THE NEW YORK TIMES
It Wasn't the Final Curtain After All
By JOHN ROCKWELLPublished: October 5, 2003
FRANK SINATRA was always larger than life. Now he's larger than death. "He's back . . ." trumpet the ads for a new spectacular, "Frank Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way," to be unveiled on Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall.
Of course, unless you believe in literal resurrection, or unless you harbor sinister, pagan desires to unearth the dead, you might rightly assume that he's not really back. But his music is, and his images, and a roughly 100-minute musical, theatrical, terpsichorean video extravaganza.
Whether it will please both nostalgists and audiences new to the Sinatra mystique, or whether it will come across like some Oscar-show necrology meets earnest bio-documentary, we shall see. But a lot of expertise and energy and genuine love have gone into this effort.
The show will be a revue performed without intermission and centered on still and video images of Sinatra throughout his career, with performance footage drawn almost entirely from the late 1950's, when he was at his peak. This is where the creative and technical ingenuity comes in, although whether it will really offer "three-dimensional, life-like images of Frank performing and moving around the stage," in the words of the show's news release, seems doubtful.
The immediate impulse for the show came from James Sanna, who is executive producer of Radio City Entertainment. He went to Tina Sinatra, Sinatra's younger daughter, who now oversees Frank Sinatra Enterprises. She signed on, had long conversations with Mr. Sanna's creative team and provided access to family photos and films. But this is a Radio City production.
Mr. Sanna's team is led by Des McAnuff, whose Broadway directing credits include the original "Big River," "The Who's Tommy" and the revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Ms. Sinatra, Mr. Sanna and Mr. McAnuff are as clear about what they didn't want as what they do want. They didn't want, on the huge Radio City stage, an honorable but intimate cabaret/Off Broadway show like "Our Sinatra," which seems to be poised for revival. Or a travesty with Sinatra impersonators. Or the seamless patching in of famous dead people in the manner of "Forrest Gump." Or, indeed, despite the news release, the whole familial-dead-singer-resurrection fad, with Frank Sinatra Jr. channeling his father in the manner of Natalie with Nat (King) Cole.
The flow of images in this new show will both tell a compact (and no doubt gently sanitized) version of Sinatra's life and present him in performance. The jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli will serve as what Mr. McAnuff calls "our troubadour," recounting the Sinatra life story and also conducting a 40-piece orchestra and a gospel choir. There will be newly choreographed interludes for 26 dancers (including a Sky-cam for Busby Berkeley-style perspectives), and giant props, like a 35-foot limousine. For better or worse, there will also be testimonials to Sinatra from the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Mario Cuomo and P. Diddy.
While both Mr. McAnuff and Linda Batwin, who oversees the technical aspects of the show, agreed that its technology will include no outright innovations, they suggested that the lavishness of the image display (17 projectors) and the ingenuity of the production will have a striking impact.
Most of the projections will be seen on movable screens in a large gold frame set within the curve of the Music Hall's proscenium opening. Others will spill out beyond the frame, including a montage on the walls of the hall itself. Sometimes front projections on one screen will be complemented by rear projections on another, creating "a layering of ghost-like images," as Ms. Batwin put it. Mr. McAnuff promises other surprises he doesn't deign to reveal.
The real innovation of the spectacle, however, comes with Sinatra in action. For a series of ABC television shows in the late 50's -- some of them never telecast -- Sinatra took the expensive step of recording his performances directly on 35-millimeter film, to circumvent ABC's kinescopes, or films of transmitted video images. And not just recording on film, whose soundtrack, Mr. McAnuff says, is superior to anything otherwise available at the time, but with separate orchestral and voice-and-piano tracks.
Through a venerable process called Rotoscoping, the images of Sinatra can be cut out, frame by frame, from what Mr. McAnuff called the "artificiality and cheesy backdrops" of the TV shows. Ms. Batwin added that the images had been cleaned up and enhanced and would be projected in high-definition video so that "the texture of his suit just pops."
With the piano-vocal track isolated, Sinatra can be accompanied by Mr. Pizzarelli and his orchestra, playing the original charts by Nelson Riddle and Sinatra's other arrangers. Sometimes the transitions between those arrangements will be tweaked by Don Sebesky, who has also provided new orchestrations for the dance interludes. But Mr. McAnuff says that "85 to 90 percent of the show is just Sinatra singing."
The question remains, just who is this show's intended audience? Mr. Sanna reported that unscientific observation suggested an older audience predominated among the early ticket-buyers, but that now younger people had started lining up. That doesn't mean hip-hop obsessed teenagers, even if there will always be an audience of all ages for ballads and melody and sophisticated singing. But it does mean people of Mr. Sanna's age, 42; he conceded he had initially inherited a taste for Sinatra from his parents. Or like Mr. McAnuff, 51, who reports that he first saw Sinatra in his shaky old age and is thrilled to have a chance to build a show around his prime.
Although Sinatra was concerned about his place in posterity -- witness his documentation of the very television shows that form the heart of this celebration -- he was also nervously insecure that musical fashions were passing him by. "I know that it mattered to him to keep in the running," was the way Ms. Sinatra put it. He recorded a clutch of 60's songs, including an entire LP of embarrassing efforts to sound like that soppy 60's balladeer Rod McKuen. In his later years he almost literally phoned in his part of two CD's of duets with famous pop and rock singers.
He probably shouldn't have bothered, even if some of the duets have a certain poignance. What young artists and audiences value in Sinatra is the real deal, the classic belter and balladeer of the 50's and 60's, the one who, according to Ms. Sinatra, "sells a million units a year to this day."
There is also a revival of interest in Sinatra as an actor, especially the restored print of his best film, "The Manchurian Candidate," and its forthcoming remake with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, directed by Jonathan Demme. Tina Sinatra had a big hand in both those projects.
But it is as a signer that Sinatra will always be first remembered. In his Los Angeles den around the time of the ABC television shows hung a saying of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "Music is the only form of art that touches the absolute."
Glitz and pizazz aside, one hopes the Radio City Sinatra tribute will reintroduce us, sharply and thrillingly, to the legendary singer on a stage where he actually performed, alive for real. Ms. Sinatra says she hopes the show tours the world. Maybe even all the way to Las Vegas.
THE 2004 CALENDAR
The 2004 Frank Sinatra Calendar is being released by
Pyramid this month and is scheduled to be in stores by
CHANNELING THE SINATRA SPIRIT
by John Petrick
Bergen Record, October 3, 2003
Sitting at Frank Sinatra's favorite table at Patsy's Italian
Restaurant in Manhattan, 29-year-old A.J. Azzarto points out
that her legendary grandfather sold about 1 million records
last year. This despite the fact that he's been dead since
"Just the idea of him is so pervasive in American culture.
He's made such an impact," says Azzarto in between
courses of Ol' Blue Eyes' favorite meal -- an appetizer of
clams and a main course of fusilli pasta with prosciutto
and tomato sauce. And cannoli for dessert, of course.
What would lunch with Frank be without cannoli for
The big table, in the rear of the second-floor dining room
at Patsy's, is known as The Hollywood Square. It is here
that Frank would sit with celebrity friends, straight up
until the last years of his life. Between the meal, the table,
and memories shared by his granddaughter, the restaurant's
chef, and others, it's as if Sinatra is seated there this very afternoon.
That's the same kind of feeling Azzarto and her
collaborators hope to create for audiences seated in
nearby Radio City Music Hall -- minus the fusilli, clams,
and cannoli. A new multimedia extravaganza titled
"Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way" begins
performances Wednesday with the bigger-than-life
projection of Sinatra himself.
"The impression we want to give is that if you squinted
hard enough, you would see Sinatra singing with the
orchestra -- almost like seeing Springsteen on a
Jumbo-tron, but more artistic than that," says Colman
DeKay, writer of the show.
The production took some two years to develop and
features rare vintage film clips of Sinatra performing;
filmed interviews with stars about Sinatra's life; a live
orchestra led by Bergen County native and renowned
jazz musician John Pizzarelli (who also serves as
narrator for the show); a gospel choir that will rise
on the stage's elevator; and, of course, the Rockettes.
Before "sliding projection fields" and other technology
were put together for the show, there was the basic
search for never-before-seen Sinatra footage. DeKay
makes it sound like a treasure hunt that led to gold.
"The main boon was getting access to the Sinatra
archives," he says. "Frank was a real collector of his
own material.... He knew that somewhere down the
line, someone might do a show like this.... We were
looking for footage from a variety show from the
Fifties that he did."
Finding the show itself was one thing. But he expected
to find it in Kinescope form, a low-quality reproduction
of a television broadcast commonly used in that era.
Instead, "What we found in a dirty corner of the archives
was a bunch of dusty pretzel cans with those Fifties TV
shows on 35-millimeter film," DeKay said, noting about
50 performances were uncovered. "The family didn't even
know they had these pristine, 35-millimeter filmed
Footage like that -- in its highest quality -- is what forms
the core of the show. The production team, he says, has
taken great care to make sure Sinatra himself is not
upstaged by all the live elements.
"We built it like a book musical in that the songs inform
the story and the story informs our choice of songs,"
DeKay said. "We do it through narration and some
fairly impressionistic staging. There are a lot of moving
parts. There is orchestration, also, throughout. The
Rockettes will be dancing with Sinatra. And there are a
bunch of surprises I don't think people will expect."
Azzarto, who has been involved with the show's
creative team, says "Sinatra" is more than a nostalgia
act. It's a way for people of all ages to experience
her grandfather as if he were alive.
"The performances are some of the best versions of
these songs anyone has ever seen or heard," she
says. "I really feel like it's the first time people are
going to see so many facets of him at once."
The production will also feature some of Sinatra's
rarely seen monologues. The show puts such clips in
perspective, offering audiences of today the hindsight
their original audiences lacked. In some cases, just the
look on his face and tone of his voice reveal the inner
demons Sinatra was wrestling with at certain points in
his life, producers say.
Beyond the high-tech, resurrected version who stars
in this show, what was Sinatra really like?
"What it was like to be with him was feeling like the
most important person in the room at any given
moment," Azzarto says. "But mainly, it was about
being in the presence of someone great."
By Rafer Guzm
NY Newsday Staff Writer
It is Wednesday afternoon, and Frank Sinatra's "Pennies From Heaven" fills a third-floor studio at Radio City Music Hall. A pianist and drummer provide live accompaniment for the piped-in music, but they're nearly drowned out by the rhythmic thumping of several dozen feet belonging to a line of high-kicking Rockettes. To one side, several male dancers prepare for the next number by grabbing props from a table strewn with tumblers, cocktail shakers and Zippos. It's a real-live rehearsal for a deceased star. But even though Ol' Blue Eyes died five years ago, they're still doing it His Way.
"When you come in on eight, come in just a little bit late," director Des McAnuff tells the out-of-breath Rockettes after the song ends. "Because that's where Frank's coming in." The show, "Frank Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way," which opens Wednesday, will attempt to breathe life into a dead star, but Sinatra
isn't the only one being revived these days.
Next month, rapper Tupac Shakur returns with "Tupac: Resurrection," a documentary in which he seems to narrate his life from the grave. Shakur also has a new single, "Runnin'," in which he trades rhymes with another dead rapper, Notorious B.I.G. Along with releases of newly discovered tracks by Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix, plus a summer tour by The Doors (minus Jim Morrison), music fans could be forgiven if they lose track of which artists are dead and which are alive. Whether these revivals will come off as respectful tributes or mere exploitation remains to be seen.
While fans seem to have an insatiable appetite for certain artists - any Presley disc is virtually guaranteed to sell thousands of copies - they can be touchy about others. When Kurt Cobain's diaries were published after his death, many accused his widow, Courtney Love, of tomb-robbing. Hendrix's handlers have come under fire for, among other things, tampering with his original recordings and selling memorabilia of questionable taste, such as boxer shorts and golf balls. "It's a very delicate balance between how much is too much," says Charles Cross, who wrote a biography of Corbain, "Heavier Than Heaven," and is working on another of Hendrix. "The rule of thumb is: Don't overdo it. Once you do, you've ruined it, and it becomes a joke."
This isn't the first time the entertainment industry has tried to bring back the dead. In 1991, Natalie Cole scored a hit with "Unforgettable," a duet with the voice of her late father, Nat "King" Cole; while touring, she even brought along a large-screen video of him.
Ten years later, a celluloid image of Presley "toured" with members of his original band playing live on stage. By digitally jiggering old footage, the Sinatra show aims to create the illusion that the singer is alive and interacting with musicians and dancers.
It helps that the producers have good source material: When Sinatra recorded his ABC series in 1957 and '58, he also prerecorded high-quality, 35-mm films of himself singing while pianist Bill Miller played almost inaudibly in the background for use on the show, although many never aired. The result is a collection of pristine performances that are nearly a cappella, all the better for adding live accompaniment.
The show is built around these forgotten reels: As Sinatra sings tunes from his post-World War II, pre-Rat Pack heyday, he'll be joined on stage by a 40-piece orchestra, the Rockettes and even a 30-foot limousine. But then there's this eyebrow-raising claim from a press release: "Sophisticated projection technology on 40-foot-high movable panels and blocks will create three-dimensional, lifelike images of Frank performing and moving around the stage." Just how lifelike? The public won't really know until the first concert.
"There is a little surprise at the end, where he makes an appearance," McAnuff says. "But I don't want to give too much away." The recent rehearsals, however, offered some clues. In one example, footage of Sinatra singing "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" has been altered to strip out parts of the bar where he sits, allowing jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli to be superimposed, live, in the background. At one point, Pizzarelli even walks behind Sinatra's seated figure, as if they were in the same room.
Then again, some of the tricks are as old as cinema itself. For instance, when Sinatra removes his fedora and throws it to one side, another movie clip shows a hat landing perfectly in the hands of Bruce Willis. (Willis is one of several celebrities who provide pre-recorded testimonials to Sinatra's voice, charm and partying prowess.)
No matter how good the technology, though, it's important not to give the impression of a fake or surrogate Sinatra, says Roger Richman, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in marketing famous faces from the past. (Among his clients are the estates of Mae West, Albert Einstein and, as it happens, Sinatra's longtime orchestra leader, Nelson Riddle.) Richman says he's seen too many illustrations, sculptures and wax figures of stars that don't quite hit the mark. "If this technology does not result in a very realistic rendering of Sinatra," he says, "it's going to be panned by critics and by crowds."
Meantime, the most posthumously prolific artist of all time, Presley, will deliver at least three releases this year, one of them a four-disc treasure trove of previously unavailable material from old films, Nashville studio sessions and a 1972 concert. Despite the fact that Presley has released about two discs each year ? some with new material, some merely repackaging old songs ? there's no danger of oversaturating the market, says Michael Omansky, the consultant who oversees RCA's Presley catalog. "Not as long as you have a hard-core fan base that wants the stuff," Omansky says. "I think as long as you handle the entertainer with class and make sure everything is done right, with no cheesiness and good value for the consumer, you're OK."
It's possible that even the tackiest tribute is better than no tribute. Richman notes that many film stars of the 1920s are unknown today. "Families try and keep the memory alive," he says. "But most of these people, they do eventually die, believe it or not."
WHERE & WHEN: "Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way," begins Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall and runs through Oct. 19. Tickets are $40-$295.
Call Ticketmaster at 631-888-9000.
Posted by: Nancy | Oct 3, 2003 8:41 PM | Comments(3)