We first met Tom Burlinson on the big screen back in 1981 as The Man From Snowy River. Now over 30 years on this talented actor has shown the world that he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve and has been performing Frank A Life In Song. Burlinson clearly has a knack for playing iconic figures, although he’s very clear that Frank is a show where
‘I present the songs of Frank – I am not impersonating Frank!’
Burlinson reveals that ‘I sing songs in the Sinatra style. The arrangements are based on the original and I follow the particular phrasing and how he holds notes, but it is still me singing, otherwise it would just be imitation. There is a fine line between impersonation and giving an impression. If I don’t have a connection with the lyric of the song and the music then it won’t mean anything for me.’
The show traces Frank Sinatra’s impressive and very long career. Most people are familiar with the swing era and the big band music, but Sinatra did start out as a romantic crooner.
‘We travel back chronologically to the early days, from the late 1930s with the romantic material, lots of ballads. To perform that I have to sing in his early style which is very fluid, very romantic. As for the band, it’s largely string arrangements.
‘Then in the 50s he went between both styles, but the most well known is the swinging Sinatra of Lady is a Tramp and Come Fly with Me; and later in the 60s there was more of a demonstrative style, as his voice deteriorated with age the style was punchy and he developed a great feeling for jazz. So we get a taste of all of these different times. I follow it roughly chronologically.’
There’s a lot of Sinatra to cover, the song and the story. So how does Burlinson weave his way through this immense amount of material?
‘I say to the band that we have to imagine what it was like and why those girls in the 1940s, when their boyfriends were away at the war, loved Frank and how he became such a romantic idol. We try to focus on the music, not on the other stories surrounding Frank. You can’t do it all. I do talk about his relationship with the press and how it deteriorated, his alleged association with the mafia. Often what he chose to sing was a reflection of what happened to him. Like in the 1960s when he married Mia Farrow – he would have been in his late 50s and she would have been 21. He was singing You Make Me Feel So Young. And then when they split he sang Summer Wind.
‘The quintessential Sinatra for me,’ says Burlinson, ‘is the swing period. Songs like I Got You Under My Skinand Lady is a Tramp. Those are the ones that you can’t not do. And of course as you get towards the end of the show you have to sing New York New York and My Way.’
In presenting the music Burlinson believes ‘you can’t dwell too much on the 1930s and 40s otherwise the audiences go to sleep. Of course I touch on that, but you need to bring the tempo up again to have that affect and to keep the contrast.’ To move through the massive back catalogue of material Burlinson presents medleys.
So what is it about Sinatra that still strikes such a chord with audiences of all ages?
‘His voice certainly wasn’t perfect. He had this extraordinary charisma. I did witness it several times, and that is the indefinable thing about being a performer – you either have it or you don’t. And he had it. I think also the good-guy-bad-guy is quite interesting. We know he could wear his heart on his sleeve and he could be a tough hood, and that whole mystique is part of the attraction as he changed over the years. When older people come to the show they say it’s like going through a catalogue of memories; this was the musical background of their lives, and I think Sinatra was the greatest interpreter of the great American songbook.’
So how did an actor from the big screen end up toe-tapping along to old Blue Eyes?
‘Years ago a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try to write something for yourself?” And he was thinking of me as an actor, I guess, but it ended up with my writing a song about music and about Sinatra’s affect on my life. The song was called The Man in the Hat and it started the whole process of the development in my career; singing it on The Midday Show and sending it to Tina Sinatra in Los Angeles and then being cast as the young Sinatra in the miniseries, and then being known in Australia that the man from Snowy River could also sing like Sinatra, and it all came from my writing something. Just one song. I can put it all back to that and going back to Ray Martin with the audio cassette at the Logie awards and saying “listen to this”. I tell this story as part of the show, how it all came from one pretty simple place.’
So what is Tom Burlinson’s advice for young actors, musicians, or performers. ‘Give 100 per cent.’
And that’s what you can expect when he is joined by his eight-piece band at the Lismore City Hall to present Frank, A Life in Song.
Thursday 25 July, 8pm. Tickets are $44/54 –
6622 0300 or online at www.norpa.org.au.