Possibly the most quoted lyric from “New York, New York” is: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” The song, particularly the recording by Frank Sinatra that first became a hit in 1980 (the year The Chairman turned 65) has reached the status of an anthem for New York City. Every songwriter, including myself, dreams of writing a song that can become a classic like this. In the case of “New York, New York,” the names of the two men who did “make it there”: Broadway composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.
Broadway Co-writers do Hollywood
Although Kander and Ebb were established Broadway songwriters, “New York, New York” came from a Hollywood assignment. Martin Scorcese needed a theme song for his film of the same name starring Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli. In an interview with NPR, the duo said they wrote the song out of “anger” after getting a rejection on their first submission of a title tune. They were “insulted” when DeNiro asked for something “stronger.”
That was in 1977. The film flopped but Liza Minelli still included the song in her stage shows. In Sinatra’s 1980 version, he made a lyric change, adding the phrase “A-number-one.” The recording put him back on charts when his music career was waning and started decades of royalty checks to come for the songwriting partners.
The Duo Produce a String of Award-Winners
Kansas City native Kander played piano and earned his Masters in Arts at Columbia, the same school where New York born Ebb earned his Masters in English Literature. A publisher introduced the two in 1963, after Kander’s debut scoring a failed Broadway musical. Ebb had shared the same experience with his first Broadway effort. Once paired, the duo would become the longest lasting music and lyrics team on Broadway until Ebb died in 2004. They also developed a long-running association with Liza Minelli.
Three artists, including Barbra Streisand, recorded their first hit as collaborators, “My Coloring Book.” The first major success came in 1966. “Cabaret” won multiple Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score. Among their many successes in theater, film and TV was the musical “Chicago.” Opening in 1975, the musical that spawned “All That Jazz” received Tony nominations but didn’t win one until its revival in 1997. In 2003, the film version of “Chicago” became the first musical since 1968 to win Oscars.
The collaboration earned Kander and Ebb multiple other awards. Both were Kennedy Center honorees and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
NPR Interview “New York, New York”