The search for Frank Sinatra
November 1, 2002
Johnny Fredo isn't unlike many Frank Sinatra fans (including this scribe), barely acknowledging Sinatra music in the 1960s and '70s, thinking "Something Stupid" with daughter Nancy was something stupid, choosing like other teens to listen to the rock music of the day. Being Italian-American, Fredo certainly was aware of Sinatra's fame, but he says it was much later when the coolness of Sinatra and the great songs began to matter to him.
The 45-year-old Fredo, from Buffalo, N.Y., (but with his accent, it might as well be Frank's Hoboken, N.J.,) differs from the usual Sinatra fan, however, in that he must capture some of that cool and deliver that Sinatra style to audiences on a nightly basis. Not as a copycat, mind you, but in a musical revue/tribute that, if it couldn't precisely nail the "Sinatra way," would fall flat. "My Way: A Tribute to the Music of Frank Sinatra," playing at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre through Nov. 10, successfully brings the Sinatra myth and mystique to life.
I felt, while talking earlier this week with Fredo, the shining star among four good actors/singers (and also choreographer) of the "My Way" that I'd found a kindred spirit when it came to Sinatra, the way we found the music more appealing as "maturity" arrived. For any would-be Sinatra fan, I'd recommend starting with the Reprise Records double CD "The Very Best of Frank Sinatra" Fredo concurs.
"That's the one, the one I sort of really got into Sinatra with," he said. "When I learned that I was doing this, that's the one I went out and got and listened to continuously. And that's where you go back to, every tune. And it starts with 'Last Dance,' one of my favorite tunes."
"Last Dance," alas, isn't among the 56 songs in the show. Like the actors say early on, we'd be there all week if they tried to do Sinatra's entire repertoire of 1,300 songs. We'd be there all night if they tried to do each actors' favorites.
Fredo can't pin down one, don't ask him to. But he'll acknowledge that "(I've Got You) Under My Skin" certainly is one. "The Lady Is a Tramp" is another. He wishes the show could have gotten the rights to "Luck Be a Lady," another favorite. (I wish "They Can't Take That Away From Me" had made it, and I also wish Fredo was assigned "The Way You Look Tonight," which just gets medley treatment.).
But "My Way," conceived by David Grapes (the play's director) and Todd Olsen, is a rapid-fire two hours of terrific songs and terrific lines that tell Sinatra's story without being cheesy. The set is marvelous; Vince DiMura and his jazzy trio providing the accompaniment are great.
Yet it wouldn't work with the actors capturing that Sinatra charisma, especially Fredo.
"Once I dove in to these songs, I didn't want to stop," he said. "Each new idea that came was a new opportunity to have a ball."
Fredo has been with "My Way" since it came together for its 2000 premiere in Nashville, where Grapes is artistic director. The play evolved into a music tribute with the songs Sinatra (and many others, Fredo will add) made famous, and the two men and two women in the play only try to capture the essence of Sinatra. In many instances of "My Way" Fredo looks the part of Sinatra and has certain mannerisms down, though he's not trying to mimic Sinatra.
"David Grapes had come to Buffalo and seen me in something else," Fredo recalled of their initial meeting just after Sinatra had died, in 1998. The idea was for a play set around a reunion, but in workshop the music didn't stand out, Fredo said. That's when the revue format took hold.
"The music is so great. There is a girl that I know, her name is Clea, and she is in the cabaret circuit in New York City, she does an Ethel Merman tribute, but it's not mimicking. She once told me that the great thing about tributing someone and falling in love with someone's career and music is you get to borrow that person's career for a moment." Fredo said he realized fully what that meant when he saw audience faces watching the show.
"You don't want to forget that when you are tributing you want enough of yourself to come through but you don't want the audience to think it's more about you than Sinatra - You can be a little selfless with it because you are trying to do it justice, trying to fit in every moment that might mean something to someone. It's a theater piece, and it doesn't seem as frivolous as if you were watching a Vegas act. It touches on things in his life and things that give, well, give it balls."
The setting is a smoky nightclub, the trio in back, the four actors taking turns with the songs, singing, flirting, dancing and heating up the room.
Aside from "My Way," Fredo has done Sinatra tunes with orchestra backing in Buffalo and elsewhere - "That's another experience altogether," he said. In fact, the extended run of this show will force him to miss a planned engagement back home.
Through the 30somethings and 40somethings may say they found Sinatra late, Fredo notices that Little Rock has had younger audiences than the other cities in which "My Way" has played. Whenever someone found Sinatra, they found him because he and his music were classic, Fredo said.
"Time makes it a classic, nothing else," he said. "One of the fun thing about Sinatra is he's the first star who needed crowd control. You can think of others, there were crowds, they weren't chop liver, but they didn't need anyone to control it so nobody got hurt. Sinatra was the first one for that. It was the phenomenon. He was the face, the voice, the personality that dictated immediately, that reached out immediately and was responded to immediately."