The Definitive Ratpack

The original West End cast of Frank, Sammy and Dean. Live from Las Vegas. Now touring as The Definitive Ratpack with Stephen Triffitt as Frank Sinatra, Mark Adams as Dean Martin and George Daniel Long as Sammy David Jnr.

You look like a goddamn rat pack,” Lauren Bacall purportedly said to her husband Humphrey Bogart and his friends once, on their return from a good night out in Las Vegas in the 1950s.

The name stuck, an identifying moniker for Bogart’s clan made up of such Hollywood heavyweights as Bacall herself (the ‘clan mother’) Cary Grant, David Niven, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Rex Harrison and Judy Garland. Errol Flynn and Nat King Cole joined them from time to time.

The ‘pack master’ wasn’t Bogart (he was in charge of public relations) but a forty-something singer from Hoboken, New Jersey, called Frank Sinatra.

The line-up is of course somewhat different to the Rat Pack that we are familiar with today and all but one of the original group remained when the 1960s arrived. Sinatra’s career had taken him into different areas and his budding friendships with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr meant that journalists and outsiders viewed this new set of celebrities to be a continuation of Bogart’s original group. Interestingly, no one in this new collective ever used the name ‘Rat Pack’ to describe themselves (Sinatra himself once chided a reporter who mentioned it in 1987 as ‘that stupid phrase’).

In the main, the Rat Pack is considered to be Sinatra, Martin and Davis with British-born actor Peter Lawford and American comedy performer Joey Bishop. However, Norman Fell and Corbett Monica (both comedians who found fame predominantly on the American small screen) made up the remainder of the seven men. The general consensus has always been that this was an exclusively male group, but many forget or perhaps are not aware that Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Maclaine, Angie Dickinson and Juliet Prowse were equally prominent members in its heyday.

The notion of Rat Pack films, Rat Pack concerts and Rat Pack albums isn’t quite as straightforward as one might think: the eleven stars never all worked together at the same time in the same production. For example, Ocean’s 11 in 1960 (arguably the most well-known of the Rat Pack films) only starred Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford and Bishop, as did Sergeants 3 two years later. Maclaine accompanied Sinatra in Can-Can (1960); Martin worked with Monroe in Something’s Got To Give in 1962; Sinatra with Martin in 4 For Texas (among others); Davis with Lawford in One More Time in 1970 (directed, incidentally, by Jerry Lewis) and Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Maclaine in The Cannonball Run II in 1984. Robin and the 7 Hoods, Sinatra’s 1964 take on the Robin Hood legend, had Bing Crosby (never a member of the Pack, even though one would think so) replace Lawford after Sinatra fell out with Lawford over a presidential election campaign involving Lawford’s brother-in-law John F Kennedy. Subsequently, their relationship never fully recovered and Lawford found himself further ostracised as the years went on.

Reprise Records released four albums in the early 60s in a series entitled Reprise Repertory Theatre. Sinatra, Martin and Davis featured on all the volumes, recordings of popular Broadway musicals of the time such as Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me Kate. It allowed the three to expand their range into musical theatre, a genre they had never before or since tackled, especially on the stage itself. They were joined by contemporaries including Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby.

Las Vegas became the spiritual home of the core trio as they played to packed out auditoriums, most famously at the Sands Hotel. There wasn’t an act as such, it was simply three friends having a ball together, doing some singing and cracking jokes at their own and each others’ expense. There just happened to be an audience watching them. It was this wholly natural and relaxed approach to their performances that made them legends and masters at what they did.

Individually, they were experts in their field. Together they were untouchable.

George Daniel Long, who plays Sammy Davis Jr in The Definitive Rat Pack attributes this to the hard-working mentality and the respect the original trio had for each other. George has been keen to bring this to the fore for this show and Mark Adams, playing Dean Martin, follows suit in his own opinions, as does Stephen Triffitt as Frank Sinatra. Mark describes ‘the brilliance of Dean’ as something effortless and timeless, hidden behind spot-on timing and rehearsals, even though Dean had a notoriety, no doubt fuelled by Dean himself, that he never rehearsed.

But perhaps the legend of the Rat Pack has become more than the sum of its parts. And that’s in no way a criticism. It lives on in the public perception as a group of hard-drinking, hard-living Hollywood entertainers who made a few films and sang a few songs. Even today, years after Frank, Dean and Sammy have passed on, someone mentions the Rat Pack and everyone knows exactly who they’re talking about, even if you don’t immediately recall Peter or Joey as being part of the clan.

And as for the Chairman of the Board, the leader of the Pack? Everyone knows that was Frank. It always was, even from the days of Bogart, and always will be. Stephen Triffitt enjoys that position but does not ridicule Sinatra. In fact all three of them, Stephen, Mark and George, have the utmost respect for Frank, Dean and Sammy that the thought of performing as caricatures of the inimitable originals is unthinkable.

Watching Stephen, Mark and George interact with each other off stage is just as entertaining as when they are in character. Yet there’s no hierarchy, no egos as such. They feed of each other’s passions for the Rat Pack (after all it’s what brought them together so many years ago now) and have a natural balance between them that’s pleasing and refreshing to see. It’s logical then, that their friendship spills out onto the stage: yes, they are performing as Frank, Dean and Sammy but they also bring Stephen’s, Mark’s and George’s familiarities with them. And it’s this connection that shines through and brings to life once more the Rat Pack, as silly, as funny, as meaningful and as entertaining as the original ever was.

When asked why Stephen, Mark and George keep coming back to perform together (and you will only find these three men performing with each other and no one else), George answers without a moment’s hesitation: “Because we love it. Because we enjoy it. Because we love working together. Why would anybody want to give that up?”

Stephen and Mark agree. And as the audience, we have to agree, too.

It’s infectious. It’s addictive. It’s the Definitive Rat Pack.