a piece of innocence that doesn’t require either capitalism or fabrication. It instills a method for getting to a better place: invoking magic by daring to dream. The song is a testament to imagination. The skill of being able to imagine a better world is essential for surviving childhood and adulthood, a skill necessary for inspiring and leading change.

In our tumultuous 21st Century world where injustice reigns supreme and people have become jaded and cynical about things like hopes and dreams, perhaps we need to revisit Over The Rainbow and sing it more often, and a little bit louder.

The first verse of the song, cut out of the film but present in many stage productions as well as in Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition is relevant to our times. It offers a map towards the pathway to positive change: “When all the world’s a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around, heaven opens up a magic lane. When all the clouds darken up the skyway, there’s a rainbow highway to be found leading from your window pane to a place behind the sun, just a step beyond the rain…” 


Jessica Litwak is an Internationally recognized educator, and an award-winning playwright and performer focused specifically on theatre for social change. 

She is the Artistic Director of The H.E.A.T. Collective.



The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

What does it mean to me to be an educator? To me, being an educator is a sacred calling – the same type of calling that those who go into medicine or the priesthood or even the law (yes, I will consider that a sacred profession in this case) feel.  It is more than a job, it is a mission.  For me, the mission of education in the year of 2018 must extend beyond giving information to students and hoping they will memorize it for a test.  For me, my job as an educator is to assist students in not only knowing what they think but why they think what they think.  My responsibility is to lead them towards being critical thinkers who will care about the world they enter into once they graduate.  The mission of the H.E.A.T. collective reflects my belief (fortified by my years as an artist, professor and researcher) that theater has the power to heal, that it is a powerful form of activism and that education plays a part in that healing and activism.  As a matter of fact, I see my presence in the theater classroom as my largest form of activism.

I love teaching world history and critical theory through the lens of theater.  Reading plays, watching plays, making performance. . . can connect us with our past, help us understand our present and to imagine a better future.  Theater can connect us with people and communities we otherwise are never exposed to.  Theater allows us to travel around the world without ever leaving our classroom.  And theater can inspire us to travel beyond our worlds both geographical and figurative once we are out of the classroom.

One of my favorite comments I get from students (and I have been fortunate enough to hear it more than once) is that they have learned as much if not more about a topic in our theater history course as they have in a “straight” history or critical theory course.  I think one of the reasons why theater can connect us with “the other” in a particularly impactful way is that in order to make good theater we have to understand “the other.”  If you are playing the “bad guy” in a play, you have to understand and empathize with that character because you are that character.  You have to understand why your character is the way they are.  It is all too easy to judge others these days, but theater invites us to understand what makes people tick.  

I have learned time and time again not to underestimate the power of theater in the classroom.  I took a workshop with Augusto Boal and our Theater of the Oppressed group was focused on convincing the “powers that be” of the importance of theater within society.  Finally, I said, “I think we are approaching this all wrong.  We are assuming the issue is that the powers that be don’t understand the power and importance of theater.  What if the issue is that they do understand it and they don’t want young people who are trained to question “the norm”?”  

I don’t think it is any accident that tyrannical regimes find artists so threatening.  The cuts to funding we have seen to the arts over the past few decades reflect what I would consider to be a larger attempt to diminish the number of critically thinking citizens we have in this country.  At the end of the day, my job as the teacher is to remind students of the power of theater and to help them connect with their own power.  


Dr. Katherine Jean Nigh is an artist/activist/scholar.  She received her PhD from Arizona State University’s Theatre and Performance of the Americas program (2011).  She has been a Professor in Theatre and Performance at Temple University,Arizona State University, Whittier College and Florida State University.  She has worked with the Hemispheric Institute (NYU) in the implementation of the Institute’s Digital Video Library.  She is a performer, director, dramaturg, producer, and performance artist.  Her research and publications focus on theater as a tool for social change/justice; performance of grief and mourning; national constructions of citizenship and belonging; and performance focused on race/gender and sexuality. Her book, Performing Contested Memories: Memory and Performance After the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is under contract with Seagull Press. Her podcast, My Year Without A Man (interviews with womxn in the fields of theater and performance), can be found at www.soundcloud.com/myyearwithoutaman

Healing At H.E.A.T.

Healing At H.E.A.T.

Adam Stephens

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.


I am a person of color. I am an artist. I am a drama therapist.  As I move through the world of the arts and various clinical practices, I bear witness to people of color being expected to perform and uphold myopic standards, stereotypes, appropriated by others. When a person of color steps outside this regulated box, or cage, conflict ensues and discomfort rises.  The conflict and discomfort are not only held by people of color, but also by our white counterparts. Many would rather avoid the topic of race to escape uncomfortable dialogues. Imagine living life in a cage and the moment you feel inspired to spread your wings and express yourself you’re met with hostility or indifference.

I have experienced times when freedom of expression is celebrated and encouraged for persons of color. It is in these spaces where growth and healing flourish…

A young woman enters a counseling office. She is annoyed and upset. She is greeted by two counselors, a black male and a white female.  The young woman shares that one of her peers is acting “light-skinned.” The female counselor begins to stop her exclaiming it is not appropriate to say light-skinned.  The male counselor asks the young woman to explain what she means by light-skinned. The young woman states that her friend is being selfish and entitled. Unconsciously, the young woman is reflecting on a historical racial archetype that draws on the theme of light-skinned black people thinking they are better than others due to the fairness of their skin.  Allowing the young woman to speak in her voice and perform authentically allowed her to articulate her issues and develop strategies to better navigate troubling situations. With acceptance and openness, the young woman was afforded the opportunity to perform in a way that felt right for her. This offered her a container for growth and for healing.

I have had the opportunity to work with Jessica Litwak and the H.E.A.T. Collective on a number projects.  Performing has given me the opportunity to use creativity as a means to foster illumination around topics otherwise untouched.  Through artfully fostering social change we create spaces to attend to the human condition. In these uncertain times, what could be more healing. 


Adam is a New York based drama therapist and theatre artist. He studied drama therapy at New York University. As a clinician, Adam has worked with urban youth through the ENACT Program and veterans at the VA Hospital in Connecticut. Currently, he works with specially abled students at the Cooke School & Institute as part of the counseling team.  He is the current NADTA Tri-state Chapter president hoping to foster collaboration and fellowship among local creative arts therapists. Adam received his undergraduate degree from Marymount Manhattan College in theatre direction and performance. He has worked in various roles developing social, political and therapeutic theatre in Manhattan. Through his work as artist and therapist, Adam hopes to allow spaces for people to engage in the difficult dialogues through witnessing and experiencing embodied art.

H.E.A.T. Blog Series

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

The inaugural series will begin this July with Adam Stevens: a theatre artist and drama therapist, Katherine Nigh: a theatre scholar, Joan Lipkin: an artist, activist, and member of Artists Rise Up NY, and Catherine Filloux: an award-winning playwright whose work centers on human rights and social justice. 

This series will continue each month, so stay tuned for more!

The Night it Rained

What a wonderful experience it was to gather with one amazing director and nine generous performers to explore this new play with puppets.

The Night it Rained by Jessica Litwak is hysterical, historical, hilarious, and heart wrenching. 

The Night It Rained is about a woman attempting to remember one night in the life of her suicidal, drug addicted, brilliantly charismatic mother.  She has to answer questions about an unsolved murder committed one rainy Christmas Eve in 1968, in the Haight-Ashbury.

Part memory play, part detective story The Night It Rained takes us on a wild journey through a world filled with rock and roll icons, moon landings, famous bank robbers, revolutionaries, sex changes, psychedelic drugs, and deep love. 


Dana Boll, Oliver Burns, Christian Cuoco, Stacey Linnartz, Jessica Litwak, Lim Mui, Hugh Sinclair, Clara Solly-Slade, Adam Stevens


The Search for a HOME for H.E.A.T.

The Search for a HOME for H.E.A.T.

The H.E.A.T Collective is looking for a new home. Our Artistic Director Jessica Litwak has been on a global search visiting cities trying to find something that fits “just right”.