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Posted on Sat 26 Aug
A brand-new stage show about (and featuring the music of) Frank Sinatra receives its world premiere in Birmingham this month. Tony Award-winning writer Joe DiPietro (pictured) tells What’s On why he jumped at the chance to work on Sinatra The Musical, a production which is promising to shed new light on the life and loves of the legendary singer...
A brand-new show about legendary crooner Frank Sinatra premieres at The Rep in Birmingham this month.
Titled Sinatra The Musical, the show is already raising plenty of eyebrows across the globe, thanks in no small part to the Tony Award-winning credentials of its key players.
Matt Doyle, who took home the 2022 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (for his performance as Jamie in the Broadway revival of Company), plays Sinatra. Two-time Tony-winning writer Joe DiPietro has penned the script, and three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall will direct.
Frank’s youngest daughter, Tina Sinatra, is one of the producers, ensuring the show offers a unique insight into the life and times of the celebrated singer and actor. Alongside her duties as producer, Tina has shared with writer Joe DiPietro a number of stories about her father which had never really been heard before.
These unique elements give the musical a truly exciting edge, according to New Jersey-born DiPietro, who says that working with Tina made the experience even more special for him.
“We have a very open dialogue,” he reveals. “She’s very supportive and she loves the show. Just the other night, she said: ‘This is the book that my father never wrote.’ Frank never wrote an autobiography, and there’s so much personal stuff about his life, and his life with his family, that Tina told me that’s never been told anywhere else.
“It’s hard writing a show about your beloved mother and father and his troubles and peccadilloes, but she’s been very open and honest about it. I think it’s gonna surprise people how deeply we explore Frank. It’s not a watered-down version of his life; it’s really about the demons he faced and overcame, and how he put all that into his songs.”
The show will feature more than 25 of Frank’s best-known tunes - likely to include such classics as My Way, Strangers In The Night, Fly Me To The Moon and New York, New York. And with a cast of 20 actors and 17 musicians, Sinatra The Musical is set to be a big event in more ways than one. Which begs the question: Why hold the world premiere in Birmingham? It turns out Joe has history with The Rep, as his last musical, What’s New Pussycat?, premiered there last year.
“It was a big success. I loved Birmingham, I thought the theatre was beautiful, Sean Foley [The Rep’s artistic director] is great, and we had terrific audiences. One of the producers of Sinatra came to see the show and really loved the theatre, so when we were looking for a place that was neither New York nor London to premiere it - a regional theatre with some prominence and the ability to produce a big, splashy musical - Birmingham Rep came up.”
And even though the show is inescapably very American - although the cast is British bar the two leads - Joe is quick to point out that its story has global appeal.
“The interesting thing about Sinatra is that he’s so worldwide. When I started this project, I knew he was huge obviously, but I was amazed about how he crosses cultures and generations. Once we started looking around for where to start the show, there was interest from all over.”
Despite his burgeoning reputation as the go-to writer for major musicals - his next project will be a show about the work of songwriter Dianne Warren - Joe thinks his family roots were a major reason he was invited to script Sinatra.
“I got a phone call from a producer I knew, who I think thought ‘Oh, Joe’s an Italian-American, he’ll know about all this!’ What Sinatra meant to the Italian-American community in the 1940s and ’50s was huge; beyond his role as an entertainer. He really was the embodiment of the American dream for Italians.
“When they asked if I’d be interested in meeting Tina and writing a musical, I said absolutely! It was a dream come true - I knew all the songs and I knew a lot about him, but Sinatra had a long life with lots of very different parts to it, so I also learned a lot in the process.
“The first time I met Tina, I told her my Italian grandmother, who lived in a little town in New Jersey, had two pictures hanging up on her kitchen wall - the Pope and Frank Sinatra. They were the real cultural touchstones for me growing up.”
The musical covers a specific - and dramatic - 10-year period in Sinatra’s life, during which he’d become a teen idol and his career was really taking off but his family life and marriage to wife Nancy were suffering. When he began an affair with Ava Gardner, his records stopped selling, the press turned against him and he endured a huge fall from grace - setting the scene for one of the greatest comebacks in showbusiness history.
Joe knows a dramatic scenario when he sees one (“no conflict, no play - and Frank definitely had conflict in his life”), but admits he’s tinkered with the timeline to ensure the show contains a wide selection of Sinatra’s classic tunes.
“It’s a musical, not a documentary. The show ends in 1952, but I took songs that were recorded after that. I really wanted to use songs from various parts of his life [because] even though he didn’t write them, they were very personal to him and made perfect sense for a lot of the drama that happened during this period of his life.
“He was clearly a complicated, emotional man who had many demons, and he took all of these emotions and feelings and put them into his music. When he sings about being in a bar at 3am, you know this guy didn’t have to do research. He’s experienced it; he’s lived that song.”
Joe also believes the show will appeal to audiences beyond Sinatra’s fans and those already familiar with the iconic singer and his songs, not least because, while he was very much a one-off, his story is universal.
“He was a tough guy - what we used to call a ‘man’s man’. He loved women, got into fights, drank too much, but also supported his family and cared about what happened in the world. So there’s a lot in his story for everyone, and even though he wasn’t a rock & roller, he was one of the original rebels of music. He stood his ground - and not to use a cliché, did things his way.
“In many ways he was the precursor to Mick Jagger and all the folks who came after. The word I keep using is swagger - he was vulnerable in many ways and could access that place in his music, but he had swagger when he walked into a room, and I think that makes him a really compelling character for an evening of theatre.”
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