"From the time I was eight-years-old 'til I went to college, my parents had a drive-in. I worked there," Tharp said of her childhood in Rialto, CA. "That means I watched a lot of movies with no sound because the speakers are inside the cars. So, I learned to read action. I learned to look and see the story without having the language carried to me. And it's infinitely more powerful, because guess what? Words lie, actions do not."
It was this discovery that allowed Tharp to become "a playwright who works without language." Tharp earned her first Tony Award for creating Movin' Out, the electrifying 2002 dance musical set to the songs of Billy Joel.
With her 2010 Broadway outing, Come Fly Away, Tharp has returned to the familiar territory of crooner Frank Sinatra, having created "Nine Sinatra Songs" and "Sinatra Suite" roughly 30 years ago. This time around, Tharp is in her late 60's (though no less spry) and has discovered a new view on the material.
"I look very differently on the past; it's not just remembering how things were, but it's looking at everything that is in between – how things were and how things are now," she said. "And these layers of information allow one to reach out to people in a very different way."
"As a playwright, I'm looking at Sinatra… Take the song 'September of My Years,' which is a solo variation that John [Selya] does," Tharp said referring to her Come Fly Away leading man, who earned a Best Actor Tony Award nomination for his athletic work in Movin' Out. She continued, "The fact that John is a mature dancer who is never going to be any younger than he is now, and who is at the peak of his powers, is heartbreaking to anybody. I think that adults look at it and connect their own lives immediately with that dancer's condition. So, that song brings an emotional depth to a performance that could never happen if it were an abstract piece without that particular language. Now, if you have a non-English speaking person looking at that scene, will they understand it?"
It is here that Tharp's skills as a storyteller kick in. Come Fly Away isn't simply a revue of favorite or well-known Sinatra tunes, it is a deliberate and somewhat sly ordering of music and lyrics that communicate a story, while entertaining the audience.
"This man's dilemma is a real one," Tharp says of Selya's character Sid. "The scene before has him basically abandoned, dropped, discarded and made to realize that there are other guys around who are maybe a little cuter than he is these days. And then the next song really rubs it in, something called 'You Make Me Feel So Young,' which [features] a phenomenal young performer named Charlie Hodges, who bounces off the walls, and here's poor John sitting down in this chair over here going, 'Ah, the girls don't love me and man, I don't do that anymore.' Then the stage clears for the first and almost the only time a bare stage [during the show], and John comes out and does 'September of My Years.'"
"That's made so that visually you can read that scene without understanding a word of 'It's Alright With Me,' 'You Make Me Feel So Young,' or 'September of My Years,'" Tharp explained. "You understand it from what you've seen. The words augment. The words tell you how Sinatra felt about that. How Sinatra felt to be made to feel young. How Sinatra felt when he got dumped. How Sinatra felt when he realizes his vulnerability – his mortality."
And what's next for Tharp? She refers to her roots in her family's drive-in theatre and the misguiding nature of language to provide her answer: "Next is going to change a thousand times before it comes to pass, and you would not want me to lie to you with words, would you?"