'High Hopes' :: Cabaret Benefit Celebrates Sinatra @ 100

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday November 8, 2015

Boston-area cabaret singer Hildy Grossman has created something of a cottage industry with her non-profit foundation Upstage Lung Cancer, where she combines two of her greatest passions, entertaining and public service, by "using performing arts to raise awareness and funding for Lung Cancer," according to her website. The foundation sponsors research for early detection and treatment, promoting awareness, and to remove the social stigma associated with lung cancer.

Each year, for her annual cabaret fund raiser, Grossman gathers a core group of some of Boston's finest musical theater and cabaret performers who have been with her from the beginning: Leigh Barrett, Brian De Lorenzo, Paula Markowicz, and former WBZ newsman and Reagle Theatre regular Scott Wahle to pay tribute to the Great American Songbook, an evening that is packed with entertainment. It is also packed with a subtle but powerful message: the toll lung cancer has taken on the arts. Each of the Great American Songbook entertainers they have honored in the past, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, and Dean Martin, have all died of lung cancer.

This year being the 7th Annual Benefit, Grossman adds local acting favorite, John F. King to that lineup, in a special tribute to the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra. The evening is called, "High Hopes: Celebrating Sinatra's Centennial" honoring the 100th Anniversary of his birth, and will be presented on Tuesday, November 10, at the Lyric Stage. Longtime Boston-area musical director Catherine Stornetta music directs, Lisa Rafferty directs, and Michelle Hayes choreographs. Emmy Award-winning A & E Critic, 3-time cancer survivor and ever-delightful Joyce Kulhawik will emcee, as she has done each year from the beginning.

Why Sinatra?

Now, some of you music historians out there might be saying, "Wait. Sinatra didn't die from lung cancer," and indeed you would be right. He died in 1998, at the age of 82 from a severe heart attack. The next night, the Empire State Building was lit blue in his honor, and the lights on the Vegas Strip were dimmed. Grossman felt that the centennial of his birth merited a similar acknowledgment from Upstage Lung Cancer, firstly because of his contribution to the Great American Songbook, and secondly, as Grossman puts it, "He was no stranger to lung cancer. He lost many people who were near and dear to him to lung cancer and thoracic cancer (cancer of the throat), including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr." Grossman adds, "More to the point, whatever you say about Frank Sinatra, that man lived to the edges. Frank's life was a good example to all of us about living life to the fullest. He was a true bon vivant."

And one other thing: one of Sinatra's biggest hits provided a perfect theme for the evening, "High Hopes." Grossman feels the song "completely reflects what we want to say about lung cancer. This is what we want for early detection, new treatment that will keep people alive longer, and find ways to improve the quality of life for people who are diagnosed with lung cancer." The Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn song was first introduced by Sinatra in the 1959 film "A Hole in the Head," winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, and recorded on Sinatra's 1961 album "All the Way." It was recorded and performed by countless singers, including having been sung by Seth MacFarlane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Daniel Radcliffe during the 2013 85th Academy Awards ceremony, demonstrating the resilience and longevity of the music from the Great American Songbook.

A rich legacy

The performers are excited about this year's theme, not only because of the rich legacy Sinatra left behind ("he recorded over 1200 songs," notes Grossman), but also because the man and the music he championed still resonate with today's audiences. De Lorenzo, who is doing his own Sinatra centennial tribute, "Come Fly With Me: Brian De Lorenzo Celebrates Sinatra at 100," this month in New York, and next month in Puerto Vallarta, agrees. "I think Sinatra is almost synonymous with 'The Great American Songbook,'" asserts De Lorenzo. "He's probably the first person people think of when they think of traditional pop music of the 20th century. His choice of music, his persona, and his style of delivery have struck a chord with millions of people."

(Full disclosure: the author, John Amodeo, is the husband of performer Brian De Lorenzo.)

Wahle places Sinatra in the Pantheon of great entertainers of the 20th century, right next to Elvis Presley and The Beatles. "He was the Justin Bieber of his day, when my mother was just a kid," remarks Wahle. "He had a way with a song that was unique. It's hard to define what that was. Aside from just the quality of his voice, he knew how to tell a story through song. That's what separated him from other artists of his early career and throughout his career. There were a lot of other singers with beautiful voices, but the key to singing a song is to tell a story through music and lyrics, and there was none better than Sinatra."

Barrett brings up the "hip factor." She muses, "I think Sinatra made listening to these songs, or this type of music, whether it's a standard jazz or musical theatre type song, a popular and "cool" thing to listen to, no matter who you were."

In thinking about Sinatra, De Lorenzo observes, "Audience members over, say, 40, will remember many of the songs because some of them may have come from a favorite musical ("Guys & Dolls"); or favorite songwriters (the Gershwins, Cole Porter); or they may remember their parents listening to Sinatra records when they were growing up." He continues, "I think most of what he sang were well-crafted songs with great lyrics that anyone can identify with."

Most famous singer in the world

Because there was so much to choose from, Grossman let her performers choose their own solos. De Lorenzo selected two favorites from his Sinatra tribute, "Day In, Day Out," which is a swinging uptempo to a Billy May arrangement (May was Sinatra's arranger in the late 1950s), and the other, "Fools Rush In," a beautiful ballad from Sinatra's early years with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

Barrett chose "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," partly to play against type.
"It's not big or brassy," she declares. "It is a sweet and simple song with a heartfelt melody." Sentimentality also plays a factor, as she recalls, "It's the song my husband used to sing to me when we first met."

"I love singing 'Summer Wind,'" says Wahle. "It tells a story. It happens to be a sad story, but it is a beautiful song. That's the Sinatra I enjoy listening to, the songs from the Capital years in his early prime. He was the most famous singer in the world then."

Grossman promises a real variety, including the Ring-A-Ding era: "New York, New York," "My Way," "Luck Be A Lady." She guarantees "a toe-tapping and heartwarming time. It will be an evening that creates an environment of joy."

The subject of Ring-A-Ding era triggers a memory in Wahle. "My senior year at Notre Dame, we spent one night in Las Vegas on a road trip. We had the option of seeing one of two popular Vegas shows, Frank Sinatra, or Rich Little," says Wahle. "And I chose Rich Little because I thought Sinatra was mailing it in during the mid '70s, but I was wrong. He was still killing them, even then."

Upstage Lung Cancer presents "High Hopes: Celebrating Sinatra's Centennial" on Tuesday, November 10, 2015; 7:30 P.M. at the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. General Admission Tickets $40. VIP Tickets: $100-$500. To purchase tickets, visit: http://www.upstagelungcancer.org/events.php.

Watch Frank Sinatra sing "High Hopes" with a children's chorus in the late 1950s.:

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.