Notes

The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.

New York, New York

-- (1977; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb)

From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:

Song intro:

New York City is the most populous city in the United States.  From its humble beginnings as the Dutch trading post New Amsterdam, NYC evolved into its current description as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world.  In 1977, Martin Scorsese celebrated his hometown with the film “New York, New York”, whose theme song carried the same name.

Chorus:

New York, New York

Song outro:

Although the version recorded by Frank Sinatra a year after the film’s release ultimately became more popular, singer Liza Minelli, the song’s original performer in the film, gave two of its most memorable live performances: at the 1986 centennial rededication of the Statue of Liberty, and during a New York Mets game that was the first pro sports event held in the New York metro area following the September 11th attacks.

Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format” that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’  As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song.

 

The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song.  We started in the northeast, with the opening number for the set—“Let’s Get Away From It All,” discussed last week—referencing several cities in Massachusetts and New York (Quincy and Boston, MA; Nyack, NY).  “New York,” however, was the first to clearly name its location in the song title itself.

 

As indicated in the narrations above, this piece was written for the 1977 film of the same name.  Rotten Tomatoes gives us this summary of the movie: “Set primarily in post-WWII New York City, Martin Scorsese’s extravagant romantic musical is about a jazz saxophonist [Robert De Niro] and a pop singer [Liza Minelli] who fall madly in love and marry.  But the saxophonist's outrageously volatile personality places a continual strain on their relationship, and after they have a baby, their marriage crumbles.”  The film’s theme song was created in-universe by this duo.

 

The tune was not particularly celebrated at the time of the film’s release, failing to garner even a nomination for the Academy Award for “Best Song.”  The next year, however, Frank Sinatra performed it in a concert at the Radio City Music Hall, and recorded it in 1979 for release on the 1980 album Trilogy.  Wikipedia notes that “The single peaked at #32 in June 1980, becoming his final Top Forty charting hit.”  From then on, even though Minelli continues to perform it at almost all of her concerts, this song became ever associated in the popular mind with Sinatra instead.  (The Sounds of Indiana even used it as the Act I closer in 2016’s ‘The Sinatra Show’!)

 

The lyrics of the piece celebrate New York City and the optimism of someone coming to start a new life there.  (Note: the “instrumental rhythm” of the introduction continues several times under Leads’ solo lyrics, but I won’t try to reproduce that overlay here.)

Dot, dah, da-da da (doom doom), dot, dah, da-da da (doom doom),
            dot, dah, da-da da (doom doom), doo (doo).

 

Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leavin’ today,

I wanna be apart of it, New York, New York (New York).

These vagabond shoes are longin’ to stray,

and step around the heart of it, New York, New York (New York).

 

I wanna wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep,

to find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap (top of the heap).

 

my little town blues (my little town blues) are melting away (melting away),

I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York (old New York).

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,

it’s up to you, New York, New York.

[“instrumental” break]

 

I wanna wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep (city that doesn’t sleep),

to find I’m king of the hill head of the list, cream of the crop at the top!

 

My little town blues (my little town blues) are melting away (melting away),

I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York (old New York).

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,

come on, come through (come through)
          New York (come through, New York)

New York, New York, New York, New York.

 

To be honest, though, I still haven’t found my connection with this song.  Maybe I’m not feeling it because I’m not a New Yorker, or because I haven’t seen the film, or because the basses don’t have many of the actual words compared to the leads, but this one always seems to me like a big Broadway song-and-dance number without much emotional investment.

 

I know the “plan” for the song, following the map that we’ve set up: instrumental big band intro, jazzing under the melody, join in, instrumental break, reprise into key change and rallentando, big Rockette-style high-kick tempo (I haven’t seen the film and don’t know Liza Minelli, so I personally tend to channel Ethel Merman here instead for some reason), build to proud and excited climax.  And be careful not to “level 11” the entire thing; save that just for the end.

 

Sure, we present the piece well (and much better now that we did two years ago!), but it still hasn’t received the same in-depth, line-by-line, feeling-by-feeling exploration of many of our other songs.  I don’t know how it looks to the audience, or how it feels to the rest of the group, but I can tell for myself that I’m acting on this one, just presenting a picture.  To assemble a nuanced phrase, as I like to do: we sing it, but we don’t really perform it.

 

For this week, then, in lieu of NoN’s usual analysis and reflection on our method, here are just a couple more fun facts about the piece:

  • This song is also referred to as “Theme from ” to differentiate it from another by the same name, featured in the 1944 musical .The older one begins “New York, New York, a helluva town / The Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down. / The people ride in a whole in the ground / New York, New York, it’s a helluva town!”For the 1949 MGM film version, the word “helluva” was modified to “wonderful,” and this alternate lyric is the one SoI used for the song’s inclusion in The Sinatra Show, as it had been co-performed by Frank in the movie.

  • Wikipedia observes, “It has been played over the loudspeakers at both the original and current Yankee Stadiums at the end of every Yankee home game since July 1980. Originally, Sinatra's version was played after a Yankees win, and the Minnelli version after a loss.However, due to a complaint from Minnelli, the Sinatra version is now heard regardless of the game's outcome.”

 

And one more thing about “New York, New York” that always makes me giggle is mixing some of the words in my mind: “My little brown shoes, are melting away!”  Ah, the dangers of big city living…

In harmony,

Andy

 

November 11, 2018