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Twyla Tharp gives Frank Sinatra another chance, and vice versa

Holley Farmer and John Selya in a scene from Twyla Tharp's "Come Fly Away"

AP Photo/Joan Marcus

Don't mention the term "jukebox musical" to Twyla Tharp. It makes her angry.

That's a surprise, perhaps, given that the 70-year-old choreographer has stretched the form – coined by New York critics to describe Broadway shows based on popular American songs – in shows from the Billy Joel-inspired mega-hit Movin' Out and the Bob Dylan ode The Times They Are A-Changin'. This week, she also brings her take on Frank Sinatra's songbook, Come Fly Away, to Toronto as part of a 27-city North American tour.

Still, the doyenne of American dance insists she's "totally disengaged" from the jukebox musical. "I say American musical," she insists by phone while getting ready for the Toronto opening. "It's all about believing in the music the same way I believe in Beethoven and Mozart."

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Audiences have not always believed in Tharp's musical shows. Movin' Out, which opened in 2003, ran for three years on Broadway, but 2006's The Times They Are A-Changin' was trashed by the critics and lasted only 28 performances; and even rave reviews couldn't save the Tony-nominated Come Fly Away, which premiered on Broadway in the spring of 2010 but closed that fall after tepid box office returns.

Luckily, Tharp had a well-placed fan to give her Sinatra show – a story about the adventures of four couples told in movement – another chance. Billionaire Las Vegas resort owner Steve Wynn had been a good friend of the singer's and felt a close relationship with his music. After Come Fly Away closed, he invited the musical to the Wynn Las Vegas – giving Tharp an opportunity to retool the show.

Among other changes, she got rid of the intermission, shortened the length to 80 minutes and changed both the beginning and the ending.

The musical also has a stunning trick that makes the Sinatra vocals sound live. The onstage band accompanies the singer as if he were giving a concert.

Calgary-based music arranger and composer Dave Pierce, who was the music director for the Vancouver Olympics, was responsible for that feat of legerdemain. "I have a knack of putting music together," he says.

For this job, Pierce first got access to Sinatra's performance tapes in a vault in Hollywood; some of them, dating back to 1957, had to be baked in ovens to reattach the adhesive. The next step was separating the voice track from the orchestra.

Finally, Pierce created what's called a "click track" for the onstage conductor and percussionist to hear through earphones, which assigns musical beats or counts for every bar, enabling the band to be in sync with Sinatra's singing. His tempo, no matter how much he plays around, is locked into the click track like a metronome."This procedure could never happen with today's technology, where the music is pre-recorded," says Pierce. "Sinatra was actually in the studio with the orchestra. That's why we have the energy of a live performance."

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The result of Pierce's work and Tharp's rework is a meaner and leaner show – with choreography that sizzles.

"The Las Vegas run gave us a second wind," says Vancouver performer Cody Green, who appeared in Come Fly Away both on Broadway and in Las Vegas before joining the touring production. "The audience feels the energy and punch right from the start."

As for what Sinatra might make of the show in its many incarnations?

Tharp and Sinatra have a history. The choreographer used Sinatra songs for three ballets before creating Come Fly Away, and the legendary singer admired her work. In fact, when Sinatra was awarded the Kennedy Centre Honour for lifetime achievement in 1983, he asked for a Tharp duet to be performed at the gala concert.

It was a mutual admiration society. "I feel the emotional pull of his songs. Frank had it all – musicality, voice and interpretation," says Tharp. "I know [he]would want this show to be part of his legacy."

Come Fly Away runs at the Four Seasons Centre until Aug. 28.

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