Mel Brooks Makes ‘Frankenstein’ Sing

By Max Gross

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Fans of the 1974 movie might not believe this, but Mel Brooks was forced to include the song “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in “Young Frankenstein.” The monster forcing him was Gene Wilder.

The soft-shoe dance by Wilder and a tuxedoed creature (Peter Boyle) to the old Irving Berlin song is a masterpiece — one of the funniest scenes ever put on film.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Brooks told The Shmooze in a phone interview from his offices in California. “It was all Gene Wilder hocking me. I said, ‘This is a salute to the gorgeous black-and-white Frankenstein pictures of the ’30s. It’ll kill the mood.’”

Nevertheless, Wilder hocked.

“He said, ‘Look, we’ll film it, and we can always decide what to do with it later.’”

After looking over the finished product, Brooks was duly impressed. “I said: ‘Gee, Gene Wilder. You’re a genius.’”

There was no way that “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was going to be cut out of the Broadway musical adaptation of “Young Frankenstein,” which opened last month. The four-minute number is the centerpiece of the show and has been greeted with cheering and with deafening applause.

“It’s a home run!” Brooks declared. “I’ve never seen an audience react that way!”

Brooks added: “I don’t mind sharing song credit with Irving Berlin.”

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” is the only song that Brooks didn’t have a hand in writing in the show and on the new cast album (Decca Broadway), which will hit stores next week. There’s more than an hour of other ditties and tunes in this extravaganza. Now that Brooks is no longer a one-hit wonder on Broadway — “The Producers,” his first musical, broke records at the Tony Awards in 2001 — you have to wonder: Is he trying to become the new Cole Porter?

“I wouldn’t mind!” Brooks said, laughing. “You know, Cole Porter was incredibly Jewish. He did so many songs in a minor key — just like klezmer songs.”

Brooks told the Forward about the first song he ever wrote: “It was an introductory song when I was in Borscht Belt,” he recalled, stopping to belt out the first few lines: “Here I am, Melvin Brooks! Just a ham, who’s flying on his looks!”

Back then, he had a band called Mel Brooks and the Five Wife Beaters and had serious aspirations of becoming a drummer. (Buddy Rich once said — to a teenage Brooks’s delight — “Okay, kid. You’re not good, but you’re not bad.”)

While Brooks took on Hitler in “The Producers,” he said he has no plans to tackle something more contemporary. So forget “Guantanamo Bay,” the musical. “Once you write a current story, ‘current’ becomes bad,” he said. “‘Current’ doesn’t stay.”

This reporter decided to ask one more question. (How often do you get to interview Mel Brooks?) “If you were stuck on an island with Woody Allen or Neil Simon, who would it be?”

“On Tuesdays, Woody Allen; on Thursdays, Neil Simon,” Brooks answered. With a moment of reflection, he added, “On Wednesdays, Jackie Mason.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.