‘New York, New York’: The Iconic Song, Its Composers, and Their Beef With Frank Sinatra
Heard at the end of every New York Yankees baseball game at Yankee Stadium, New York, New York is that song everyone seems to know, no matter where they’re from. It’s been performed by countless artists, including Michael Bublé and Lady Gaga.
The song was written for a movie but it grew into so much more, an anthem of the city that never sleeps and its spirit that never gives in.
Even though Frank Sinatra put the song “on the map,” so to speak, the song’s composers were a bit disappointed with how Ol’ Blue Eyes covered it.
The movie that ‘Theme From New York, New York’ was written for
The song, officially titled “Theme from New York, New York,” but known by millions simply as “New York, New York,” was written by Fred Ebb and John Kander. (There is an entirely different song called “New York, New York” also performed by Frank Sinatra along with Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin in the 1949 movie musical On The Town.)
The 1977 musical drama film “New York, New York” was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred powerhouse actors Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as a married couple, De Niro a jazz musician and Minnelli a singer.
It received at its release mild to downright bad reviews, including one from renowned movie critic Roger Ebert who reviewed it with three stars, saying “Martin Scorcese’s New York, New York never pulls itself together into a coherent whole, but if we forgive the movie its confusions we’re left with a good time. In other words: Abandon your expectations of an orderly plot, and you’ll end up humming the title song.”
Robert De Niro hated the song
The writing team of Ebb and Kander also composed songs for other musicals, including Cabaret, Chicago and Liza With a Z. However, in writing the theme song for New York, New York, they met their match with actor De Niro, who disliked the initial version of the song and suggested they rework it, as composer Kander and lyricist Ebb told NPR in 2002.
The creative pair had brought the movie’s songs on tape to play them for the director, De Niro, and Minnelli. Everything was going great, so they thought, until they got to the title song.
“As we were wrapping ourselves in self-congratulations,” Kander recalled, “we saw De Niro sitting on a couch, gesture over to Marty Scorsese.”
Ebb interjected that, at this point, De Niro and Scorsese took “one of their famous Italian walks away from us. We knew they were, you know, dishing the song.”
Kander recalled that De Niro could be seen “gesturing a lot,” he said laughing. “And Marty was listening.” Eventually, the director and actor, according to the creative team, delivered the bad news that the song needed to be improved.
Insulted and angry, the pair rewrote it to the beloved version everyone is familiar with. In the end, the songwriters admitted that De Niro and Scorsese “were right. . . To our enormous benefit.”
The writers of the song disliked how Sinatra changed ‘New York, New York’
With the film a flop and their song seemingly relegated to invisibility in Hollywood history (it wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award), Ebb and Kander moved on to other projects.
One of the movie’s stars, however, Liza Minnelli, kept the song in the public’s sight by performing it frequently at her concerts. Eventually, her dear friend and fellow performer, Frank Sinatra, began to do the same, deciding to finally record it in 1979.
Sinatra’s recording propelled the song to international stardom.
The song’s composers, continuing in their conversation with NPR, said that hearing it sung by thousands of fans is an absolute delight for them.
However, Sinatra’s version irked them a bit. Sinatra, it seems, without even noticing, changed the song’s lyrics, adding the line “A, No. 1” throughout the song.
“He didn’t intentionally change the lyrics,” Kander said. “What he did was make mistakes. And his mistakes, I think, became part of the lyric[s].”
Ebb, who died in 2004, added, “Yeah, ‘A, No. 1.’ I never wrote that. I don’t even like it. But, you know, you’re grateful to him because he gave you this enormous hit.”