As an actor I have taken on many roles in my career: serious, absurd, ridiculous, funny, frightening, silly. Not always fulfilling, but whether comedy or drama, sometimes you really hit the mark and reach an audience. Sometimes you've just gotta park your ego at the door and lend yourself to the vision of a director or theme of a project and trust that it works.
My desire as an entertainer and singer, however, has been to establish myself as "Derek". You know, that guy that loves to sing and smile. Nothing gets me more jazzed than to feel I've reached an audience from the front row to the very back. If an audience is familiar with me they know I'm going to take them along on a journey through song and laughter. When I leave the stage they will know they've seen a Derek show. The sound of applause is an ego boost beyond the power of any high I have experienced - it's a wonderful feeling and to have that success is immeasurable and very humbling.
In "Shatner Rules", William Shatner states that his rule and key to success has been to say "Yes". Elaborating he says: "No" closes doors. "Yes" kicks them wide open.
Here are two stories of success that began with me saying "Yes!"
Memories of The Rat Pack
In 2002, Director Chris McHarge contacted me about the possibility of portraying Dean Martin in his show "Memories of The Rat Pack". The show pays homage to the famous nightclub act, The Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Sammy Davis, Jr. Born on stage in Las Vegas in 1962 and immortalized in pop culture forever more. Through song and story the show recounts the lives and career highlights of these three famous entertainers and then transforms the audience back in time to the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel for a live performance accompanied by a live band headed by Musical Director, Colin Stewart.
Chris and Colin were taking Memories of The Rat Pack on a Fall tour in Canada and on to Germany in late 2002 and I was on board! I grew up on the music of Frank Sinatra and didn't know much about Dean Martin, but the mischievous Dino antics done with a smile, twinkle in his eye and drink in his hand, seemed to flow naturally from my soul. The show really caught it's stride in Magdeburg, Germany, where we were a smash success and held a five-week residency in the ballroom at the Four-Star Maritim Hotel. We spent Christmas there that year and were the headliners in the most incredible New Year's Eve celebration I have been a part of where following our performance, the German producers rang in the New Year with a massive indoor fireworks display in the 10 storey atrium in the hotel lobby! That memory has fuelled my Dean Martin performance since that day.
A key to the success of Memories of the Rat Pack is that it really allows us to portray Dean, Frank and Sammy while maintaining our own sense of identity with the audience. I had no intention of succumbing to a boozy, fumbling Dean Martin impression as so often seen in lesser shows and McHarge's direction mercifully refrains from full blown impersonations in favour of delivering the essence of each legendary entertainer with a tip of the cap to these three giants of showbiz and nod to the audience. The show also serves to remind the audience of the cultural impact that The Rat Pack at The Sands had on America in the 1960's. Up to that time, black entertainers weren't allowed to stay in the same hotels where they were drawing huge audiences. Frank Sinatra refused to go on stage unless Sammy Davis, Jr. was afforded the same privileges that he had in Las Vegas. The show has been a tremendous success since the initial tour, has played hundreds of engagements and continues to thrill audiences throughout Canada, USA, Germany and Austria.
Memories of The Rat Pack poster plus a 4 storey billboard! There were several in Magdeburg
The spectacular Maritim lobby and the finale of the 2003 lobby fireworks display
Dean & Jerry: What Might Have Been
In 2015, Director Jesse Collins contacted me about the possibility (do you see a theme here..?) of playing Dean Martin in a show he had conceived about the showbiz partnership of Martin & Lewis. That is, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who as a team were showbiz titans alone at the top of the mountain for ten years from 1946 to 1956, when it all seemingly came to a sudden end. Jesse had previously directed me in his play "Lights, Camera, Christmas!" where I played crooner Gordie Roberts, whose fate as a singing star was being overshadowed by technology and the disco era. Loosely based on the life of singer, Andy Williams, the role fit with my crooning style and love of the music of the American Pop Standards. Jesse's concept was to tell the story of how Dean & Jerry met and became a nightclub sensation that swept to success through America on radio, television and in movies and ultimately called it quits at the height of their ascent in a show called Dean & Jerry: What Might Have Been. Having played Dean Martin for more than a decade, I loved the idea of taking the character and story in the Martin & Lewis direction, but I raised caution with Jesse in that I was not interested in a delivering a tribute show about impersonations of two larger-than-life characters. Jesse was of the same mind and his concept proposed a narrative that required the Dean and Jerry actors to break character and speak directly to the audience throughout the show. Its a tall order to pay tribute to these giants of American showbiz culture and get to their essence without descending into a maudlin impersonation, but I was up for the challenge and on board!
Now where do we find a Jerry? Jesse Collins explains it quite well:
My original thought was that finding a Jerry would be easy. Doing an impression was a breeze – just scream: Hey, Lady! But I wanted someone who had a real sense of the character. Someone who was more of an improviser or nightclub comic than an actor. But the story-telling needed to be more drama than lecture, so acting needed to be part of the package, too. I reached out to a friend, stand-up comedian Martha O’Neill. She knew a lot of comics and improvisers, and I thought she could put something on Facebook. This is the copy I sent her:
Our Jerry needs to be a clown and dynamo, comfortable with improv and a natural at the fifties nightclub feel. He needs to sing: Jerry had a #1 hit record, Rockabye My baby with a Dixie Melody, and did a ton of duets with Dean Martin. This does not need to be an impersonation, per se. We’re telling this story through songs and sketches; we need to capture the essence of the performers, not necessarily impersonate them.
She posted it to her Facebook page on December 4, 2015. At 7:15am the next morning I received an email from a young guy named Nicholas Arnold. Apparently, we were both early risers. He told me about his admiration of Jerry Lewis from a very young age and his experience performing the King of Comedy’s material. He sent some videos, and they were fantastic. He was the right age, the right type of performer – he had a lot of promise. But for practical reasons, we needed to have auditions just to have all the bases covered.
We auditioned Nick and a few other contenders later in the new year. Derek and I knew that it was mostly just to get a sense of who Nick was. Basically, if he wasn’t bonkers, he had the gig. Well, he clearly wasn’t bonkers. He was brilliant.
I’m not old enough to have been at the 500 Club in 1946 when Dean and Jerry first stumbled into the shtick that would define a decade, so I can’t know for sure what that experience was like. But I know what it was like at the Ryerson rehearsal space on Gerard Street on a grey January day when Derek Marshall and Nick Arnold began to improvise while singing That’s Amore. I could feel the start of something very special: it was magic.
( You can read more on Jesse Collins' conception of the show at DeanAndJerry.ca )
High praise from Jesse, and he's right - Nick and I were firing on the same cylinders from the get go. Over the course of 4 years and 100 performances, we have developed a schtick of our own that translates very well from stage to audience. It's a rare and fine thing to meet a performer who you can trust implicitly on stage and I have found that in Nicholas Arnold. I had full trust in Jesse's vision for the show, but I did have one condition: that I could not be put in a box musically or comedically. Much of Dean Martin's success was the easy going rapport he seemed to have with every bit of material and each song he presented. It put his audiences at ease, whether live or on TV, and took them on a ride. Dean & Jerry: What Might Have Been is a concert of hits and bits from the Martin & Lewis days and further into their solo careers. But how do you make that compelling beyond recounting their illustrious careers? Jesse proposed the notion of reuniting the duo - what if they hadn't split up? This is where WE split from reality and present a reunion concert to cap off the show, with Nick and I doing our best to imagine what that would be like and voice it through our characters. It's likely more fun that two entertainers should be allowed to have on stage and it has consistently brought audiences to their feet in appreciation at the end of each show. You can always find Nick and I in the lobby post-show greeting our audiences, shaking hands, taking photos and thanking patrons one person at a time for sharing an evening with us.
We are currently working on scheduling future performances.
More information on Dean & Jerry: What Might Have Been can be found at DeanAndJerry.ca