Frank Sinatra remains one of modern America’s most recognizable figures — his face, his body language, and especially his voice.
But this kind of popularity can have its downside: The more-unsavory aspects of Sinatra’s career — such as his alleged Mafia ties — have sometimes taken center stage. And his singing style and stage persona have been imitated to the point of becoming a comedy routine.
That’s why you won’t see Johnny Fredo falling into the same Sinatra schtick.
“It always is tempting. You want a sense of recognizability,” Fredo says about his performance in My Way, an upcoming musical tribute to Sinatra that officially launches the Flat Rock Playhouse’s 50th season.
“You want a sense that you got this from Sinatra. But we are not diving into impression.”
Fredo plays one of four characters who, hanging out in a nightclub, reminisce about Sinatra and run through an impressive 56 songs spanning the Chairman of the Board’s career.
“It’s a very reverent treatment of his life,” concedes David Grapes, who began creating the show in 1998 with co-producer Todd Olson. “It is a look at him as a musician and a performer, not as an actor. And it is not about controversy.”
Two male characters, played by Fredo and Doug Kampsen, represent eras in Sinatra’s life, rather than directly portraying the singer. Kampsen is the young and stylish playboy and Fredo the older-yet-wiser man who’s nearly had his fill of big parties and fast romance.
At first glance, Fredo seems an obvious choice to play Ol’ Blue Eyes. He has a weathered, tough-guy complexion and can invoke a grin that hints at the confidence a man like Sinatra must have had. But Grapes agrees that taking the Sinatra impression too far would be a mistake.
“After a while, impression is not as interesting,” the producer maintains.
The two female leads, Kathy Weese and Ginger Newman, respectively embody the spectrum of love interests in Sinatra’s life, from the ultrafeminine glamour girls — Marilyn, Mia Farrow — to the fierce and independent Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall and Ava Gardner.
My Way is primarily a musical, with dialogue serving to bridge the gap between songs. The idea first came to Grapes in 1998, as he watched the news of Sinatra’s death on television.
“I grew up in the rock ‘n’ roll era, but I was a big fan of the Big Band era,” Grapes says. “I thought someone should do a tribute of Sinatra songs.”
Grapes and Olson began picking though songs recorded by Sinatra — a daunting task, considering that the man put somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 songs on tape in a career spanning nearly six decades.
Some picks were givens, such as the production’s namesake song and “That’s Life.” Others may be less mainstream, but true fans will remember them, says Grapes. The songs are separated into “collectives,” a word Fredo prefers to “medley,” and they focus on themes in Sinatra’s music rather than following chronological order.
The themes have titles such as “Songs for Survivors,” “Summer Sinatra” and “Love Gone Wrong Songs,” the latter batch featuring tunes like “One for My Baby” and “Drinking Again.”
“We’ve been working on the score for two years now,” Grapes explains, “and we’re still working on it.”
The script has changed as well; when the show opened in Lewis, N.Y., in 1999, it was set at a high-school reunion. The most recent version was performed in Tennessee and is now running in Connecticut as well.
Fredo, who’s also the production’s choreographer, has included some tap, samba and ballroom dancing. Like the dialogue, the dance numbers are often used to segue from one segment to another.
“The first time I looked at the show, I thought, ‘You know, what this needs is less,'” he says. But in some songs, the lack of dancing would be a glaring omission. “When you do ‘New York, New York,’ you can’t just stand there and sing it,” he points out.
Vince DiMura plays piano in My Way and was the production’s original arranger. He and a bass player and drummer fill the show with the energetic, romantic swell of swing jazz.
“I’m a fan of great music,” DiMura says. “Sinatra was primarily a deliverer of great songs. He was certainly not just a great personality; he backed it up.”
Like Grapes and Fredo, DiMura has made changes in My Way’s arrangements since the show first opened. In fact, he makes them all the time.
“I never play the same way twice, even in rehearsal,” DiMura says. He sets rules for himself, drawing on the traditions of masters like Count Basie and Billy May, and then improvises as the moment strikes him.
“I only play within those confines, but within those confines, I play around a lot.”
Grapes says that DiMura’s energy and interpretation have practically made him My Way’s fifth actor.
After hearing and seeing DiMura’s style, Grapes couldn’t bear to leave the musician hidden in the wings. He has even been given a line in the play.