"A voice like Frank Sinatra's comes along only once in a lifetime," Bing Crosby observed, ruefully postscripting, "Why did it have to be my lifetime?"
Still, Harry Lillas Crosby rang up more Broadway performances in his lifetime than Francis Albert Sinatra did — albeit, three more: Both took turns at the Uris a year apart: Crosby played an even dozen in 1976, as opposed to Sinatra's nine in 1975 — but better prepare yourself to have that record broken, if not shattered silly, by the Sinatrafest that Twyla Tharp opened in the Marquis March 25.
The Voice, lifted in song, has been raised even higher to dance, and this potent combo of song and dance exerts an intense and primal pull on the audience. This has been building for 34 years, ever since Tharp devised Once More, Frank, a pas de deux for her and Mikhail Barishnikov to do at a 1976 benefit. She dipped into that well again in 1982 for Nine Sinatra Songs and reprised five of the nine in Sinatra Suite two years later. Surviving all three incarnations and making it to Broadway is her rough-sex reading of Sinatra's insistent "That's Life," recreated here step by steamy step via Keith Roberts and Karine Plantadit.
They are Hank and Kate, one of four couples populating their '40s-vintage nightclub on stage — the raunchily rekindled old flames. The banged-around Sinatraesque figure, Sid (John Selya), finds what looks like a safe harbor in Babe (Holley Farmer) after she rejects Chanos (Matthew Stockwell Dibble), who then stumbles into the waiting arms of Slim (Rika Okamoto). For comic relief, there's the bumbling waiter, Marty (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges), and an out-of-town innocent, Betsy (Laura Mead). Tharp has told more complicated stories in wordless dance before — her Tony-winning Movin' Out attempted to pin a Vietnam cavalcade on Billy Joel songs. So perhaps we should be grateful this is basic man-woman stuff, coupling and uncoupling and regrouping through 34 Sinatra evergreens, occasionally punctuated by renderings from a girl singer on the premises (Hilary Gardner).
Inevitably, "My Way" brings the evening to a close, followed by curtain calls to the jauntier "New York, New York." The thoroughly jazzed audience rose as one almost instantly, and the applause was well beyond the decibel point of most openings.
After her cast had been lavishly cheered, Tharp shot the applause meter up another notch by stepping on stage to take a well-earned bow herself. Then she waved on her entire design team and had them bow. Her parting gesture was to fling her massive rose bouquet back into the audience. She seemed pleased.
The audience was a discernibly different mix than the usual opening-night suspects — an eclectic blend of dance-world figures and recording big shots, interchangeable among the beautifully coiffed grey manes and poolside tans.
Nancy and Tina Sinatra, daughters of The Great Man, constituting the family contingent, ran the paparazzi gauntlet and even took bows from the stage.
When asked to explain the timeliness of her father's work, Nancy weighed in thoughtfully: "A lot of reasons. It begins with the written word and the written note, always — then, there are the arrangements and, of course, the brilliant vocals. I think it's the combination. It was the era when it all came together, and it's going to sustain because it's just so powerful and pure. Everyone asks me, 'What's the one quality?' and I always say, 'Truth, honesty — it's always there.' People know this."
She has been the designated daughter keeping tabs on the Tharp project, from the get-go to the at-long-last opening night. "I saw it in a workshop in a rehearsal hall first, and it was thrilling there," she relayed. "Then, I saw it in Atlanta in a beautiful state-of-the-art theatre, and it was great. Tonight, I understand, is 85 percent the same."
Tina's the daughter overseeing the long-proposed film biography of her father. Martin Scorsese is to direct, and the script will be by Phil Alden Robinson, a "Field of Dreams" Oscar nominee. "We're working on it, and, hopefully, it'll come to fruition," she said with more than a mite of caution. "You know, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. It's not easy, this project."
And who does she see in the role of her pop-icon pop? "Marty is pretty focused on Leonardo. I'm a little more open to ideas, but it's Marty's baby. If Marty can pull it together, then Marty can put my mother in it. I don't care. I just need a good script."
And how is "Nancy With the Laughing Face" Sinatra? Tina brightened, delighted to be asked. "She's 93 today. We all left her home, and we're sad about it, but I'm going back in the morning, and Nancy will be back on Saturday. She's something. She's sharp as a tack. If anything, she got a little shorter, that's all."
Tina's attention suddenly strayed from the interview that was in progress to the epicenter of a paparazzi frenzy nearby. "God!" she exclaimed in wonder, "I hope that man is Tommy Tune because, if he's not, he's very tall for no reason."
Turns out, it was Tommy Tune, spectacularly turned out and deeply tanned. "I snowbirded for the first time," he said. "I went down to Florida the day after Christmas, and I stayed till yesterday. I didn't mean to. I just couldn't come home. I would read the weather reports and say, 'Why?'"
Tune recalled attending Sinatra's opening night at the Royal Albert Hall in London years ago: "I sat right across the aisle from Ava Gardner, who came in at the last moment, watched the show just entranced and rushed out right at the end and didn't come backstage. Lucie Arnaz, being a friend of the Sinatra family, was my date. He had a pre-party and an after-party, and then he had a proper-seated dinner for about 20 of us. He served Russian caviar by the loads. He was a very generous man."
As a performer, Tune said, "he was like that Shakespearean thing, the seven ages of man. He sorta sang through his whole life — since he was a young man till he was an old man — and, all along the way, he performed songs that fit all of those stages."
Tune's favorite Sinatra was his first, and it affected his career choice. "It was hearing him sing 'Come Dance With Me.' I'd just started realizing that I had to be a dancer or I would just pop, and so that song has always had a very special meaning for me."
Similarly, Mary Alice said she owed her Tony to a weekly Frankie fix: "When I was doing Fences and it got around to the seventh performance of the week on Saturday night, I would have a massage and a rest after the matinee and then I would turn on that all-Sinatra radio station, and he'd energize me through it."
Lyricist Susan Birkenhead also had a Sinatra connection — two, in fact. He recorded a couple of her Jule Styne songs, "Hey Look, No Crying" and "It's Sunday." "Jule always said Frank never got over Ava Gardner," she said. "She was his great love."
[flipbook] Columnist Roger Friedman sported some snappy St. Laurie threads in homage of his tailor, Allen Kozin, who executed Katherine Roth's costume design for the guys in the cast, taking care their pants won't rip doing splits. "He told me how he did it: He made it with special stretchy material with more pull to it," Friedman said.
Patrick Vaccariello, who normally conducts West Side Story, slipped out of the Palace for the evening. "I'm the music supervisor for Come Fly Away," he explained, "and I hired the orchestra as well [19 in all]. I've been doing double-duty for the past few months." One of his major headaches has been isolating Sinatra's voice from the original recordings and making it fit in with the live orchestra on stage. "It was a lot of fun, really — but very difficult," he conceded.
By intermission, Neil Diamond was showing the effects of Tharp's concentrated razzle-dazzle, trying to digest it all. "I'm gob-smacked," he admitted. "I have to compose myself before I can say anything. I've never seen anything like it. She's the most brilliant choreographer today. He's the most brilliant musical genius of the 20th century. Put them both together, with some of the greatest dancers I've ever seen — it's spectacular! I won't see a show like this again in my lifetime." Roseland, a hot spot in Sinatra's heyday, rose again to the occasion of a Broadway after-party. At the door waiting to greet the revelers , for the first time in eons, was Broadway's Perle Mesta, event planner Suzanne Tobak, in her comeback, or reentry, to the party scene. "When word got out I was returning to the business, they said, 'Why don't you do this one?' — so I did," she explained. "I thought of doing a Norma Desmond announcement, sort of 'It's the budgets that got smaller.'"
So why Roseland, Suzanne? "Because we could actually create our own environment, which was a tribute to all things Frank Sinatra," she piped back. "What's wonderful about Roseland is that it has no infrastructure — and what's challenging about Roseland is that it has no infrastructure. So we brought in every plate, every chair, every table — from the blue carpet to the blue lighting to the live music. The menu was actually done in consultation with Sal at Patsy's and is all of Frank Sinatra's favorite things. The music, of course, is of the period, and the band boxes are of the period. There were martinis and champagne on your way in . . ."
But the best laid plans of Suzanne did not produce a long night of partying. First-nighters started folding their tents after about an hour as if it were a school night (I told you it was a new crowd). Some blamed the steady blasting of the live band, which strayed pretty far off Sinatra course. Whatever, the crowd had begun thinning while the fashionably late cast was still doing interviews in the lobby.
Tharp, feeling her oats, wasn't about to be bothered with inane interview questions. Puh-leeze! She brushed by the press area at about 90mph, plopped herself down at a table of honor in the center of the room and ate. No amount of palm-sweating publicity-pleading could get her to venture forth. Her cast filled in.
Selya, who picked up an Astaire Award and a Theatre World Award as well as a Tony nomination for her Movin' Out, swaggers and writhes through the show with sensuality and insolence, Fedora tilted forward — so cool, so Sinatra (Think "Pal Joey"). But he contended what you see is not what you're getting: "No, that's just naturally the way I think that character would wear that fedora. It's a way to hide my face. People's interpretation of what is going on is really contradictory to what I'm thinking so that's interesting. I don't think he's a stud. I think he's on his last legs and he's looking for love. He's like those people on 'The Millionaire Matchmaker' when they're 50 years old and they're saying, 'Why aren't I in love? Why haven't I found that person?' I think that's what's going through his mind. I think, 'Here I am, amidst all these women, and yet I'm alone. There's something wrong here.'" Farmer, who answers his girl-wanted ad, is particularly pleased with the pairing. "This is, for me, the first time I've danced with such a strong partner," she admitted.
"John is an extraordinarily strong partner. I trust him, and also he's extremely creative. He makes small adjustments that keep the movement for me on such a lively level every night. I don't think I'll ever get bored dancing with John."
It's a great way to make a Broadway debut, and she arrived still flying from Come Fly Away. "I thought I knew what it was like to float, but I literally felt tonight there was no pain and no stress and no struggle — it was floating. Can you explain that to me? I've no idea how that happened. Can I do it again tomorrow? We'll see."
Another Movin' Out Tony nominee, Roberts makes a scorching impact as the hunky Hank, flinging Plantadit about the stage in the "That's Life" number. "I must say it's a little bit out of my personal character. I'd never be that violent with a person. I get to be somebody else, and it's fun to do that — to explore that side of humanity and see where that goes. I don't know what I'm going to get from Karine every night, and she doesn't know what I'm going to give. We just go out there and dance."
Plantadit looks like a million going through the hot-sex of that number. "That's the way it feels," she conceded. "It feels like, if you stay in character, it's more about discovering and seeing where your character is taking you so I have no idea what she's doing most of the time — so I'm on a journey just like you, actually. I love that."
On opening night only — now it can be told — she performed the role wearing $150,000 worth of jewelry by Verdura, an Italian designer of the '20s who designed for Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel. Now she is back to the cheap glitter.
The big dazzler of the cast was Neshyba-Hodges, performing precisely timed pratfalls. He makes a science of it, he said. "I have a lot of videos of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy — all the greats — and I've spent a lot of time watching them in slow motion, trying to figure out what they've been able to create and invent. What is it they say? 'You stand on the shoulders of people before you.' I wanted to take what they've built and see how I could incorporate it, add to it, make it better, make it appropriate to the scene, the character, the moment in the show."
Sinatra standard-bearer Tony Bennett — "the best pipes in the business," as "Ol' Blue Eyes" saw it — led the merry parade of first nighters with his daughter, Joanna, followed by Donald Trump with his son, Eric; directors Spike Lee and Scorsese; Edie Falco, currently of "Nurse Jackie"; Candice Bergen, eternally of "Murphy Brown"; actor-comedian Peter Bartlett; singer-pianist Peter Cincotti, who said he steers clear of the Sinatra standards ("It's not going to get better than the way he did it"); Police Commish Ray Kelly; Enron helmsman Rupert Goold; debuting Off-Broadway director and Oscar winner Jonathan Demme; two-time Emmy winner (for "Breaking Bad") Bryan Cranston; designer Norma Kamali; and Kathie Lee Gifford and her Frank.