New Musical Highlights Sinatra’s Early CareerFebruary 16, 2018
In March 2018, a new original musical theatre show premiered at the Ives and played into May 2018 (including a special Mother’s Day performance). The show was a Sidekick Theatre production titled, From Ava to Eternity: The Life & Music of Frank Sinatra.
Just before the show started, we caught up with the show’s creator, star and Sidekick Theatre collaborator, Brian Pekol, and plied him with questions. Below is what we learned.
According to Brian, the genesis for the show came in the summer of 2016, during the run of another Sidekick Theatre play, The Gin Game, starring husband and wife Raye Birk and Candace Barrett Birk. After each show, the actors and the Sidekick Theatre artistic directors (Brian and Tim Stolz) would toss down a few martinis (that Brian would shake up behind the bar) and share stories from their respective theatre careers.
Invariably, after a couple rounds of drinks, Candace would say, “Brian, get out from behind that bar and get over to the piano!”
Raye, after a summer of watching Brian play piano and sing, was reminded of another talented and yet vulnerable youth named Frank Sinatra. “Brian!” he exclaimed one evening. “You’re going to write a show about Frank Sinatra and star in it. Not “Rat Pack” Frank. Young Frank.”
Now, almost two years later, and after a lot of dedicated research and planning, the show is a reality. Raye is directing the show, Brian is starring in the show, and they’ve managed to assemble 10 other talented actors and musicians to help tell the story of how this short, skinny kid from Jersey changed the trajectory of popular music forever.
Filling the Role of Sinatra
American theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim reputedly has said that he prefers actors who can sing over singers who can act. Brian holds to this philosophy when he casts shows for Sidekick Theatre, but it doesn’t really work for a show about Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra, of course, was a singer first and then an actor (who also sang). The person who can best mirror the unusual arc of Frank’s career must be both musically gifted and deeply connected to the kind of world in which young Frank got his start. As Brian explains, “The challenge as a playwright (and actor) is finding ways to convey to an audience the unique pressures and rewards of working in a creative profession—just like Frank when he started out as a big band singer.”
Fortunately, as the son of two performers, Brian has spent his entire life in the entertainment industry as a singer, instrumentalist and actor. As he says, “I know what it’s like to play for a room of 10,000 people and a room of 10 people. I know all too well the sinking feeling of forgetting a lyric and the challenge of performing multiple shows in a string of consecutive days.”
The Show Itself
The title, From Ava to Eternity, references two key events and influences in Frank’s life. First there is the actress Ava Gardner. Then there was the 1953 movie From Here to Eternity (for which Frank won a supporting actor Golden Globe and Oscar playing Private Angelo Maggio). The acclaim Frank won for the movie helped fuel the rest of his career.
Years before the film, Frank got his professional start as a musician with big band leaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. They appear in the play as well as Frank’s first wife, Nancy Sinatra, and his second wife, Ava Gardner. These key individuals all played a role in his early professional ambitions, and his ambitions in turn affected his relationships with each of them.
Music occurs as a direct part of the narrative, as when young Frank first sings “Marie” on the radio with Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. It is also interjected into key scenes to amplify the story line. For example, after fighting with his first wife, alone and half-drunk at a bar, Frank sings “One for My Baby,” acknowledging the impending end of his first marriage.
And, because music is so intricately woven into the show, there will be a band on stage throughout. Projection, lighting, and small set pieces will be altered to suggest different locations during the play.
Special Mother’s Day Show
Recently, Sidekick Theatre decided to have a special performance (with optional brunch) for Mother’s Day—May 13th this year. Why?
Brian puts it this way:
“The women in Frank Sinatra’s life had an incredible effect on him from the very beginning. So much of his greatness came about from standing on the shoulders of strong women whose love and support lifted him up—from his mother, to his childhood sweetheart and first wife Nancy, to his passionate relationship with Ava Gardner, his second wife. These were powerful women, and we celebrate them on Mother’s Day.”
And, he adds, “the music is great too!”
For those of you who saw the show during its run, we hope you had a great time!