On December 13, ‘Christmas with Sinatra’, a holiday concert featuring the music of legendary crooner, Frank Sinatra, is coming to town.
Award-winning, international producer, Tony James was born and raised in Victoria and this limited engagement is the first performance of a 3-city tour on Vancouver Island under the new company—Renee James Productions.
When I spoke to Tony about his early influences last month, it came as no surprise that he credits his jump start into acting and production work to his supportive musical family, his early theatrical experiences in Victoria and his schools, Macaulay Elementary and Esquimalt Secondary.
“I already knew what I wanted to do from a very early age. Around age 6, I remember watching cartoons and saying to my mother, “I want to be in there [inside the TV]!” I walked into my first audition when I was 13 and was given a role in the chorus for ‘Cabaret’ at the Victoria Operatic Society [VOS]—knowing nothing about the show! The director, Bill Johnston, was the first person, besides my family, who made me feel like I had something special. To this day, nearly 30 years later, I still have great gratitude to that organization for giving me that opportunity. Over the next 5 years, they remained a real integral part of my journey. It’s because of them that I believed I could make a living [in the entertainment industry].”
Tony’s early support didn’t stop there. His high school drama teacher, Aubrey Cobham, gave Tony the lead role in its first musical theater production of ‘Grease’! Life became incredibly busy for Tony as he juggled school and production work, VOS performances, TV and stage auditions. Eventually, he left school early so he could devote his efforts to becoming an actor full time.
“By the time I was 17 years old, I was working at the Royal and McPherson Theatres in guest services. It was a great introduction to live theatre and theatre people. Quitting school isn’t something I would recommend for everybody. In fact, years later, I made sure my daughter finished her high school education! But, at the time, I thought: I have a path I want to take, and I don’t want anything to stand in the way of >me pursuing that path. It was hard work; but, over the years, I slowly earned and built an acting career for myself. My talent was my ticket to see the world.”
At 19 years of age, Tony became a father. His parents were very supportive and he has always relished being a dad since his daughter, Ocean, was born. It was a stressful time though. He says that in retrospect [being a father] grounded him and it made him who he is today: more compassionate and supportive of others who were going through difficult times. It was at this same time that he started his first company ‘Ocean Entertainment Worldwide’, a production company that would carry him for the next 20 years.
Q: Tony, how do you choose a musical focus for your events? What determines the focus?
A: It’s usually about things that I like—including jazz, ballet, classical music or musical theatre; and from there I work to create an original show. I build up layers all around a core theme. For the ‘Christmas with Sinatra’ show, for instance, there are decorated trees, beautiful lights and poinsettias everywhere. It’s an experience that makes the show much richer and more visual for the audience. The whole ambiance of the evening is a higher-level, quality production. And more importantly—above anything else, for me at least—is the satisfaction of hearing the audience on their way out saying, “We’ll be back!”
Q: ‘Christmas with Sinatra’ is an evening to remember the man, the legend and his music. What is it about Sinatra that has fascinated audiences for so long?
A: Well, for a certain demographic, of course, Sinatra’s music is nostalgic and meaningful to them, along with Nat King Cole and Judy Garland and all those people who were iconic figures in that era. It’s as fresh to them as music today is to somebody who is 15 right now. They feel a connection to Sinatra because, every song has a story behind it.
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me.
So deep in my heart that you’re really a part of me.
I’ve got you under my skin.”
— From the album ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!’ (1956)
And if you take out the music part and you read the lyrics, you’ll likely find some version of your own life within that song; an experience you had, a connection you had with someone, a moment that made you emotional, that uplifted you or made you more hopeful. Whatever it is, there’s something you can relate to. Nowadays, I find it a little bit more difficult, personally, to find the message. I think of that as part of the reason why Sinatra specifically has fascinated people for so long.
Q: Given the classic appeal of Sinatra, I’m sure parents and grandparents are thinking about bringing their families out to hear Sinatra. What’s the appeal for younger audiences?
A: Sinatra’s music crosses age barriers. For younger people, Sinatra’s songs are still relevant today. Because whether you’re 80 or you’re 15, there’s been shared experiences in your life like heartbreak or the one that got away! When [an older generation] introduces young people to his music, hopefully, they will walk away thinking “Wow, that song gave me a different way to look at what I’m going through right now.” His style, his personality, his songs are all something we can collectively relate to in one way or another. The fascination with Sinatra extends well beyond the audiences too. His music continues to influence singers and singer/songwriters today. Great entertainers and songwriters have always been the trendsetters. That’s what makes their music timeless.