How “New York, New York” Became an Iconic Song

One hint: Robert De Niro played a part

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra, performing live onstage, waving with audience visible behind.
David Redfern/Redferns

For many listeners, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” is an iconic blend of singer and song. It’s also one that’s taken newfound resonance in New York City, as some New Yorkers have begun singing it after cheering at 7 pm to salute first responders. But the origins of the song — and the path it took before Sinatra’s recording of it — are more complex than most people may know.

For starters, the song is technically titled “Theme from ‘New York, New York’.” That’s one of several enlightening pieces of information brought to light in a new article by Michael Wilson at The New York Times. It was originally written by John Kander and Fred Ebb — the songwriting team responsible for the likes of Cabaret and Chicago.

The occasion was the film New York, New York, director Martin Scorsese’s 1977 follow-up to Taxi Driver. It starred Liza Minelli and Robert De Niro as a pair of musicians living in post-World War II New York. And while it’s not as well-remembered as some of Scorsese’s other films, it certainly has it boosters, including Roger Ebert.

“The movie’s a vast, rambling, nostalgic expedition back into the big band era, and a celebration of the considerable talents of Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro,” Ebert wrote in his review.

As Wilson notes, the iconic song wasn’t in the group of original songs that Kander and Ebb presented to Scorsese, De Niro and Minelli. A comment from one of the trio prompted the songwriters to work on something new:

[Scorsese] returned “very embarrassed” and said Mr. De Niro found the title number “lightweight” and wanted them to try again, Mr. Kander said.

The songwriting team’s next try found them arriving at the song that’s become famous today — and which, not long afterwards, Sinatra performed for the first time to a rapturous reception. Musical history can take some unexpected paths; the way “New York, New York” arrived is among the most circuitous — and the most rewarding.

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