On Stage 21st Century - Tony Sandler, Singer, Entertainer, and Performer with a Romantic European Appeal

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On Stage 21st Century

In the Fall of 1998 Tony was busy preparing a symphonic Christmas show as well as another annual New Year’s Eve symphonic show when he was invited to New York to read a script for a proposed Broadway musical play about Maurice Chevalier. To give his reading more authenticity, Tony began to research Chevalier with his assistant Marna Petersen, and together they began to see a different Chevalier than the one portrayed in the script. In January Tony traveled to New York, read, sang, and took all the accolades. The Tony/Maurice fit was obvious. The producers kept Tony in the mix and looked for a new script.

Tony continued to view the Broadway project with open mind, but by the summer of 1999 Tony let the producers go their own way. They had not come up with a suitable script, were seemingly more intent on using Tony’s personal connections to fund the project, and apparently brought nothing to the table. His assistant was by now deep into the Chevalier research. So Tony asked her to write the script for him. While studying Chevalier’s career and film clips Marna noticed many uncanny similarities between Tony and Maurice. She recognized that she needed to pull Tony into the script as himself so that his personal charisma could accurately convey the enormous charm and appeal of the great Chevalier. They began on-stage rehearsals for the full Chevalier show, now called Chevalier-Maurice & Me, and Tony began to test some of the “straw hat” material in his nightclub shows. When Tony débuted the full show in October 1999 with a tour of community concert associations, audiences of all ages loved it. Tony was incomparable even though the show was still raw, and younger attendees who were not familiar with either Maurice or Tony were fascinated by the history presented in the show. The story showed its strength.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1999 New York producer Jeffrey Moss was organizing the U.S. leg of an international tour of a multi-million dollar French revue. He had heard about Tony’s performances in the Chevalier “persona,” and contracted Tony to perform with the tour. The Lido La Tournée Champs Élysées was produced by the Clerico family, owners and managers of the Lido in Paris. The Lido is famous for its luxurious dinner cabaret and modern, breathtaking feathered and sequined revues that set worldwide standards for nightclub entertainment and extravaganza. Tony was to perform a 20-minute segment with La Tournée on its 1999-2000 New Millennium tour. He joined them later that fall.

In late fall of 1999 Tony joined the touring Lido La Tournée Champs Élysées. The show included a cast of 50 accompanied by 30 staff and crew. But for all its extravagance, Tony discovered that the production was “canned” – music and lights were computer driven. Though the performers were live, their sketches and encores were forced to follow preprogrammed accompaniment, and they had no opportunity to respond authentically to the audience. Tony’s entre act performances with spotlight and piano accompaniment were simplistic compared to the lavish costuming, sets, sound, lighting, and choreography that characterize the Lido sketches, but his role became increasingly significant. Tony had the on-stage freedom to react to and communicate with the audience, he performed in both English and French, and he was a thread that could tie the many and diverse sketches together. The producer added 10-minutes to Tony’s segment, and brought Tony further into the show as host and raconteur. Again, Tony had proof that he could be a hit in this straw-hat role. In fact, he stole the show and the reviews.

The turn of the new millennium was accompanied by widespread fears of potential “Y2K” disruptions that were expected to cause unknown catastrophes at midnight in a world now dependent on the efficiency of computers. Undaunted by this, and still committed to New Year’s Eve at the Minneapolis Hilton, Tony flew to Minnesota on December 31, 1999 in time to ring in the New Millennium with a gala performance. His ease and performance on this memorable night provided exactly the balm that was needed, and those in attendance will never forget how Tony transformed a night filled with apprehension into one of warm and joyous human bonding. Accompanied by a symphony orchestra, Tony closed his concert with John William’s stirring, America, The Dream Goes On. When he began to sing his encore, everyone in the house stood and joined him in singing perhaps the most heartfelt rendition ever of What A Wonderful World. Early the next morning Tony flew to Atlanta to rejoin the Lido cast for their New Year’s Day performances.

As Maurice & Me tours continued in 2000, Tony was offered another contract with The Lido’s second New Millennium Tour. He toured with them through the U.S. during the winter of 2000-2001. A new Chevalier spin-off for Tony came in the spring of 2001, during a run of his performances with the Lido at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, California. The direct result was a collaboration with award winning musical arranger, Peter Matz, made possible by Mitch Gershenfeld, talent buyer for The McCallum. Tony and Peter decided to produce a symphony orchestra pops show based on the scrumptious music of Paris, and met in Los Angeles to get the ball rolling. They talked, Tony sang from several lead sheets he brought with him, and a friendship was forged. It turned out that Peter had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris as a young man and spoke French fluently. He loved the romance of the French language and music, and Tony’s persuasive presentation of this beautiful music brought tears to his eyes. With both their experiences in show business they found mutual respect and adoration.

Tony again turned to his assistant whom he knew he could rely on to write an elegant script. Marna wrote the show based on personal memoirs Maurice Chevalier had written in his book, “My Paris.” The angle opened the door to not only Chevalier’s material but also other music for which Paris is known. Ironically this book had been given to Tony on his 40th birthday, with the inscription, “May your special talent be loved and remembered by as many people as those who loved this man.” They entitled the show Chevalier’s MY PARIS. Work continued on the arrangements and the script throughout the summer, fall, and winter while Tony toured. Marna sent lead sheets to Peter as they were ready, described Tony’s interpretations of the music, noted Tony’s requirements, and kept Peter posted on how the songs and underscoring were to be worked in with the script.

The events of September 11, 2001 also sent a 911 call to the entertainment industry. The immediate drop in funding for the arts that followed the shock and tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York seemingly left the American theatre world in disarray. Tony found this amazing, given a quite different and proactive reaction from theatres in Europe during both World Wars. The shocking but also market-grabbing content that seemed to permeate U.S. stages was no longer appropriate, for times seemed to call for higher material. Other theatres were falling into the red with “safe,” mega-productions of Broadway reruns, but were apparently too afraid to let go of them. Tony was confident that both Maurice & Me and MY PARIS were well placed for the times with uplifting and timeless material suitable to any audience. Meanwhile Mitch Gershenfeld brought Tony back to The McCallum to perform for a 911 benefit concert along with several other artists. Much to Tony’s surprise and delight, Ralph Young agreed to perform a Sandler & Young segment with Tony and big band. This was their last performance together.

Tony then diverted his energies toward preparing for the MY PARIS premiere. Peter Matz completed his arrangements, and with the score and script finalized, Tony was ready to begin rehearsals upon his return to the United States. MY PARIS proved to be Peter’s last work. Peter had planned to attend the first read-through with Tony and full orchestra when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly in August of 2002, Peter Matz died of a reoccurrence of cancer. Tony was deeply saddened. Peter had been truly magnificent to work with, a gentleman and a scholar. He showed great affection for this project and for Tony. When Tony returned from Europe, MY PARIS rehearsals started in earnest.

Events surrounding the debut of MY PARIS in February of 2003 were disconcerting, and even though the historical ebb and flow of international relations now seemed to work against him, the experience reinforced Tony’s belief in the power of entertainment to build public confidence and morale in times of tragedy. For two centuries the friendship between the French and the Americans has resembled a passionate tango, and the fact that Franco-American tensions are now easing with Nicolas Sarkozy at France’s helm comes as no surprise. But in 2003, the U.S. intervention in Iraq fueled fierce opposition from French President Jacques Chirac, and the American press answered with an almost juvenile ridicule of all things French, making it even almost unpatriotic to cozy up to a French fry. Two of Tony’s shows at this time were clearly French related, and though these shows had no political thrust whatsoever, Tony was concerned about whether the American public would reject them along with Champagne and French cheese.

As Tony headed for Dallas and the premier of MY PARIS with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson, this country was on a “high alert” and the U.S. invasion of Iraq was imminent. A couple of days earlier the Columbia space shuttle had ripped apart during re-entry in the skies over Texas, with its greatest physical and emotional impact in the Dallas area. At the same time Dallas was experiencing frigid temperatures and traffic was dealing with a skim of ice and snow on city streets. But the show went on as scheduled. It seemed that people faced with fear and sorrow and uncertainty needed to come together for comfort, to experience something special beyond their daily routine and concerns. Tony understands that culture is the one tangible element of life that people cling to when all else seems to crumble around them, and he hopes the cultural community recognizes its responsibility here, as did the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Turnout was great, and Tony and MY PARIS were enthusiastically received by pops and traditional concert subscribers alike. Tony’s only regret was that he could not share this with Peter.

After that premier Tony was so delighted with the ambiance the accordion parts added to MY PARIS that he added them to Maurice & Me. Marna brought in a couple of sketches from MY PARIS because the material worked so well in Dallas. With each new performance and experience, the team of Tony and Marna honed the precision, accuracy, and appeal of Maurice & Me.

An auspicious break for Maurice & Me came in the spring of 2005 with a short run at the newly restored and extraordinary beaux-arts theatre, The Cutler Majestic in Boston, Massachusetts. Jazz producer Fred Taylor produced the Cutler premiere of Maurice & Me, and brought in three first-class musicians (John Baboyan on guitar and mandolin, Jim Gwin on drums and percussion, and Mark Carlson on bass) to join Tony’s piano/conductor for the show, Evan Mazunik from New York. As a special treat to Tony, Fred also brought in Ludo Mariën, the ace Belgian accordionist of international fame. Fred asked Tony if he could have the show filmed – in high definition. Fortuitously, IPTV Executive Producer, Jerry Grady, and trusted friend and fan of Tony’s, was in Boston to see the show. Jerry heard about the possible shoot and offered to have the film edited for Public Television. Jerry had produced several Tony Sandler specials in Europe and at Iowa Public Television, and Tony knew that IPTV has one of the few and best high-def PBS studios in the country. With this extraordinary confluence of talent and opportunity, the decision to film the show was easy. After the show Tony and Marna worked with IPTV studios to edit the show down to the standard 88-minute presentation seen on PBS on DVD today.

“The impact of Maurice & Me on audiences has been astounding,” says Tony. “It’s uplifting – that’s new, and old-fashioned in many ways largely because I am presenting the life and music of a man from a different era. There are no special effects because that would be inappropriate. And there are no spectacular chorus numbers because I wanted this show to be accessible and affordable for every theatre. So it’s just me and the audience. The show touches them at differing levels depending on their own experiences in life, and they leave the theatre changed. I think it is the fallible humanness of Chevalier that they relate to, and the hope and love that springs from that. Men who had been dragged to the theatre by their wives will come backstage after with tears streaming down their faces. I know then that I have hit a very universal chord.” At a recent run of Maurice & Me in Cleveland, producer Paul Gurgol was inspired to say of Tony, “When Tony Sandler is gone, a whole era of show business is gone. No one else today performs with such ease and assurance, with as much command of his audience, or with such knowledge of his craft.”

Throughout the development of his show about the legendary Maurice Chevalier Tony had no contact with the Chevalier family, nor was he aware that any of the Chevalier entourage were still around. So it was a totally unexpected and amazing surprise when François Vals, secretary and right-hand man and confidant to Maurice Chevalier for the last twenty-years of his career, emailed Tony from the French Riviera with his reaction to the Maurice & Me DVD that he had just viewed. “Formidable !” he wrote. “You have realized the wildest dream, the most beautiful show to render homage to Maurice Chevalier ! It’s extraordinary ! Your interpretation of Maurice comes from your soul, it is neither an imitation nor a caricature, it is simply perfect. What ease, what charm is yours! What quality your show. You are a great, a very great artist ! ! ! ! MERCI et BRAVO ! ! ! ! !”

Tony was thrilled by the contact and the endorsement. He called François Vals who proceeded to rave for half an hour over the phone and confirmed to Tony that Maurice’s personal story and the history as presented in Chevalier-Maurice & Me is as accurate and insightful in its detail as it is in its telling. Monsieur Vals insisted that Tony’s is the only representation of Maurice Chevalier that has been authentic and that has captured the true depth and feeling of Maurice’s own experiences. He added that even Maurice Chevalier’s niece, Lucette Chevalier, raved over the show. Apparently this is a coup of its own; up to this point she had actively opposed any portrayals of Chevalier because they were only silly caricatures that did not truly represent the story or the man whom she watched rise to such astounding heights in his lifetime. Recently Lucette wrote Tony to echo François’ accolades, adding that Tony’s contact with his audience emerges much as Maurice’s did with his public. “Before and after Maurice left the stage,” she wrote,” no other actor in France has achieved or evoked, even without imitating [Maurice], the talent, humor, kindness, and warmth of contact as you do with the audience. This makes me very happy.”

Throughout his career, part of Tony’s strength and appeal has been his ability to communicate with and appeal to international audiences, and to sell a song in any language. In the U.S., Tony’s audiences recognize that je ne sais quoi, that special charisma that sets Tony apart both on and off the stage. He was a dashing heartthrob in Europe, the debonair and very sexy compliment to Sandler & Young, and he has matured into a confident and handsome star that continues to captivate the imaginations of women and men, young and old. The package does not betray the content, for when Tony sings, his message goes straight to the heart and melts audiences.

Tony enjoys diversity. He currently has 5 different shows that he is performing: MY PARIS is a unique celebration of Chevalier’s beloved hometown. It is sensuous and grand, especially with full orchestra, and is as much a delight to the ear as it is for Tony to sing. CHEVALIER-Maurice & Me presents the life story of the legendary Maurice Chevalier. Maurice & Me is intimate, a bio-musical exposing the breadth and depth of Maurice’s career and character. This show exercises an even broader range of Tony’s stage talents.

Tony Sandler’s Great International Songbook is a mix of Tony’s standard repertoire. Whether performing a cabaret show, or singing with big band or with symphony orchestra, these showsdemonstrate Tony’s amazing vocal versatility and style, leaving audiences transformed and wanting for more. During a recent run at the exclusive Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, radio personality Dick Robinson remarked that he was totally amazed and enthralled with Tony’s professionalism, sincerity, authenticity, and vocal ability. “Audiences are hungry for the quality of entertainment that Tony so effortlessly provides.” At these shows audiences experience the full richness and diversity of Tony Sandler’s voice and repertoire.

In Concert – Tony Sandler Sings Jacques Brel features Tony’s unique prowess with his powerful interpretations of the French, English, and Flemish songs written by his countryman. In Come Spend Christmas With Me Tony is joined by a boys choir to sing a diverse and delicious collection of international Christmas carols and holiday songs with unique and stirring arrangements that Tony has been acquiring since childhood. Tony’s early experiences of singing in boy’s choirs left a fondness in his heart for that crystalline sonority that distinguishes their music. “This is a warm and heartfelt show that brings people together to be entertained with music that is heard only at this time of year,” assures Tony. “I am not fond of the parodies and ridicule so often heard in today’s holiday shows, and in this age of political correctness I’m not afraid to say Christmas.” The music speaks for itself.

Always expanding, Tony is currently pulling together material for a recording that concentrates on his favorite songs from Yves
Montand’s repertoire, planned to be recorded with Ludo Mariën on accordion. “These are wonderfully written songs that I fully enjoy,” says Tony. “I even sing them to myself while I’m driving or while working in my studio or shop.” He has not performed them since he left Europe in 1963. But with the resurgence of enthusiasm for French music, he feels they will be especially well received. Tony admits that ever since Sandler & Young broke up he placed his focus on live shows, and has few recordings of his recent work. Fans clamor for CDs, hoping Tony will provide.

Over the years Tony has been infatuated with his American audiences and he appreciates with all humility the affection they are not afraid to display. But at the same time he feels a warm attachment to Europe and his homeland, Flanders. In 2006 the city of Kortrijk threw a party to celebrate Tony’s 50-years on the stage. In another celebration, the mayor of Menen presented Tony with an honorary citizenship. (Tony’s hometown Lauwe has now been incorporated into the city of Menen.)

Belgians are delighted with Tony’s recent release of his Anthology of Flemish Art and Folk Songs (Een Bloemlezing: Vlaamse Kunst & Volksliederen), a three-disc album he recorded to preserve for all time the beauty of the Flemish language and song. In 2007 Tony personally presented this album to HM Albert II, King of the Belgians. The Belgian consulate in New York is working with Tony and Belgian organizations throughout the U.S. to promote the distribution of this collection to libraries throughout the world. This collection is now part of the Library of Congress in Washington.

Now a citizen of the world, this Son of Flanders still has a seemingly bottomless well of talent and creativity that draws from the same aquifer of Flemish artistry that produced the likes of Van Eyke, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt as well as countryman and musical poet, Jacques Brel. Strong as ever after years of entertaining, Tony Sandler’s art is to weave rich tapestries of song with colorful romance languages blended with the versatile textures of his warm baritone voice. He has an ever alluring charm, a relaxed elegance and wit that captivates his audiences and leaves them richer for the experience.

When asked why he continues to work when obviously he could retire in excellent health and comfortable luxury, he replies, “I have always been compelled by the challenge of being as good as I can be, and by the work and sacrifice necessary to achieve that. I have always been a singer – that is what I do. I am an interpreter of songs and love doing that. I know how to entertain people and they enjoy it as much as I do. I have no reason to change all that. I love my life. I am a very fortunate man!”

When Tony was only in his twenties, in Berlin, he went for a stroll between recording sessions and by chance stopped by a palm reader’s stall. The mysterious and beautiful Gypsy took his hand and said, “You will be in the New World at 33 years of age, starring…” On August 18th, 1966, his birthday, Tony opened at the New York Plaza’s world famous Persian Room to a sell-out audience. He was exactly 33 years old! Tony will not reveal what else the woman foretold, but his eyes twinkle when you ask. The answer is clearly related to his first love, singing.

Tony and his wife Mimi have three daughters (Valerie, Natalie, and Stephanie), with six grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Out of respect for Tony’s desire to preserve the privacy of his family, this biography focuses solely on Tony’s career and the circumstances that have influenced that career.

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