Think of My Way, the musical tribute to Frank Sinatra, as a retort to His Way, Kitty Kelley's gossip-mongering 1986 biography. Kelley (a Spokane native) chose to focus on Sinatra's personal feuds and underworld connections while virtually ignoring The Voice and his 1,300 recordings. In contrast, David Grapes and Todd Olson's musical cornucopia is "a celebration of the man's entire body of work." At least that's how Troy Nickerson, director of the Spokane Theatrical Group production at the Met (Aug. 1-10), describes it. My Way, in other words, is all the beauty of Sinatra's songs, minus the malfeasance and the Mafia.
My Way debuted three years ago in Nashville, Tenn. In order to present Sinatra's many facets -- the skinny kid from Hoboken, the idol of the bobbysoxers, the crooner of the Capitol Years, the leader of the Rat Pack, the aging Chairman of the Board -- co-creators Grapes and Olson call for an older couple, Ol' Blue Eyes and his classy dame (to be played in the STG production by David Gigler and Marianne McLaughlin), and a younger couple, the crooner of the Tommy Dorsey years and his girl (Jeremy Trigsted and Stacy Lynette Powell).
My Way presents 56 songs in 10 medleys, thematic groupings with titles like "Favorites," "Young Love," "Summer," "Losers" and "Survivors." But the STG production is aiming for visual as well as vocal interest. Director Nickerson is enthusiastic about Dan Poulzin's set design: "We're staging it to look like a 1950 Las Vegas nightclub, with a big, grand set," he says. "We're doing it huge, huge. We're going to have seven pillars -- the two on the sides will be 14 feet, descending to eight feet in the back. The pillars have silver palm trees in front of them, and at the top they're going to spell out 'Sinatra.'"
My Way calls for a three-piece band: grand piano (to be played here by musical director Carol Miyamoto), bass and drums. And the set, appropriately, includes a fully stocked martini bar.
Powell, who plays the younger of the two women in the cast, explains more about the show's look and mood: "In Act One," she says, "Marianne and I are in cocktail dresses; in Act Two, we're in evening gowns. Act One is more, 'Let's show them some of our songs.' Act Two is more fancy, and gets to be a little more situational."
Powell makes clear that My Way isn't intended only for graybeards: "I think it's important to emphasize that it's not just for people of that era. These songs are still being sung, still being remade. It's all very fun and very elegant."
Elegant, but not flamboyant. Grapes and Olson repeatedly stress the dangers of over-producing these numbers. Nickerson agrees: "That's an absolute danger. A few of these medleys, you could be tempted to stage excessively. The hard part is to have restraint, to pull it back.
"Lots of times in the theater, and especially in the musical theater, you're constantly being challenged to do more, to build and build, to make it big. So I've just been telling the cast, 'Keep it real.'
"Some of the best moments," Nickerson continues, "are when the cast is just standing around the bar, just hanging out with the band and talking and singing one great song after another -- like in the Cities Medley, where the challenge is to build and build lots of [energy]" in a section that progresses from "My Kind of Town" to "L.A. is My Lady" to "New York, New York."
"In fact," says Nickerson, "there's so much music -- with 56 songs, it's more of a challenge to remember what comes next, more than anything else."
Not only are there a lot of songs in this show, but they're presented in new and complicated arrangements full of four-part harmonies and complex rhythms.
Gigler, who portrays the "older" Sinatra and who himself played bass in a jazz band for six years, is fully aware of the music's complexity: "Because the songs are presented in medleys, they're shorter and a lot of little changes have been made -- the keys are different. It's like you have to start over and relearn the songs that you thought you knew."
What about Sinatra's notorious tendency to sing behind the beat?
Gigler comments that "It's a jazz thing. There's a lot you can play around with within a measure -- you can anticipate, you can drag it out. His thing was dragging. And within these arrangements, [Grapes and Olson] tried to write it in -- they've tried to write the songs, not the way they were originally written, but the way he sang them."
Nickerson adds, "You know, he had a very lazy, laid-back style of singing."
And lagging behind the beat, taking a song at his own pace, is what made Sinatra seem so cool?
"Exactly. You know, in doing this show, you never want to seem too perky. You never want to look like you're trying too hard," Nickerson says. "We've really worked on trying to make it all seem effortless. That's the total key with this show."
The show is a big contrast to Nickerson's last project, STG's national award-winning I Never Saw Another Butterfly. "What can I say? I like glam," says Nickerson. "After Butterfly, I thought, it's nice to be away from the Holocaust for awhile. So, yeah, I want the glitz, I want the sparkles. I want to see those evening gowns. No more Holocaust."
My Way is surely the kind of show that lifts people's spirits. Nickerson chuckles and recalls that "It's interesting, we did a small performance up at the Rockwood Retirement Communities -- I have a friend who works there, and he and I just went up there and did a little show -- and it was great to see people feeling happy. There was so much nostalgia about it. Because these songs have the power to take people back to a time and a place. There was even a couple out in the hall who started to dance and twirl each other around. That was great to see."
What sells this show best are the song titles -- simple and unadorned, like Sinatra's own singing style. There are 56 reasons you should go see My Way, but here are just some of them: "Strangers in the Night," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "I Got the World on a String," "Eyes for You," "I'll Be Seeing You," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Indian Summer," "Love and Marriage," "All the Way," "Here's to the Losers," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady is a Tramp," "You Make Me Feel So Young," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Fly Me to the Moon," "It Was a Very Good Year," "This Is All I Ask," "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," "That's Life," and, of course, "My Way."
In My Way the musical, that leaves only 36 songs to go.