Thursday, February 19, 2009

Frank Talk

During a career that spanned more than 60 years, Frank Sinatra apparently recorded just about every song ever written.

That was the big problem facing Stephen Peithman, as he and Martha Dickman prepared the 2009 Citizens Who Care concert, 'May We Be Frank?'

This marks the 17th year for the popular annual event, the original brainstorm of Barbara Kado, who conceived it as a one-time fundraiser for the Yolo County organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for the frail elderly and their family caregivers.

The performance takes place this weekend at the Veterans' Memorial Center, 203 E. 14th St., Davis. Curtain times are 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

For tickets or additional information, call (530) 758-3704 or visit

Kado and her planning committee had come up with the concert idea, to be held at the recently renovated and reopened Woodland Opera House. The theme was 'Gershwin, etc.' The program would focus on Gershwin's music, but since not all the performers felt comfortable singing Gershwin, other music would be included (hence, the 'etc.').

The show would involve several Yolo County performers, including the Davis High School Jazz Choir, under the direction of Richard Brunelle. And at some point during the planning process, the organizers realized that they needed an emcee: someone who could help shape the show and to tie it all together.

'Barbara had done a yeoman's job, but she felt it needed to go a little further; she called me, and I said I would help,' remembers Peithman, who inherited the show 'as it was.' His job was to write the narration and find connections between the various songs.

Lenore Heinson, for example, was singing Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting's 'Too Marvelous for Words.' Whiting had been a good friend of Gershwin's, which was Peithman's 'connection' to the title of the show.

'Gershwin, etc.' was a great success, and the next step was inevitable.


Peithman was asked if he'd consider doing another one.

'That first show wasn't as coherent as I would have liked,' he admitted, and he already had ideas for future shows. He wanted to start from scratch and re-shape the thing.

'It wasn't perfect for the first few years. If nothing else, you learn what works and what doesn't.'

Now, after 17 hears, Peithman has it down to a science.

'First, you come up with an idea. It has to be thought through very carefully, because several factors are involved. It has to be a good collection of songs. It has to be entertaining. People have to enjoy the songs in some fashion. In most cases, they're well known to a good portion of the audience, but it's also nice to throw in things that aren't as well known.'

The second thing to consider is the performers, and what they do well. Fortunately, this show boasts a number of fairly 'regular' performers. Peter Shack, for example, is the only singer who has been in every single show. (Even Peithman had to miss one, when he had an unavoidable time conflict.)

Lenore Sebastian missed a year when she and her husband, Gil, were doing a production of 'Guys and Dolls.' She was missed.

'Lenore really loves to sing the bluesy torch songs,' Peithman said.

'We're all closet saloon singers,' Sebastian said. 'We all have that little fantasy of a dark, smoky room and a piano, and a slinky dress, and hanging over the piano with a microphone, singing torch songs.

'If heaven exists, that's what I want.'

'Bob Bowen likes a song he can have fun with,' Martha Dickman added. 'He really enjoys that kind of thing.'

'People expect me to do a funny character song, with maybe a few steps in it,' Bowen laughed. 'Then I get out of the way for the people with real talent.'

It was more difficult to find numbers for Bowen this year, Peithman admitted.

'Sinatra didn't do 'comedy' songs. Even his upbeat numbers tended to be more of the 'ring-a-ding-ding' type than actual comedy.'

Additionally, when putting everything together, the show must tell a story.

'That's extremely important,' Peithman emphasized. 'It's not just a series of songs, although we could do that: 'Our next song is...' But the most successful shows are the ones that have a strong 'through line,' with a beginning, middle and end. You have a sense of a connection, as you move through the concert, and that it's part of a greater story.'

But how can one program a beginning, middle and end of a career as long as Sinatra's ... in a show running no more than two or three hours? Previous CWC shows have concentrated on composers and/or lyricists; this would be the first time the ensemble would focus on the songs of a single performer.

'Sinatra's music is amazing,' said accompanist Jim Croghan. 'Such an extensive song book. Phenomenal.'

'The problem with Sinatra is that he recorded almost every song that was ever written,' Peithman said. 'Where do you start? Do you start with Sinatra when he was doing the Hoboken Four, or when he went to work for Harry James, or when he moved to Tommy Dorsey, or when he went to Hollywood, or when he married Ava Gardner?

'I had to get things under control, so we decided to start when he divorced Gardner. Not for that reason, but that was when he took charge of his own career; in fact, she helped him. He started charting his own path in 1953 and '54. He invented the concept album, where he would put together a series of songs around a particular theme, and then ask some songwriter to write a song or two to add to it.

'The album usually was named after the new song. I found that fascinating.'


The germ of the idea for the 2010 show may already be in place, as the cast prepares this year's production.

It has become close to a yearlong process. Peithman comes up with a concept, then an initial list of songs, and then he gets together with Dickman.

'We look over the songs,' Peithman said, 'and we start thinking about who can sing this song or that song. We start vetting the idea pretty early.'

Getting back to Sinatra, Peithman's first list of possible songs covering the period he wanted to highlight ran to some 300 tunes.

'This has been hell,' he confessed, 'trying to bring the numbers down to something manageable.'

By the time he met with Dickman for the first time, he had whittled the list down to 75: about twice the number that would end up in the final production.

'At one point, I said to Martha, let's just sit down and figure out what songs people won't forgive us for, if we don't do them.' ('My Way' made the cut, Dickman assured me.)

'No, we won't be doing some other well-known Sinatra songs,' Peithman said, sadly.

'We just don't have time,'

The performers have input and may request certain songs, but everything must fit the format of the story, and the structure of the script.

'You must have some variety over the time that we're in the theater,' Peithman said, 'because you can't have 10 ballads in a row. Most of the stories we tell are chronological, so that means sometimes somebody will say 'I'd like to sing these three songs.' If they all were written at the same time, we can't have all three in a row, so I have to say, 'We'll give you this one here, and then the others later.'

When the songs finally are chosen, it's time to start rehearsing. The proper accompanist is critical, and Jim Croghan has filled that bill very nicely for the past three years. Dickman and Peithman were familiar with him as a performer with the Davis Comic Opera Company, and he also had worked with Sebastian as an accompanist.

'He's a genius, and the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet,' she said.

'It's a blessing to have a person who is a singer and also a pianist, because he understand what a singer needs,' Peithman said. 'He's also very helpful if someone needs the song changed to a different key. That's something Dick Brunelle did beautifully.'

Brunelle was the first accompanist, and he continued for many years, until his health began to decline. Bowen remembers those years fondly.

'Some of my greatest Citizens Who Care memories are of Dick pounding the beat sitting at the piano, hunched over, doing his thing, and if we blew something it wouldn't faze him at all. He'd just 'noodle along' until we caught up. He was brilliant: He could stay with you and bring you back around, yet he was so self-effacing and unassuming. So talented.'


With the songs chosen and assigned to performers, and Croghan hard at work getting them ready for the performance, only Peithman's narration remains to be worked out. Even the singers don't know what he's going to say until the first performance.

They prefer to be surprised along with the audience.

'I have a wonderful story to tell in this show,' Peithman teased, 'and I won't tell it now. It has taken me a long time to figure out how to tell it. I finally decided I have to tell the story after a particular song is performed, because it almost would get in the way.

'Some stories should not be told; they're just too personal and too gross. Others, like in this case, are really good, but you have to tell them after the relevant song is performed, and then people will say, 'I don't believe that!'

'You don't want to alter their perception of the song in a negative way, especially if you know the performer will sing it one way, and the story is about a whole different aspect of the song, which would alter it.'

'It's always a chance to share some great American music and learn new songs,' Bowen summed up. 'Steve is a wonderful teacher, in the sense of the anecdotes and how these songs came about. I just enjoy the chance to perform music that people don't hear any more, and to see friends I rarely see throughout the year.'

'It's the highlight of the year for all of us,' Sebastian agreed. 'Citizens Who Care is a great organization, and this concert raises a bunch of money.'

'And raising money for the frail elderly is a worthy cause,' Bowen added.

'We'll all get there soon enough!'

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