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Twyla Tharp takes flight with Frank Sinatra

She sees deep meaning in his songs. Her new musical, 'Come Fly With Me,' is based on his songs.

September 18, 2009|Josh Getlin

NEW YORK — When Frank Sinatra fans play his music, classic songs like "Summer Wind," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "One for My Baby" will likely trigger strong emotions and memories. But when Twyla Tharp sifts through his catalog, it conjures up an entire world.

Who was she when she first heard these songs, compared with the woman she is today? Why do they remind her of so many couples she's known? And what is the essence of Ol' Blue Eyes' music beyond the thrill of an unforgettable vocal?

Tharp, one of the dance world's most respected choreographers and directors, set out to answer these questions in her newest musical, "Come Fly With Me," based on Sinatra's songs, which began previews this week at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre. It has become a very personal pursuit for her, even though she is dealing with a musical library that is intimately familiar to millions.

"There's a lot of history for me here," she said, minutes after watching a final rehearsal of the show in New York. "I wanted to get at some deeper meaning in this music, to open a much bigger world."

The new two-act musical tells the story in dance of four couples who meet and fall in and out of love in one night. As their tales unfold, tapes of vintage Sinatra vocals are accompanied by a live 17-piece big band playing original orchestrations by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Quincy Jones and others.

Although Sinatra's songs were typically sung from a man's point of view, Tharp gives equal voice to both sexes in her storytelling. In the case of one couple, a man meets a woman and they have a torrid affair. But soon she feels stifled by him and falls into the arms of other men, flaunting her independence. Then she returns, and they plunge into a stormy, unsettled relationship. At the end, nothing is resolved.

"In this version, the women have their own reality," said Tharp, toying with a platter of Greek food in a Manhattan restaurant. "They instigate a lot of the action. There's a female vocalist who sings several numbers with the band, to offer a woman's perspective, and the men have to deal with it. It's no longer about things happening their way."

Audiences have powerful memories of Sinatra songs, she added, "but they'll also have memories of relationships in their lives. Relationships that failed, relationships that worked, relationships that evolved into being just friends, and relationships where you don't speak to the person anymore. By the end it should feel like the scrapbook of your love life."

Tharp has used Sinatra's music as a soundtrack in three previous ballets, but the new musical is easily her most ambitious effort yet. It follows on the heels of two shows that also choreographed a musical narrative to the songs of a pop music giant: "Movin' Out," her 2001 musical set to the songs of Billy Joel, won a Tony Award, played 1,303 performances on Broadway and toured for three years. "The Times They Are A'Changin," a 2006 show featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, opened to blistering reviews and closed after four weeks.

Ever since she burst onto the scene in 1966, Tharp has been a bold iconoclast. She has steeped herself in classic and modern genres, blending them unexpectedly and then moving onto something new. Always unpredictable, she's made a name for herself by combining the kinetic energies of dance with surging pop soundtracks.

Producers and other backers are betting that "Come Fly With Me" will strike a chord with graying baby boomers plus a hip, younger audience, and early indications are that Tharp has cooked up a potent mix of dance, music and visual imagery. During a recent rehearsal, her troupe of 20 dancers twirled, spun, leaped and kicked their way through an eye-popping performance as Sinatra's vocals filled the room. The preview won hearty applause from an audience of VIPs, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has performed Tharp's 1984 "Sinatra Suite." Her two other Sinatra shows included "Once More Frank" in 1976 and "Nine Sinatra Songs" in 1982. They are among her most widely performed dances.

The new show is still being tweaked for a Wednesday opening. But some who have seen "Come Fly With Me" are already smitten.

"I knew right away that she [Tharp] had captured the essence of my father's music in dance," said Nancy Sinatra, who flew to New York to catch a run-through. "You see the personalities of the dancers play out as their stories are told. People will really identify with these stories."

The new show couldn't have gelled without the cooperation of the late singer's family. Tharp, musical director Sam Lutfiyya and others combed through the singer's catalog of more than 1,500 songs, searching not only for the right numbers but also the right vocal takes. Although the Sinatra estate does not control rights to the songs themselves, it holds the rights to his vocals and orchestrations.

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