Sinatra's Legacy: The Best Is Yet To Come?

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Aug. 18 2009 1:30 PM

Sinatra's Legacy: The Best Is Yet To Come?

I shuddered when I read that Twyla Tharp is planning a new dance-musical , Come Fly With Me , built around the Frank Sinatra songbook. I never saw Tharp's Billy Joel show, Movin' Out but have vivid acid-flashback memories of The Times They Are A-Changin' , the choreographer's 2006 "action-adventure fable" set to Bob Dylan music—a cross between Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines dinner theater and Mummenshanz, which dramatized Dylan's songs with tumbling circus clowns, bouncing exercise balls, guys on stilts, guys in jumpsuits, guys in ghoulish whiteface, and a seven-foot-long sequined cardboard-cutout guitar. How will Tharp stage Sinatra classics like "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Witchcraft"? The mind boggles.

Sinatra-iana has been in no short supply in the decade-plus since the singer's death. In the fall of 2003, I attended Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way , a "virtual concert" extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall, featuring a full orchestra, hologram projections of the man himself, and a garish sequence of big-budget production numbers. (Memo to Ms. Tharp: if you're planning a dance routine starring forty-foot-tall marionette likenesses of Frank, Dino, and Sammy—don't bother. It's been done.) Publishing houses have churned out books like The Sinatra Treasures , a lavishly illustrated coffee-table tome with reproductions of telegrams and concert programs, compiled by Charles Pigone, the Sinatra family archivist and the president of the Sinatra Society of America fan club. And now hardcore Frankophiles can get their fix on Siriusly Sinatra , the all-Sinatra-all-the-time satellite radio channel.

What these and other Sinatra Industry products have in common, besides an orientation towards kitsch hagiography, is the imprimatur of Sinatra's children, Nancy, Frank Jr., and Tina, who are notoriously iron-fisted managers of their father's estate. When it comes to copyright issues, their stance is understandable: The royalties from Sinatra's recordings should rightly go to his heirs. But the family has also restricted access to Sinatra's voluminous papers—no one outside the family and its inner circle has seen them. Nancy, Frank's eldest, has made no secret of her distrust of would-be Sinatra biographers, an attitude that may be traceable back to Kitty Kelley's rancid 1986 hatchet job, His Way , which barely mentioned Sinatra's music and all but accused him of being a mafia hitman.

But do shows like the one Tharp plans—which the Sinatras OKed—really serve the singer's legacy? Vegas-style spectacles like Come Fly With Me and Sinatra: His Voice seem destined to fix in the minds of those that know no better the crudest images of Sinatra: the grotesque lounge lizard "celebrated" by the likes of Joe Piscopo . The news that the family has signed-off on a Martin Scorsese-directed biopic is perhaps a step in the right direction. But given Scorsese's florid tendencies—his romanticization of all things goombah—are we really going to get a clearer picture of Sinatra the man and the musician?

What the world needs at this point isn't a Sinatra dance musical, or a biopic, but a decent book. There may be no cultural figure of comparable stature so ill-served by the vast literature devoted to him. Where is the biography that places Sinatra in the sweep of 20th century history, probes the psychology of the self-described "18 carat manic depressive," and explains the alchemy by which the broads and the boorishness was transmuted into some of the most emotionally nuanced and musically thrilling pop records ever made? That book won't arrive until the family realizes it has an obligation to history and places Sinatra's papers in the care of an institution like the Library of Congress. The greatest singer of the 20th century—one of the greatest American artists, period—merits more than an action-adventure fable.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.