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
I’ve always believed in the power of music to transform and heal the spirit. In an entrepreneurial, electronic age when stress seems relentless, the right music is an essential tranquilizer or energizer – depending on what is needed. My late husband Tim and I loved to entertain for any reason and while the southern food was always piled high, the celebration wasn’t complete until he sat down at his beloved 1927 Story & Clark upright piano and encouraged friends and family to sing-along! He loved to perform a mix of Broadway, folk, gospel and blues.
Later when I moved back to Brooklyn, I delighted in the musical career of my friend Arlene, a luminous, classically trained soprano who sang regularly at Don’t Tell Mama’s, a cabaret club near the Broadway district and at other jazz venues. I also joined friends for concerts – my favorite was the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace at St. John’s Cathedral in Morningside Heights, near Columbia University where folk singer Judy Collins was the artist in residence. And yes, I occasionally sang a cappella spontaneously at food coop gatherings in Brooklyn.
Now that I’m back in Michigan, it took awhile to find the right outlets for music here. I started by eagerly going to middle school and high school musicals featuring my gifted great nephew and niece, Ian and Julia. How exciting to see them shine! Their uncle, my nephew Michael, started in symphony orchestras and then joined the Air Force Band – his wife Anna is also a band member and they perform around the world and in the Bay Area.
Then last winter my neighbor Mary introduced me to friends who loved drumming and held gatherings at their home in suburban Detroit. I was hooked – it was my first experience and Mary gladly let me use her drums when I wasn’t trying out the musical spoons I got as a holiday present. But it wasn’t until this fall, as I was still locked in grief over the death of my older brother Gil from leukemia, that I was invited to join a regional choral, over my objections that it was too intimidating. After all, they had recently sung in Carnegie Hall and were celebrated locally. Luckily Mary’s friend Paula was insistent that I would love it – and in fact, I was immediately hooked by the exuberance and artistic excellence you can see outlined in the Metropolitan Detroit Chorale website at www.metropolitandetroitchorale.com
We immediately started practicing for two holiday concerts – Handel’s Messiah, with soloists and a chamber orchestra at Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in St. Clair Shores, and the Joyful Sound Celebration at Fraser Performing Arts Center, where we were joined by the Richards Middle School Choir in performing holiday favorites. Practicing between weekly rehearsals meant getting reacquainted with my late husband’s antique piano. What fun to find I could still remember how to play basic chords and melodies so I could accompany myself. The weeks flew, my spirits soared and by the time of the early December concerts, I felt transformed back into the little schoolgirl who sang in the northeast Detroit Choir, was a music and art major at Cass Tech High School and later in college learned to play my brother Bill’s guitar so I could sing with my journalism friends in local folk venues or just spontaneously burst into song on campus. I dedicated the Messiah concert to my brother Gil’s memory – he played an awesome trumpet — and hoped he was proud of me.
There are two more concerts ahead in 2014 and if you are in Michigan, I hope you’ll take a moment to go on the website and learn more about this amazing choir, its charismatic director Pasquale Pascaretti, talented accompanist Jacklyn Cole and dedicated president Jeff Coates. Come hear the chorale perform – and even better yet, think about whether you should be a part of it!