“He had that thing,” artist and actress Lea DeLaria stresses, starry-eyed, even, from behind her own dark glasses. “He was so cool.”
The consummate performer, Frank Sinatra’s legacy is characterized by his palpable charisma, professional artistry and vast talent, which transcend, to this day, both on screen and stage. But that’s all lip service until you consider what makes Frank truly great.
Just as the icon once paid tribute to his car of choice singing, “I like a new Lincoln with all of its class,” we found it only fitting to pay tribute to Sinatra on his centennial birthday at the Tribeca Film Festival by calling out each of his unique characteristics that resonate most with us today. And what better way to do it than with a collection of modern artists?
“Sinatra at 100” saw a variety of dynamic performers including Lea DeLaria, Ne-Yo, Alice Smith, Brandon Flowers and Tony Bennett, who assembled to re-imagine both standard classics and rare deep cuts from Sinatra’s expansive catalogue.
After the event, we spoke with Marsha Reid-Burnett, the producer from TriBeCa who helped pull the show together. She was tasked with not only curating a playbill of artists capable of covering Sinatra, but with doing so in a way that represented the superstar’s many unique facets. We went through each performer with her, to really understand how Sinatra transcends.
1. THE STAR
Sinatra was such a joy to watch perform, in part, because he seemed to find such joy in performing. If there was one showman of the group it was Lea DeLaria. Her nonchalant interaction with the audience not 30 seconds into her song vividly recalled Sinatra’s consistent disregard for the same proverbial third wall. Not to mention, she has a killer voice. “A lot of people don’t know she has five studio jazz albums under her belt on Warner. I mean, when we were doing rehearsal, the entire room came to a standstill because she’s just a ball of energy.”
2. THE CHARACTER
Even when he was hosting review shows with his friends, it was Sinatra’s distinct charisma and confident body language that kept all eyes on him throughout the performance. Alice Smith sang “The Lady is a Tramp” with all his wry pizazz, and then some. She wailed on the big notes and imbued the standard with a refreshing brashness. “Alice is just excellent. She can tell a story just by her posture on the stage or the disdain she gives a certain song.”
3. THE DANCER
Sinatra isn’t remembered for his ability to dance specifically, but it was another pursuit he proved adept at on stage and in films such as “On The Town” — which was screened during the event. Unable to ignore that part of Sinatra’s artistry, Reid-Burnett cast tap performer Savion Glover to capture Sinatra’s background in dance. “He (Glover) considers himself an instrument. So when he’s rehearsing with the band, one of the things he said was, ‘I want you to not think about me as a guest performer or a vocalist on this song. I need you to arrange this music with me as an instrument.’ His process is really interesting to watch.”
4. THE PROGRESSIVE
Despite his hedonistic reputation, Sinatra was quite forward-thinking for his time. Brandon Flowers winked at the singer’s classics by way of “Come Fly With Me,” but was adamant about bringing this side of Sinatra to life by performing the idealistic “The House I Live In.” “The song is very timely—I don’t know when it’s not going to be timely. It’s about democracy. It’s about poverty. It’s about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s about America.”
5. THE CHARMER
For every somber, down-tempo record Frank produced, there was always another worth grabbing a dance partner for. Between the easy smile and apparent struggle to keep from dancing, it was clear that Reid-Burnett’s choice of Ne-Yo to represent Sinatra’s swing sensibilities was an apt one. “We needed to visit the non-big ballads. And so I kind of gently told him he was going to do those, and he did them well. He is a dancer—he’s a natural performer. But he’s not a big belt-it-out singer. His chops are different than, say, Brandon’s or Lea’s. He doesn’t have that huge lung capacity, but he brings the character to the songs which is just as important.”
6. THE GENTLEMAN
The suit, the fedora, the bow tie- Frank Sinatra personified class for many and certainly had a notable style of his own. He was also very expressive in making his band, his fellow performers, and his audience feel respected and special. One would be hard-pressed to think of a better man than Tony Bennett with whom to close the night. “What is there to say?” Burnett-Reid laughs, “Well, first of all, Tony Bennett does what he wants. He brought in his own musicians. They have a method of performing and of presenting Tony that hearkens back to (Sinatra’s day). He truly embodies that Sinatra ideal of being the consummate professional.”
It’s ironic that, during a night dedicated to celebrating the individuality of one man, the uniqueness of each performer was only highlighted further. Excellence from our past begets excellence for our future and, as the closing rendition of “New York, New York” came, horns blaring, to its final note, it was explicitly clear that Sinatra’s legacy is very much alive and well.
“Sinatra at 100” ended up being a deft weaving together of performers in all walks of their careers; which, according to Reid-Burnett, was the ultimate goal.
“After every show that I do, I can’t ever speak to its success, but if it made people rethink Sinatra, and it made them happy, then that’s success for me and I am over the moon.”