Twyla Tharp Brings Frank Sinatra to Hollywood's Pantages Theater (Q&A)

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The creator of "Come Fly Away" talks about her latest dance musical, opening Oct. 25 in L.A., and how it differs from her previous Sinatra-inspired projects.

Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, which premiered in Atlanta in 2009 and opened on Broadway in 2010, begins its two-week run at the Pantages Theater on Tuesday, Oct. 25. While it’s been sharpened and revamped since its East Coast debut, what hasn’t changed are choreographer Tharp’s visceral dance moves celebrating the songs of Frank Sinatra. Combined, music and dance narrate the story of four couples as they cavort in and out of love at a swinging nightclub.

Tharp, whose Tony-Award winning musical Movin’ Out featured the music of Billy Joel and made its way to the Pantages in 2004, has a long association with Sinatra’s music. In 1976, she created and danced alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov in the duet Once More Frank for the American Ballet Theatre; Nine Sinatra Songs followed in 1982, spotlighting 14 dancers; and the duet Sinatra Suite, featuring Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo, was performed when Sinatra received his Kennedy Center Honor in 1984.

“How could you not be a Sinatra fan?” Tharp asks rhetorically. “This is not possible.” Just prior to opening night, she took a moment to speak with The Hollywood Reporter about the show.

The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve already done three projects with the music of Frank Sinatra. Why do it again?

Twyla Tharp: Well, they’re all very different. The first was a completely abstract piece; the second one had some sense of place and relationship to it but just between individual couples. Baryshnikov’s version had a much stronger character persona — the-lonely-guy-that-we-all-love-in-his-misery type thing. Come Fly Away is an examination of four of the couples from Nine Sinatra Songs in much more depth — about their relationships and how they did or didn’t stick together. For example, the couple called Something Stupid [in Nine Sinatra Songs] became Marty and Betsy [in Come Fly Away], a simple and funny couple. They have their problems but they hold it together and you see that evolve during the course of the evening. The third couple in Nine Sinatra Songs was dysfunctional; they became Hank and Kate in this version. She, in particular, is a tragic figure who bottoms out. He comes around to be there for her.

THR: How long did it take you to put the show together?

Tharp: Sinatra recorded over 1,000 titles of the American Songbook. I didn’t listen to all 1,000 but I referenced a great many of them. I worked on it for a year and a half before it was in Atlanta and then it had another revision before it went into New York. That was another six months. It went very quickly from New York to Vegas and there it had its third pass, which is the current, final version. There’s no intermission, there’s no female vocalist, there’s just Sinatra. There’s a new opening, middle and end, so it’s quite different from what was on Broadway.

THR: Why make the change?

Tharp: Because I saw a way to make it into a better show when the Broadway cast took the show to Vegas.

THR: Why do a musical set to the music of Frank Sinatra in the first place?

Tharp: My mother was a musician and taught piano. She loved Sinatra. He was a vocalist who came to my head because of her. He was, in her opinion, the best of the popular singers and actors and I agree. Certainly he was a wonderful musician, with a real ear for contemporary deliveries, mainly jazz vocals and rhythms. I always think of his songs as monologues and, in fact, he probably thought of them as arias as opposed to pop songs — that’s the sort of emotion that goes into many of them.

THR: What else is keeping you busy these days?

Tharp: I’m working on a full-length ballet that will premiere in February scored by Shubert, amongst others, and a narrative by a 19th century children’s writer named George MacDonald.  I just premiered on Thursday last week Scarlatti, a piece for Hubbard Street Dance Company Chicago made up of seven sonatas and a fugue. My 50th anniversary of work will be in 2015 and we have many things that we’d like to be accomplishing, one of which is a huge web site that really is a museum and other kinds of archival projects, educational projects.

THR: You’ve created dance musicals to the songs of Billy Joel, Bob Dylan in The Times They Are A Changin', Sinatra —

Tharp: — I’ve also done Bob Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, Handel and Hayden. 

THR: I was thinking popular music. Do you plan to do another musical in the same vein?

Tharp: I certainly don’t have any plans for any such thing but I also don’t have any plans not to. If it should strike me and suddenly I can’t keep my feet still then I’ll be in there doing it again.

THR: Do the opinions of critics matter to you?

Tharp: I don’t read it. When I started working, there were people who had seen more than I had and who had more context than I had. That is no longer true. Obviously I know how something is being received but the specifics of it aren't of great concern. Also you have to realize that the genre itself of criticism has changed radically: It has become opinion. There are very few critics who have historical context or authority. You have now the world of the blogger.