Soul-ly Sinatra

By Geoff Gehman
Of The Morning Call - Allentown, PA

On May 14, 1998, the day Frank Sinatra died, David Grapes watched television footage of a Sinatra he had somehow missed. There, in glorious '60s black-and-white, was the Chairman of the Board singing live in a television studio with guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim, the chairman of the bossa nova. While Grapes had heard the pair's suave, sexy recordings, he had never seen the spell they cast in the simplest of settings.

''It was so different from those big-blast stadium concerts Sinatra had done on his final tour,'' says Grapes, a 54-year-old theater professor and director raised in a Sinatra-swinging house in Parkersburg, W.Va. ''There were two chairs in the spotlight. Both Sinatra and Jobim had cigarettes hanging from their mouths. I thought: 'Wow, we don't see that anymore.' It was like a black-and-white time capsule.

''The performances weren't perfect; they were presented with warts and all,'' adds Grapes. ''But they were great because they had the energy you only get when you're performing live, with risks. It was an intensely theatrical experience and I thought: I've got to create a show with this sort of feeling.''

That day Grapes telephoned his idea to Todd Olson, his former student at Tarkio (Mo.) College and a musical collaborator. In 1999, at a theater Grapes ran in Lewiston, N.Y., the duo opened a show of songs recorded by Sinatra, organized around the theme of a high-school reunion of people who grew up with Sinatra's Rat Pack. The next year they premiered a revue more about Sinatra's impact as a song stylist and life mentor at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville, where Grapes was producing artistic director and Olson associate artistic director.

That show, ''My Way,'' was the first music-theater tribute to Sinatra created after his death. Over five years the 57-song revue has played over 250 venues in the U.S. and abroad, joining ''Forever Plaid'' and ''A Christmas Carol'' as cash cows for regional theaters. Chockablock with medleys, including a pairing of Jobim's ''Dindi'' and ''Wave,'' it opened Wednesday at the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre in a production directed by Grapes. Leading four singers and two instrumentalists is pianist/musical director Vince di Mura, a jazz musician, arranger and composer who helped christen ''My Way'' in Nashville.

''My Way'' is set in a nightclub stocked with martinis and Jack Daniels, both of which helped give Sinatra's voice an auburn glow. Two tuxedoed men embody the two best-known Sinatras. There's the young big-band crooner who finessed ''Love and Marriage'' and the wise saloon singer who got under the skin of ''I've Got You Under My Skin.'' Sharing the stage are two smartly dressed women who personify Sinatra's favorite females. ''Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry'' addresses his romance with tempestuous Ava Gardner; his affair with the more docile Marilyn Monroe is the spirit behind ''All of Me.'' A four-part ''Fly Me to the Moon'' is sort of quadraphonic Sinatra, which is funny because a hearing impairment prevented Ol' Blue Eyes from singing harmony.

The older performers use Sinatra tunes to teach their younger colleagues about the rules of romance. According to Grapes, ''The Tender Trap'' and ''The Same Old Song and Dance'' are reminders that ''love is a wonderful thing, but love is also something you need to go into with your eyes open.''

''My Way'' is quite different from other Sinatra homages. The singers don't ad lib like the latter-day Rat Packers who played Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop in January at the State Theatre in Easton.

''We didn't want to do a Rat Pack tribute or a Sinatra impersonation,'' says Grapes. ''We didn't think that theaters would license that. Besides, it had already been done with Elvis. We thought: leave that to Vegas.''

Grapes and Olson leave out the more unsavory parts of Sinatra's life. ''My Way'' has nothing about his friendships with reputed mobsters, or his stormy relationship with reporters, or his poor attempts to reach younger listeners (Exhibit A is his melodramatic recording of ''Bad, Bad Leroy Brown'').

Dragging spectators through Sinatra's muck is ''not entertaining to me,'' says Grapes. ''What I try to do is to make people happy, to never bore them. I want to make them think of Sinatra in a different way, to recognize the breadth of songs he sang, what a good steward he was of American pop standards, how good he took care of that music and really spread it to much broader sections of the American experience.''

''My Way'' is a sneaky portrait of a legendary rebel. Along the way there are glimpses of the bobby-soxer hero who brought Times Square to a standstill during a 1942 engagement at the Paramount Theater. The singer who influenced generations of musicians with his lathed phrasing and natural acting. The recording artist who helped pioneer the concept album and the crossover duets CD. The king of cool who inspired books about the way to wear a hat (raked) and make a martini (a little vermouth, a lot of gin).

Behind this stylemeister was a methodical craftsman. Grapes points out that the young Sinatra swam hundreds of laps to build his breath control and lung power. Later in his career he maintained his stamina by eating small meals throughout the day. Throughout his career he surrounded himself with similarly skilled musicians with similarly high goals.

Di Mura compares Sinatra to trumpeter Miles Davis, a cranky, mystical genius. ''They were both dramatically honest, supremely musical and extremely generous,'' says di Mura, who bought his first Sinatra album — ''Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim'' — when he was 6, with money earned from answering the phone at his father's body shop in Middlesex, N.J. ''I envy the fact that they simply did not compromise. They knew what they wanted and you either got on board or you went home.

''You know, sometimes a great artist suffers from being a great personality,'' adds di Mura. ''Sinatra never became a caricature of himself — no matter what movies he was in, no matter which woman he was with or what marriage he was on. He was always making good music, even into his 70s.''

Grapes praises Sinatra's devil-may-care personality. ''What I admire most about him is that you've got to be yourself, which is a lot easier to say than do,'' says the director. ''He lived his life his way and didn't apologize for it. He took care of the people he liked. He asked parking attendants to reach into his pockets for tips. He refused to play the Sands until the hotel gave Sammy Davis Jr. a room. Then, that night, he made a racial joke at Sammy's expense. And it was OK; it was cool.''

Asked for their favorite Sinatra recording, both Grapes and di Mura pick ''Sinatra at the Sands,'' his first official live album. Recorded in 1965 in Las Vegas, it has Count Basie, a favorite pianist and band leader for singers; a sizzling orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones; a pack of Sinatra classics (''Come Fly with Me,'' ''My Kind of Town''), and a swaggering, fly-me-to-the-moon vibe. To di Mura, the record is ''sublimely romantic.'' To Grapes, it's delightfully free. Only Sinatra, he says, can get away with inserting ''knocked-out cuckoo groovy wind in her hair'' into ''The Lady Is a Tramp.''

''Sinatra at the Sands'' has something ''My Way'' doesn't: ''Luck Be a Lady.'' According to Grapes, the estate of composer Frank Loesser refuses to license the performance rights of this ''Guys and Dolls'' show-stopper — which Sinatra sang in the movie version — to theatrical shows to avoid competition with productions of ''Guys and Dolls.'' Says Grapes with a laugh: ''I have scars from getting down on my knees and begging.''

Boosted by the success of ''My Way,'' Grapes, di Mura and Olson have created three other American-songbook revues, all linked to Sinatra. ''Moon River'' features the tunes of Johnny Mercer, whose ''That Old Black Magic'' and ''One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)'' were immortalized by Sinatra. ''I Left My Heart'' celebrates the music of Tony Bennett, one of Sinatra's favorite vocalists. ''Christmas My Way'' has ''Mistletoe and Holly,'' ''New York, New York'' and other Sinatra roasted chestnuts. The shows are staged by Summerwind Productions, named for another Sinatra standard in ''My Way.''

The Summerwind principals have full-time jobs all over the country. Grapes directs the School of Theater Arts and Dance for the University of Colorado in Greeley. Olson is producing artistic director for the American Stage Company in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Tony Bennett revue debuted in February.

Di Mura, a teacher at Princeton University, has scored a Christmas panto version of ''Sleeping Beauty'' for People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, Chester County. Next month the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan will present ''A Poet in Harlem,'' his jazz opera with Nuyorican poet Willie Perdomo.

Grapes' affection for Sinatra has rubbed off on his two children. When his daughter was 7 she attended a karaoke birthday party. Most of her peers performed numbers recorded by Britney Spears and other teen queens. She chose ''My Way.''

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