BY CARY GINELL
December 12 marks the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth, which makes the arrival of Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Christmas, which plays for one performance this Saturday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, all the more special. Since 2009, Hackett, son of the late comedian Buddy Hackett, and his wife, Lisa Miller, have been presenting their stage shows that celebrate the hip, swingin’, ring-a-ding-ding aura of the original Las Vegas Rat Pack. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Rat Pack ruled the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, a freewheeling act that incorporated Great American Songbook tunes with a raucous, let’s-throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude that became the definition of “cool” in show business.
In addition to co-producing Rat Pack Christmas, both Sandy and Lisa are performers in the show; Sandy doing an impeccable impression of stone-faced comic Joey Bishop and Lisa playing a composite character called “Frank’s One Love.”
VCOS: How long has your Rat Pack show been going?
LISA: Well, we opened in 2009 and have been touring the country ever since.
VCOS: The original show started in 2002. What happened to change it in 2009?
SANDY: I created the show in 2002, but I had a partner who loved mediocrity and didn’t want to improve what we were doing and didn’t understand how much better the show could be. So we parted ways and that’s when Lisa came into the picture. We took a pretty decent show and made it stellar. We revamped the music, the charts, the arrangements, and we added original material from Lisa’s father, Ron Miller, who wrote “For Once in My Life” and “Touch Me in the Morning.” Lisa has done a one-woman show of her father’s undiscovered music in New York, so I pulled a couple of songs out of it and created a new character called “Frank’s One Love,” which is based on the Frank Sinatra-Ava Gardner relationship. Those songs that he wrote just crushed my heart so we put those in the show. We worked very hard to build a new opening for the show and get away from anything “tribute-y” and made it more of a theatrical production.
VCOS: Is there a story, then, for the show?
SANDY: Yes, in the show, God sends the Rat Pack back to Earth to do one last show.
VCOS: The premise kind of sounds like Forever Plaid, in that sense.
SANDY: Except Forever Plaid didn’t have four superstars in their prime. In my show, God sends the Rat Pack back because they’re making too much of a ruckus up in Heaven. My father voiced the role of God before he passed away in 2003 and we still use that in the show. To me, he sends them back, not to do one last show, but he sends them back to modern day to perform again. So what that does, is it keeps our show contemporary comedically, and we can always dive into elements that are going on nationally, regionally, and locally to find your comedy vein, which is what I excel at from my years playing in comedy clubs. For the holiday version, we have added two songs that Lisa and her partner penned for the show.
VCOS: Do you constantly update the script to reflect what’s going on today?
SANDY: Comedically, we’re always contemporizing the show.
LISA: It’s a book show, but just like the real Rat Pack, you never really know who’s going to show up or what’s going to happen, because Sandy’s so brilliant at the improv aspect, usually, whatever’s going on locally in town will wind up in the show.
VCOS: Joey Bishop was the only one of the original Rat Packers who was still alive when you wrote the original show in 2002. Did he have input into it?
SANDY: Yes. The original Rat Pack was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, from that famous picture in front of the Sands Hotel marquee. Peter Lawford was English, and apparently there was a Rat Pack show that was done in England and they didn’t use Joey, so I got rid of Peter just to get even (laughs). Joey was a close, personal friend. He was “Uncle Joey” to me and I knew him my whole life. I only met Frank and Dean on several occasions so I didn’t have a close relationship with them, but with Joey, I did. Several years before this project, I was working on a TV game show with him as the host and he used me for every iteration of the pilot. When HBO did the movie about the Rat Pack, Joey called me and said I’d be the right guy to play him.
LISA: I also feel connected to it because all of the members of the Rat Pack recorded my father’s song, “For Once in My Life” and Frank recorded it on his My Way album and toured with it for the rest of his life. It was a huge song for him.
VCOS: Who is the hardest member of the Rat Pack to depict accurately?
SANDY: I think Sammy Davis Jr. is the hardest because he was so incredibly talented. He was a fabulous singer, he was funny, he did impressions, he danced, he played drums, and he was so specific in size. He was a petite human but so talented that even Frank idolized him. So you have to find someone that can bring the essence of these characters to the stage and that’s difficult.
LISA: Personally, as a producer of the show, I don’t think that the hardest thing in the show is how to portray an individual character, but in capturing the chemistry and the relationships that those guys had with each other. I am often asked why the Rat Pack endured after all these years, and what it really was, was the magic of the relationships and the huge bond that these icons had together and shared with the world, and that’s how our show is different. Sandy had personal relationships with all of these guys for many years, and I think that those friendships emanate from the stage.
VCOS: I know that all the guys loved each other, especially Sammy, but in old films of their act, they would good-naturedly make fun of Sammy in a way that might be deemed politically incorrect today. How do you handle that?
SANDY: Well, it’s the year 2015, so they get sent here with the sensibility of what’s politically incorrect and what’s not, so we keep the PC stuff, especially things that people in today’s world would find racially offensive, we just took that out of the show. There are so many wonderful veins of comedy to go to with all the guys that it was easy to detour around that.
LISA: But also, these guys really loved each other, and they could make fun of each other’s differences and actually cherish each other, and that’s what they did. They were able to get away with it because they truly loved each other. My father was really good friends with Stevie Wonder and every time he bumped into him, he’d say, “Watch where you’re going!” He could get away with it because he loved Stevie.
VCOS: Dean Martin was a target, too, wasn’t he?
LISA: Yes, for his drinking and carousing, but in real life, Dean didn’t drink that much at all.
SANDY: He drank, but not on stage. He was never drunk in a performance.
LISA: Right, and the caricature that you see so often in these so-called “tribute” shows, people go to that drunken state of Dean Martin when that wasn’t who he really was. So we stay away from all the caricatures.
VCOS: This performance is coinciding with the upcoming centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth. Can you talk about Sinatra and how this show reflects his image?
SANDY: It’s very simple. Frank would have been a hundred years old and people still love Frank Sinatra and his music and they look for any reason to celebrate who he was and what he brought to the world. The music of Frank Sinatra and that beautiful voice he had will be around forever and ever. There are so many people around today who have patterned themselves after him, like Michael Bublé and Harry Connick, so it’s very appropriate to say that Frank would have been 100 so let’s celebrate his life.
VCOS: So, Sandy, you’re playing Joey Bishop in the show?
SANDY (in Bishop’s voice): Son of a gun. That’s very right. I play Joey Bishop.
VCOS: Lisa, tell me about your character.
LISA: I play a character called Frank’s One Love, which is based on his relationship with Ava Gardner. Frank and Ava had a tempestuous, emotional relationship, and theirs was the kind of passion that led Frank to say that the only time they wouldn’t fight was when they were on their way to the bedroom. We didn’t want to name the character Ava Gardner because a lot of people have their own ideas of who his greatest love might have been. There are a lot of people who see the show and say afterward that Nancy, his first wife, stayed with him through thick and thin, Barbara was with him at the end and tamed him, but after looking at the passion that he had for all the beautiful women that he had in his life, Ava was the one who stuck in his heart, who drove him crazy almost to the point of suicide. They were married for five years and when she died, a man showed up in a limousine and everyone knew it was Frank. She remained in his heart forever. In a scene where I play her, Frank takes a moment in a kind of a dream sequence; he’s reminiscing about his past, and I come in and do a duet with him. It’s an original song of my father’s called “The Things I Should Have Said” which talks about love that couldn’t be.
VCOS: How is the Christmas version of the show different from the regular touring show?
SANDY: Mainly the holiday songs.
LISA: There are also a lot of Christmas-related jokes and comedy, but especially in the songs. We’re doing two new songs that I just wrote: “It’s Christmas” and “My Favorite Time of Year.” We have four original songs in the show: my father’s and the two that I wrote, along with all the Rat Pack songs that everybody knows. Then the individual guys also sing Christmas standards. In our show in Thousand Oaks, we have a special guest – our daughter Ashley Hackett is a dancer and we invited her and her dance company to do “Candy Man” with Sammy.
Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Christmas plays Saturday, December 5 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For tickets, visit BroadwayInThousandOaks.com