Friday, November 27, 2015

Steyn, Sinatra, and “New York, New York” (the Wrong Song)



Re-posted by Nicholas Stix

"Theme from New York, New York"
Steyn's Song of the Week
By Mark Steyn
Steyn Online

On the first of our Sinatra Century audio specials, Frank's longtime pianist and musical director Vincent Falcone talks about the many years he spent working with the singer mostly on stage but also in the studio. For example, on September 19th 1979 in Los Angeles, it fell to Vinnie Falcone to conduct what would become one of the biggest Sinatra recordings of all time:

Start spreading the news
I'm leaving today
I want to be a part of it...

As I say on the podcast, it's one of the most famous records on the planet. I mention that it turns up as a musical joke en passant during a car chase in the new Bond movie, Spectre. Just the opening bars - that famous John Kander vamp that Vincent Falcone conducts - and that's all it needs, because few records have such an instantly recognizable intro. Everyone in the movie theater got the joke, as I'm sure they did almost everywhere the film's been shown.

It was written by two men: One was John Kander, born in 1927 in Kansas City, Missouri, and educated at Oberlin. I don't know whether he spread the news on the day of his leaving, but he wanted to be a part of it - New York, New York, that is - and he has been, ever since 1957, when he was hired as rehearsal pianist for West Side Story. Two years later, he was the dance arranger on Gypsy, and a couple of years after that he began writing music with a young lyricist called Fred Ebb. Unlike the Missourian Kander, Mr Ebb didn't have to spread the news of his leaving. He was a part of it from day one - born in New York, New York, either in 1928 or 1933, according to which reference book you believe. I knew him from the Eighties onward, and to me he looked young, if only by Broadway standards. He spent his entire life waking up in the city that doesn't sleep, but had a harder job becoming top of the heap. He hung around the theatre; wrote a revue with a guy called Paul Klein, who quit showbiz to go into waterproofing; and was taken under the wing of Phil Springer, composer of Sinatra's "How Little We Know" and "Santa Baby". And then in 1964 he was introduced to John Kander and they wrote a hit song called "My Coloring Book". Four decades later, at the time of Fred's death, their second show Cabaret was virtually a permanent fixture in New York and in London, and the film version of Chicago was an Oscar-winning Best Picture.

This last decade can't have been easy for John Kander, by common consent one of the nicest guys in a business not known for niceness. Ebb's death from a heart attack in 2004, at the peak of Chicago's success on stage and screen, ended the last monogamous writing partnership on Broadway. There used to be a lot of those - George & Ira Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein - and then there were only Kander & Ebb. "One reason why they've avoided the career slumps that almost everyone else has had is simply that they've stayed together," Alan Jay Lerner once told me. "A composer and lyricist grow together." Lerner had hits like My Fair Lady and flopperoo one-night stands like Dance A Little Closer, the kind of mega-disaster that Kander & Ebb, Broadway's last surviving words-and-music team, almost uniquely managed to steer clear of. "Even when we write lousy, Fred and I always have a good time," Kander said to me a few years ago.

Their last show, starring David Hyde Pierce (from TV's "Frasier"), was, appropriately, Curtains. It was a musical murder mystery, which isn't as surefire a blend of boffo genres as it sounds. There have never really been any mystery musicals, for obvious reasons. "The audience wants to get on with the mystery. So they don't want to stop for songs," Fred Ebb agreed when I pointed this out a couple of years before his death. "That's the challenge - and I love a challenge." By the time it opened, a play about a murderer stalking a Broadway musical had itself lost a few of its creators to the grim reaper, including lyricist Ebb, librettist Peter Stone and orchestrator Michael Gibson. And John Kander found himself facing his first first night since A Family Affair way back in 1964 without his greatest writing partner. Many of their songs are known, but not on this scale:

If I can make it there
I'll make it anywhere
It's up to you

New York, New York!

It's a school of song that's quintessentially American. As Will Friedwald writes:

It exemplifies the anger and the optimism, the ambition and the aggression, the hostility and the energy, the excitement and the excrement that is New York...

"The excitement and the excrement" is a droll way of putting it: Kander & Ebb's valentine to "the city that doesn't sleep" is both a cliché and a triumphant vindication that rises above it. Fred Ebb's words are the last written in conventional American songbook style to become part of the vernacular. I especially loved a column my late colleague at The Independent Miles Kington wrote a few years ago. Even in its denunciation of the buoyant razzle-dazzle optimism of American showbusiness, the headline was a kind of sour tribute to its potency:

If They Can Make It There, Why Can't They Keep It There?

There are lots of New York songs, and at least two others in the preferred US Postal Service city/state formulation. Gerard Kenny's "New York, New York" ("so good they named it twice") post-dates Kander & Ebb, and this one, by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, pre-dates them by three decades:

New York, New York
A helluva town
The Bronx is up
And the Battery's down...

There's no copyright in title, although I think you'd have to be pretty demented to turn in a new song called "White Christmas" or a novel titled Gone With The Wind. Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn wrote a ballad called "Time After Time" in the Forties and so did Cyndi Lauper in the Eighties, which irked Sammy Cahn no end. As a young man, John Kander had been a rehearsal pianist on Bernstein's West Side Story, so, to avoid (or at least mitigate) offence to the man who composed the show on which he got his break, the new "New York, New York" is officially called "Theme from New York, New York". It was an assignment song. In 1977, Martin Scorsese was making a film about the big band era, with his on-screen alter-ego Robert De Niro as a touring musician, a sax player, one of the boys on the bus. The gal was Liza Minnelli, still hot(ish) from Cabaret and a seemingly shrewd choice for playing the band's canary. That made it all but certain that the songs for the film would be by her off-screen mentors Kander & Ebb. It wasn't a musical, but Scorsese needed a handful of numbers to establish the period and relate to the story, and in particular they needed a big title song to be "written" by De Niro's and Minnelli's characters in the course of the plot. The saxophonist is married to the vocalist, and he writes a tune, and several scenes and dramatic vicissitudes later she puts a lyric to it.

So Kander and Ebb went off and wrote a "New York, New York" number, and they played it for Scorsese and his two stars. Fred Ebb was a lethal song demonstrator, in the same class as Sammy Cahn. With Johnny at the piano, Freddie would put his heart and soul and guts into the song, and if he couldn't sell you a new number nobody could. And they sold this one:

New York, New York
New York, New York
New York, New York
New York, New York
They always say it's a nice place to visit
But I wouldn't want to live there
New York
They always say it's a nice place to sightsee
But I wouldn't want to live there
New York
Of course I do like a 'do on Park Avenue
Or to view a gnu at the Central Park Zoo...

They thought it had gone over well.

And then De Niro beckoned to Scorsese. And, as Fred Ebb put it to me, "They stood up and took one of their famous Italian walks. And we could see but not hear De Niro talking."

"And he was also gesturing," said Kander. "Which we knew was not a good sign."

When the Italian walk was over, De Niro and Scorsese came back to the couch and tried to explain it tactfully. Marty said how much they liked "And The World Goes Round" and the other numbers but that this song was the title song and "Bob thinks" it needs to be really strong, and "Bob wonders" if maybe they wouldn't mind trying again, and Bob this and Bob that and Bob the other. "And we were kind of insulted," chuckled Kander, "at an actor telling us how to write a song. But he turned out to be right."

"Even though," added Ebb, "we wrote the new song in a kind of rage."

It began with a vamp, one of those little musical intros that, when they work, really kick-start a song. But nobody vamps like John Kander, the champ of the vamps. "With Cabaret, we were trying to find the piece, to write our way into it," he once said to me. "The first thing we wrote was 'Willkommen' and the very first thing that ever happened was that little vamp." It was the same with Chicago and "All That Jazz". And, trying to write a big New York song that would be big enough for Robert De Niro, Fred Ebb tossed out a possible first line of lyric:

Start spreading the news.

John Kander liked it and out of the "start sprea-ding the" bit drew a vamp - the "dum-dum-da-de-dum", the all-time great killer vamp that's recognized by the world as a kind of five-note abbreviation for the spirit of New York. That's why Kander loves vamps: they're a good way of letting you know whether you're tonally on track. "When you find something you like, it tells you about the direction you want to go in. I don't mean you go through the process in a doped-up haze, but you have to trust your unconscious."

And from that vamp they never looked back. For a song that to its disparagers sounds like just a big up-and-at-'em showtune, it's actually quite unusually structured. Fred Ebb opted for a "Sunny Side Of The Street" rhyme structure – ie, rhyming not in couplets or quatrains but across the phrases:

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street

Can't you hear that pitter-pat?
Oh that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On The Sunny Side Of The Street...


Start spreading the news
I'm leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York

These vagabond shoes
Are longing to stray
And step around the heart of it
New York, New York...

It was a song that had everything going for it - if only the film hadn't flopped. But it did - and, although "New York, New York" got a Best Song nomination, it lost to "You Light Up My Life", which may be the silliest Oscar verdict in that category since "They Can't Take That Away From Me" was beaten by "Sweet Leilaini" 40 years earlier.

What transformed the song was Sinatra. On our centenary podcast, Vincent Falcone says he has a photograph of the precise moment when he, Frank and the song all got together:

I am sitting at the piano, he is standing behind me, and he handed me the sheet music to 'New York, New York' and he said, 'Play this for me...' He had gone to see the movie with Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, New York, New York. And he had heard the song and he brought me the sheet music and he said, 'Play this for me.' We were in rehearsal at NBC and I played it and we knew right away that the song had to be.

I believe the very first time Frank Sinatra sang "New York, New York" was at the Waldorf-Astoria on October 13th 1978, at a benefit for the Mercy Hospital. The eleven months between that first performance and the eventual recording were spent Sinatrafying the song, until he'd got it just the way he wanted it. As Vincent Falcone recalls:

At one point he said to me 'We will never record a song again until we have done it on stage for four or five months' - because he wanted to have the opportunity to fully develop the idea of the song, until he got it to the point that he wanted it.

New York, New York' started off being in the overture of a concert that we did at Carnegie Hall. Don Costa had written a new overture which was all New York songs and it ended with the introduction into "New York, New York" and in that introduction he would walk on stage and sing "New York" as the opening song in the show. Well, after the third night he said to me "We can't do this." He says, yeah That was a development that he did until we recorded it, and the end result was this dramatic way of singing this song, and everywhere we ever played it people were on their feet. You know, it's quite an achievement.

In 1978 he was playing a blockbuster engagement at Carnegie Hall and asked Don Costa to put together an overture of New York tunes – "Autumn In New York", "Sidewalks Of New York", and so on and so forth, concluding with Kander & Ebb's "New York, New York". And right on the opening pow! of the vamp Frank would enter, wait for the cheers to die down, and, as Will Friedwald put it, "start spreading the news".

The news spread pretty quickly. "Man, this thing is getting big," Frank said to Vincent Falcone after the third night. "We have to take it out of the overture."

"We were getting such a roar out of the audience, he realized that he can't open with that," said Falcone, "so I wrote an ending to the overture, took the chart of 'New York, New York' out of the overture and we moved it down into the show until eventually it became the closing song." When it began its life as a stand-alone number, Frank sometimes paired it with the "other" "New York, New York" (which is, after all, from a Sinatra movie) serving as a kind of verse, sung slowly and expectantly:

New York, New York
A helluva town
The Bronx is up
And the Battery's down
And the people ride in a hole in the groun'
New York, New York!
It's a...

Wham! On "town" the band would wallop in Kander's famous vamp and the crowd would go wild. The song never looked back, notwithstanding Fred Ebb's misgivings about Sinatra's lyrical evolution in the second chorus. In the Liza Minnelli original, rather than a straightforward reprise of "I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep/And find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap", Ebb extended the thought to make it even more dramatic:

I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep
To find I'm king of the hill
Head of the list
Cream of the crop
At the top of the heap!

That "crop"/"top" internal rhyme is typical of Ebb's unobtrusive professional craftsmanship. For his own even more showstopping rallentando, Sinatra changed it to:

I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep
To find I'm A-number one
Top of the list
King of the hill
A-number one!

"I didn't write 'A-number one'," said Ebb. "I don't even like it. But I like Sinatra singing 'New York, New York', and I love having a song that everyone knows."

It got better. In his last years, Frank would blast the final word of that middle section, and then cripple up and clutch his side and howl "Ow!". Or he'd straighten up and go, "Every time I hit that note, I get a big pain right here."

Liza and her "Uncle Frank" were close pals, but eventually his version of the song consumed hers. On their tour together in the late Eighties with Sammy Davis Jr, the concluding 20-minute medley was strung around a joke about Sam trying to avoid letting Frank and Liza sing "New York, New York" - and then he'd forget himself, launch into "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York", and bang on the "York" the familiar vamp came blasting in. But it was Frank's version, with Liza in effect sitting in on his cover of her song. In a guest shot on "Arrested Development", Miss Minnelli hears Tobias Funke singing "New York, New York" and remarks dryly that when it comes to that particular song "everybody thinks of Frank Sinatra".

Indeed. The song was taken up as the anthem of the New York Yankees: When they won, they played Frank's version. When they lost, they played Liza's. That's one of the all-time greatest musical jokes. Miss Minnelli, alas, didn't care for it, and insisted that after winning games they played her record. So they said nuts to that, lady, we won't play your version at all. Liza subsequently and very wisely relented. But even that bizarre stand-off captures the swagger and attitude the song celebrates.

It's one for the ages now, and millions and millions of Americans and millions more around the world who are entirely unaware of Fred Ebb or John Kander nevertheless would instantly recognize that killer vamp. Years ago, filming a song with Liza Minnelli in Ebb's apartment for a BBC TV special, I noticed the sheet music propped up on Fred's grand piano - "Five Minutes More", a Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn pop hit for Sinatra in the Forties. "I wouldn't have thought that was your kind of song," I said to Ebb.

"Oh, I love that kind of song," he said. "And I love even more writing that kind of song. Too many guys writing for the theatre are writing for a little Broadway crowd that comes in the first few weeks of a show. I want to write songs for everybody, and I love it when everyone knows every word of them." To the best of my knowledge, he was never in Times Square at midnight on New Year's Eve when the ball drops and they play "Auld Lang Syne" and then Sinatr's "New York, New York" - but he would have liked the idea of that big, crazy crowd of tourists happy to be in the city that doesn't sleep and lustily bellowing along:

I want to be a part of it
New York, New York!

It's one for the ages now, thanks to Sinatra and a song that sounds as if it was built for him. It wasn't, any more than was that first "New York, New York" anthem - the Bernstein, Comden and Green opener from On The Town. But, between the first one on screen and its successor on stage, he has a hammerlock on both. In 1993, I interviewed the Broadway director, George Abbott, then aged 106, and asked him about working on On The Town half a century earlier, and in particular about the Bernstein "New York, New York". "I always thought that was the best New York song," said Mister Abbott. "But I must confess that new one is better. The one the little girl sings."

The "little girl", Liza Minnelli, had been given her big break by Mister Abbott on Flora The Red Menace in the early Sixties. It was Liza's first show, and Kander and Ebb's. But you can forgive Abbott, at 106, at still thinking of a star he'd directed when she was 17 and he was already in his 70s as a "little girl".

"Oh," I said, "you mean, 'start spreading the news'? You think that's better than your 'New York, New York'?"


"Did you ever tell Leonard Bernstein that?"


"Probably very wise."

As for Sinatra, the last words he ever sang in public were the final "New York" of "New York, New York" at his 80th birthday all-star celebration in 1995:

If I can make it there
I'll make it anywhere
It's up to you
New York, New York!

~Mark's conversation with longtime Sinatra conductor Vincent Falcone, discussing "New York, New York" and many other songs, can be heard here. Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.

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