A tuxedoed Judy Garland revived this rousing call to happiness when she performed it at the end of her last MGM film, the 1950 musical Summer Stock, but it debuted 20 years earlier in the stage musical The Nine-Fifteen Revue. The song put Harold Arlen, who went on to co-write another famous Garland tune, "Over The Rainbow," on the path to composing. He was performing in the pit orchestra of the Broadway revue George White's Scandals when the catchy riff he played to summon actors back to rehearsal caught the ear of Broadway composer Harry Warren, who encouraged Arlen to pursue composing. The riff turned into "Get Happy."
The song, introduced by Ruth Etting, was his first collaboration with songwriting partner Ted Koehler. Arlen described it as "a rhythm number with the feel of a spiritual." The lyrics take the tone of an evangelical Christian revival meeting as listeners are encouraged to "shout hallelujah" in anticipation of heading to the promised land and washing their sins away. Thanks to the song's success, the duo teamed up on several more hits for the popular cabaret scene, including the torch standard "Stormy Weather."
According to Arlen biographer Walter Rimler, Garland agreed to do Summer Stock under the promise she could perform "Get Happy."
Michael Jackson's live performance of "Dangerous" at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards referenced Garland's song-and-dance sequence with suited backup dancers and a similar intro.
Garland performed this throughout the rest of her career. It was also covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Barbra Streisand.
Chris Colfer and Lea Michele sang this on Glee in the Season 2 episode "Duets."
This was used on the 2001 Gilmore Girls episode "Red Light on the Wedding Night." It was also featured on House, M.D. when Hugh Laurie and Lisa Edelstein sang it in the 2011 episode "Bombshells."
Arlen put on a happy-go-lucky demeanor in public, but according to his "Over the Rainbow" lyricist, Yip Harburg, the composer was deeply melancholy. He said: "You take a song like his rousing hit 'Get Happy.' Sing it slowly. Examine it. It's painful! He's never liberated from that... thing hanging over him."