Did you know that Frank Sinatra was behind JFK's presidency? Or that the beloved president's assassination was really a Mob retaliation? And it all happened because the crooner introduced his girlfriend to a young senator, who simultaneously had an affair with the presidential hopeful and the head of the Chicago Mafia!
That's the theory behind the play Ride The Tiger -- currently being staged at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, until Sunday, April 21, and starring GUIDING LIGHT alum Paul Anthony Stewart (Danny) as Frank and ALL MY CHILDREN's Christina Bennett Lind (ex-Bianca) as the above-mentioned mistress, Judy Exner. Written by William Mastrosimone -- who spent a year interviewing the beloved singer to write the Golden Globe-winning television series SINATRA -- the play is based on a revelation made during one of their conversations. "The play takes specific plot elements that Sinatra told Bill, who then creates a scenario of what happened in these rooms when no one else was listening," explains Stewart.
Continued after the jump
History's Untold Tale
The five characters in Ride The Tiger are Frank Sinatra, Judy Exner, Jack Kennedy, his father, Joe Kennedy, and mobster Sam Giancana. "A good way to describe the show is MAD MEN meets THE WEST WING," says Stewart with a chuckle. "The idea is that Frank had Mafia connections because he sang in all these Mob-owned nightclubs. He got the Mob to thrown their support behind JFK in the election -- because the Mafia owned the unions -- and because the Mob got the unions to swing the vote towards JFK, he won the election in the most unanimous victory ever. The deal was, if the Mob swung the vote in Jack's favor, he and his brother Bobby -- who was appointed the attorney general -- would turn a blind eye towards the Mob's activities."
But when Bobby Kennedy went after the Mafia instead, the gangsters retaliated. "That's the basic story, and then Bill created this really salacious, fun, political thriller of a play," says Stewart. "The show almost entirely consists of two-person scenes, imagining what the conversations were like between all of these characters as they bounced around from meeting to meeting."
His Take On Old Blue Eyes
Tackling the role of an icon like Sinatra wasn't something that Stewart took lightly. "I'm from Philadelphia, an Italian community; I grew up listening to Sinatra," he explains. "I remember in my house, there was always his radio show, FRIDAYS WITH FRANK. It was quite a daunting task to step into his shoes, but I love a challenge!"
Stewart says that it was important to him that Sinatra's private persona come across in his portrayal, not the public one that we know from his recordings and movies. "When I was first approached with this project, I said, 'I am not interested in being an impersonator. I want to hook into the essence of this guy and create a true, real person, to tell this incredible story,'" he confesses. "I feel like I'm making good strides in that direction."
To prepare, Stewart read a lot of Sinatra biographies and watched his short-lived 1950s television series. "It helped give me a good idea of his speech patterns and physical mannerisms, because he was himself hosting the show. Not playing a character." And then there's the Jersey accent! "He was a real Hoboken street thug!" Stewart says with a laugh. "When he sang or did movies, he changed his speech and removed his accent. But when he spoke, he had a very thick accent." So does that mean that Stewart spends his time in Ride The Tiger talking like a real "Joisey" goomba? "Ah... pretty much!"
What The Heck Does The Play's Title Mean?
The events happening in Ride The Tiger may be a three-ring circus, but there are no four-legged animals involved! "It's an old Chinese proverb. When you're on the tiger, the safest place is to stay on top of it. Because if you fall off, it will eat you," explains Stewart, adding that the metaphor perfectly fits this tale. "All these characters are hungry for power and fame, and every move that each of them makes is about getting more and what they'll do to stay on top.
"It's really a wonderful play," he concludes. "The writing is fantastic, we're all having a great time, and I feel so honored to be a part of it."
For tickets and more information on Ride The Tiger, visit www.longwharf.org.