Thursday, October 17, 2013

Young Frankenstein Music by...Mel Brooks?

Mel Brooks, who directed and co-wrote the 1974 Young Frankenstein film, also co-wrote the book for this 2007 musical version, as well as the lyrics to the songs. No surprise there. But he also wrote the music.

 Even though Mel Brooks became famous as a comedian, comedy writer, film director and actor, he started his show business career as a musician. Taught to play drums by jazz drummer and band leader Buddy Rich, he began playing for money at the age of 14.

 After high school, some college and a stint in the Army in World War II, he played piano and drums for his first professional jobs in nightclubs and resorts in the Catskills. Then one night the regular comedian was too sick to perform, and Mel Brooks’ comedy career was born.

After years as a Catskills stand-up comic he became a writer for the classic Sid Caesar television shows, then paired with Carl Reiner in the famous 2000 Year Old Man routines, and began writing television situation comedies, like the spy spoof Get Smart. He also wrote the book for a Broadway musical.

 The first feature film he wrote and directed was The Producers, about Broadway producers scheming to make money on a musical guaranteed to fail. The movie was only a modest financial success in 1968. Brooks didn’t have a real hit until Blazing Saddles in 1974. He co-wrote the music for that film with John Morris, including a lavish Busby Berkeley-style musical number.

 Throughout his career Brooks wrote songs for many of his movies and television shows (including “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers.) One notable exception was Young Frankenstein—with music by John Morris, and the only real song by Irving Berlin—“Puttin’ on the Ritz.”  (And yes--it's in the musical, too.)

 Then in 2001 the musical version of The Producers arrived on Broadway, with music composed by Mel Brooks. Brooks had reputedly approached composer Jerry Herman to write the music, but Herman told him to do it himself because he was a good songwriter. As composer, Brooks won one of the record-breaking 12 Tony awards given to The Producers.  His next project became the musical version of Young Frankenstein.

In explaining his musical approach to this stage play, Brooks recalled the first Broadway musical he saw. He was 9 years old when an uncle got free tickets to Cole Porter’s Anything Goes in 1934, starring Ethel Merman.

 Cole Porter and the team of Rodgers and Hart, he explained to an interviewer, wrote musical comedy. But when Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein, they wrote what he called “musical drama.” “ Carousel, Oklahoma, South Pacific, and so on—they were musical drama, not musical comedy.”

 Brooks said his approach was to return to the musical comedy era for The Producers musical, which was a huge hit on Broadway and beyond. “There was obviously a hunger for old-fashioned musical comedy. I went back to Anything Goes.” He said he took the same approach with Young Frankenstein. (Coincidentally, Eric Standifird, who plays Frankenstein in the HSU production, had his first lead role in last year’s North Coast Repertory Theatre production of Anything Goes.)

 Brooks approach in The Producers also included quoting and parodying the styles and even actual songs of earlier Broadway musicals. This tendency continues in the music for Young Frankenstein.

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