If you could know only one fact about short-lived singing sensation Bobby Darin, this one might be a good choice: You know that finger-snappin’, big-band swingin’, cocktail-lounge soundin’ classic “Beyond the Sea?” Darin was 22 years old when he recorded it.
Not only that, he had to buy himself out of a contract to tour Europe with a roster of other teen idols to win that freedom, a move that everyone in the industry considered career suicide.
“This is a man who sort of showed up fully formed as an entertainer, and he’s this 22-year-old kid,” says Village Playhouse artistic director Keely Enright.
Think that’s interesting? Sit down with Enright and mention the subject.
“The problem with Bobby Darin was that he changed his style so many times. He died at 37. Had he lived longer, the fan base and the general public might have understood what he was and what he was doing.”
That’s as good a way as any of introducing Splish-Splash: The Short & Spectacular Life of Bobby Darin, Enright’s 2009 entry in the Piccolo Spoleto theater series and a continuation of Village’s series on 20th-century greats.
As musical theater goes, it’s heavier on the music and lighter on the theater, but Enright is serious about conveying the drama of Darin’s unusual life.
Darin was born into a working class Bronx household in 1936 and suffered from rheumatic fever as a child. The illness weakened his heart, and he learned at age 8 that he was unlikely to live a long life. Yet the illness also shaped his musical destiny, giving him years of bed rest that he devoted to listening to music and reading. Darin emerged in the mid-1950s as a musical prodigy with a genius I.Q., a songwriter with an uncanny ear for musical styles, self-taught on piano and guitar, and a showman with the driving ambition to make his mark before his heart gave out.
He found fame in 1958 when a song he wrote and recorded more or less on a bet made him an overnight sensation. A popular radio deejay challenged Darin to write a song that began with the phrase “Splish splash, I was taking a bath.”
“He did what he needed to do,” Enright said. “With ‘Splish Splash,’ it’s the silliness of the song that makes it so memorable … but it wasn’t the style he wanted to work in.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Darin worked with the urgency of a man who knew he wasn’t long for this world. He morphed from teen idol into an adult song stylist in less than a year. He appeared in 13 films (composing the music for five of them) and earned an Academy Award nomination.
His career covered everything from pop crooning (“Dream Lover”) to stunningly re-imagined standards (“Mack the Knife”) to country music and eventually folk-based protest songs. By the time of his death in 1973, Darin had been one of Las Vegas’ biggest draws for more than a decade.
Darin the man certainly fascinates Enright, who created this world-premiere show. “I think of it like an A&E biography brought to life,” she says.
Splish-Splash is a 90-minute show in the quasi-intimate confines of the Village Playhouse in Mt. Pleasant, featuring two performers (Joe Clarke and Paulette Todd) working with an eight-piece band.
“This is entertainment, but I tried to fill in the story of his life,” Enright says. “So it’s not only the wonderful diversity of the music, but who he was. I try to get that across, but there’s not going to be a test at the end.”
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