Ol’ Blue Eyes is back

David Henshall Did you ever see that fabulous Frank Sinatra guy on Stars in Their Eyes? Well, he’s Stephen Triffitt and he plays Ol’ Blue Eyes at Norwich Theatre Royal, July 7-12. David Henshall finds out more.

David Henshall

As they say in the business: Frank Sinatra is a hard act to follow. To play him on stage - and sing his songs - requires no small amount of talent and plenty of confidence. But the word is that Stephen Triffitt has both, because he has achieved success as Ol' Blue Eyes here and in America.

Triffitt is touring with The Rat Pack. It was nominated for an Olivier when in London and arrives at the Norwich Theatre Royal this month. With David Hayes playing Sammy Davis Jr and Nigel Casey as Dean Martin, the trio recreate the night in the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, when all three were in town filming Oceans 11 and when Sammy Davis was booked to appear in cabaret at the Sands. Sinatra and Martin invaded the stage during his act and produced a night of entertainment that has gone down in history.

The drinks trolley is there, the smokes and the non-PC jokes they cracked as they sang individually and together that lucky evening when the audience got a whole heap more for their money than they could ever have imagined in their wildest dreams.

With the possible exception of Bing Crosby, Sinatra was blessed with the most distinctive voice in 20th century popular music and few people have ever managed to get near to reproducing that special baritone. But Triffitt seems to have cracked it.

The son of an RAF man, he went wherever his dad was posted, including Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and he attended 15 different schools. He first heard Sinatra in Malta, listening to British Forces Radio, and at 13 bought his first album, the star's Twenty Greatest Hits. “I played it over and over again and, as you tend to emulate those you listen to, you could say that Sinatra taught me to sing.”

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Back in Britain, he won his heat of Stars in Their Eyes, was runner-up in the final and immediately invited to play Ol' Blue Eyes in a big American show called The Main Event at the Sands Casino, Atlantic City - on the very stage where Sinatra had appeared not too long before.

So, how do you set about being Sinatra? “In The Main Event I didn't have a speaking role, just singing. The narrator was telling Frank's life story. But when I was offered The Rat Pack, I had to learn to speak like him. It involved watching a lot of footage of him, his films, his TV specials and the Sands shows where he did a couple of monologues, all that kind of thing.

“The singing is my own voice. I don't actually have to do anything weird and wonderful with my vocal chords to sound like him. It's just the movement and being believable in the speech which, hopefully, makes people feel I'm the nearest thing. You can never stop working at it. I'm always watching and listening. The trick is not trying to do too much because then you look like a puppet on stage. You see it sometimes on TV and it becomes laughable.”

What was it that made Sinatra so great, his phrasing, timing or sheer personality? “All of it. Initially it was his tone. It was different, with a sort of choirboy sound. Very smooth. He hadn't then discovered booze, broads and cigarettes quite so much. As he got older he developed that woody quality to his voice.

“There's a story that he learned his style of breathing listening to the trombones in Tommy Dorsey's band. He certainly found his own style. If you're going to tell a story in a song, you can't breathe in the middle of a word - as some pop artists do nowadays. You have to make the sentences flow.

“You must first look at the story of the song. Although everything rhymes, you can't sing it like that because it sounds like a poem and doesn't work. You need to read the lyrics as a story, then fit it into the music and that's pretty much what he did.”

Sinatra recorded something like 1,700 songs throughout his life. “Some of them he only sang once and when you hear them you understand why. But there are about 75 numbers popular here and in the States.” Among his favourites is Please Be Kind, one that people don't hear too often.

The three singers have a large orchestra on stage with them, using various arrangements of the songs, from Nelson Riddle to Count Basie. Audiences for The Rat Pack cover a wide age range. “Matinees tend to be the older folk but the evenings have a good mix. This style of singing has never really gone away.

“Robbie Williams helped by recording some and shows like Pop Idol and The X Factor feature old standards. It brings the music to a younger generation and they are coming to the show - and they get the chance to see a 17-piece orchestra in action as well. Almost every pub I go into is playing Sway by Dean Martin these days.”

Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 12, 1915 and died in May 1998. He was the first modern pop superstar, following his idol Bing Crosby, and the first to have young girls in their thousands screaming his name. His singing infused the lyrics with a personal intimate point of view that conveyed a steady current of sex. Elton John says of him: “Sinatra was simply the best - no one else even comes close.”

Stephen Triffitt sums him up this way: “He had a special presence and it was all in the way he delivered his songs.”

The Rat Pack is at Norwich Theatre Royal from July 7 to 12. Box office: 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk