March 2011

 

Speaking Frankly

MFTmarch11When I was recently in New York (now, how’s that for a way to start a column?), I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the musical Come Fly Away. My first Broadway show (well, on Broadway!).

This combines Twyla Tharp’s classical given a modern twist choreography with the beloved songs of Frank Sinatra. Basically we’re talking a ballet. Frankly (yeah, I know, pardon the pun!), I was in heaven!

MFTmarch11-2They had a big band on stage and a female singer who would occasionally duet with Frank but mostly it was just Frank. In all its baritone richness, his voice floated above the beautiful, original arrangements. I’m not quite sure how they did it technically but it was very effective. The only thing better would to have been to have Frank himself – but that would, sadly, have involved a seance. John Edward? Are you in the house? There’s an opportunity here for you!

The musical was about love in all its various permutations from sweaty and passionate to sweet and innocent. Appropriate when some of the greatest love songs ever written formed the score. The dancers were mainly from classical companies and were spectacularly good.

But the best bit was still the music! As you’ll probably have gathered by now, I love Frank’s voice. I love his way with a lyric. There’s been a lot of imitators but I don’t think anyone comes close to the combination of worldly sophistication and weary romanticism he conveys.

MFTmarch11-5One of the things I loved about Come Fly Away is that they concentrated on the later, swinging Sinatra (not often you can use ‘swinging’ without irony, is it?), the Chairman of the Board days. The 1940s Sinatra who the bobbysoxers lined up to see was just a bit too vulnerable for my tastes. While the voice was effortlessly brilliant and he delivered those lyrics like Shakespeare, the unrestrained emotion of his early performances doesn’t strike my heart the way his more restrained later work does.

By the late 50s and 60s, he’s a guy who’s been around the block a few times and he knows if he wears his heart on his sleeve, someone’s going to rip it to shreds, then throw the bloody remnants into the mud and stamp all over them.

But he’s still got a heart and much as he tries to pretend he can roll with the punches, love and life hit him hard. Sigh! Adore those songs.

One of the most romantic songs I know is “Fly Me to the Moon”. Listen how he delivers this beautiful lyric with a jauntiness that somehow underlines the deep emotion.

By the way, check out that groovy Orrefors-glass style backdrop on that video! Wow, baby!

Another breathtakingly romantic song is “Strangers in the Night”. Listen to the crackle of emotion in his voice as he sings this. He’s getting old in this recording – finding videos for this piece ended up being quite hard – but you get that emotional punch in spades, don’t you?

Have you heard the joke?

SOCRATES: To be is to do.
ARISTOTLE: To do is to be.
SINATRA: Doo be doo be doo.

MFTmarch11-4One of my favorite songs is one you don’t hear so often but it’s on a beautiful compilation CD I own called My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra. It’s “A Very Good Year”. I think the first time I heard this I was a very little girl and it was in a tire ad (might even have been for Goodyear!). It’s always made me want to cry – that yearning reedy oboe in the introduction cuts right to the quick.

Sinatra always used amazing arrangers (Nelson Riddle is the one everybody mentions). The way the orchestra or the big band weaves around his voice or answers back or comments on the action creates sonic magic. This arrangement for “A Very Good Year” is one of my favorites – it’s quite subtle but so beautiful. For example, listen to the way the pizzicato strings echo champagne bubbles when he likens his memories to vintage wine. Or in that last verse again, how the grim march of time is subtly alluded to in the slow throb of the woodwinds. Magnificent!

“A Very Good Year” is very beautiful but rather melancholy. So I thought I’d finish this rave about Mr. Sinatra with the very upbeat “New York, New York”.

MFTmarch11-3This song has special significance for me because before I was published, I used to press repeat on my stereo and lie in the bath and sing it over and over. Always cheered me up! Not sure the neighbors felt the same! They probably wished me in New York, New York!

So to me, Frank is A number 1, top of the list, king of the hill!