Happy Birthday Mel Brooks. He turned 96 today.
And no joke, there really is a Mel Brooks Songbook. When I picked it up from the shelf in the Indigo bookstore I was a bit disbelieving myself.
Mel Brooks, songwriter? The subtitle is “23 Songs from Movies and Shows”.
Even before Brooks wrote the songs for The Producers, his huge Broadway hit musical, we already had ample evidence of something verging on a gift.
In the film of The Producers there were two remarkable songs. I’m sure you’re already hearing one in your head at the mention of the film. “Springtime for Hitler” wasn’t just a song, it was Brooks’ original title for the piece, back when it wasn’t clear whether it would be a play or a film. The other great tune is “Prisoners of Love”.
In his next film, The Twelve Chairs, there’s another brilliant song. Brooks’ preface is very entertaining when he talks about stealing “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” from Johannes Brahms: a tune that Brahms himself appropriated for his Hungarian Dance #4.
“If it was good enough for Brahms to steal, it was good enough for me”.
According to a post from Cinema Shorthand Society—the source where I was alerted to Brooks’ birthday today– he doesn’t read music. Apparently Brooks hums into a tape recorder and then gets someone to transcribe it. That was the method for those first two songs, and everything else thereafter.
Lest you think I might believe this makes him incompetent: far from it. I am also an admirer of Luciano Pavarotti, one of the greatest voices I ever heard: another talent who couldn’t read music.
There are three great songs from Blazing Saddles namely the main theme, the song from the uproar near the end of the film “The French Mistake” and “I’m Tired.” With those two words I am instantly reminded of the great Madeleine Kahn, who made so much of the piece.
There are also four songs from a musical I’m dying to see, namely Young Frankenstein, adapted from the film. While it was produced in the USA, revised and then produced in the UK it hasn’t yet made it to Canada.
(Are you listening, Arkady Spivak?)
Let me encourage you to check out the book, especially if you’re a fan of musicals. In addition to what I’ve mentioned there are also songs from High Anxiety, History of the World Part 1, To Be or Not to Be, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Spaceballs.
Brooks is one of the funniest people I have ever encountered, a gifted writer who not only gives us brilliant stories & lyrics but also seems to know how to compose the music for songs too.
See for yourself.