I’ve always loved Broadway but never thought I’d end up performing such musical classics as the 1929 Irving Berlin song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Yet on March 7th and 8th , the Metropolitan Detroit Chorale will perform the legendary composer’s music along with other hits of New York’s Great White Way as part of their Cabaret 2014 – Broadway and Beyond shows in Fraser, Michigan. I’m singing in the chorus that night, supporting the singer/dancers.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz” refers to dressing very fashionably, a phrase inspired in the 20s by the opulent Ritz Hotel. The song was first introduced by Harry Richman in the film “Putting on the Ritz” in 1930 and was first recorded by Fred Astaire, who also sang it in the film “Blue Skies” in 1946.
I’ve always identified Berlin’s classic song with that bygone era of super- rich New York tycoons in top hats that ended with the 1929 crash. I first arrived in the Big Apple in the ‘70s to work in publishing, a time when the city briefly flirted with bankruptcy and Park Avenue gentry seemed more subdued. Yet when I recently saw the Mel Brooks film “Young Frankenstein”, where the monster, played by Peter Boyle, joins scientist Gene Wilder in a hilarious stage rendition of the immortal song and dance routine, I realized it was released in 1974, a really depressed year financially. In fact, that’s just a year before the Daily News ran the famous headline about President Ford’s refusal to bail out New York City — “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Obviously Berlin’s ode to New York style has continued to fascinate filmmakers long after the original era he celebrated. Out of further curiosity I went online and saw that a Dutch singer named Taco made a synthesized version contrasting the Park Avenue rich with the urban poor huddled around campfires in the streets to stay warm – it went up the charts worldwide in 1983 – a few years before the city’s economy crashed in 1987, along with Wall Street’s junk bonds. Of course, some might argue that today’s spotlight on the wealthy 1% again brings the song’s lyrics full circle.
So while I originally thought of writing this column to encourage friends and family in Michigan to come see my chorale’s latest interpretation of indelible Broadway songs, my research also convinced me again that Broadway icons like Irving Berlin remain some of our most important songwriters, appealing to many generations. Besides“Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Berlin penned “White Christmas”, “God Bless America, ” “Always,” “There’s no Business like Show Business” and many more songs for the ages. In short, Berlin’s lyrics continue to capture the pulse of this ever-changing nation and its complexities. For more information on the chorale and to find out how to purchase tickets for the Broadway cabaret, visit the website at www.detroitmetropolitanchorale.org