Mel Brooks Makes ‘Frankenstein’ Sing

By Max Gross

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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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.”

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