DIVA TALK: Chatting with South Pacific's Loretta Ables Sayre Plus News of Cates and Hart

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with South Pacific's Loretta Ables Sayre Plus News of Cates and Hart News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Loretta Ables Sayre
Loretta Ables Sayre

LORETTA ABLES SAYRE
Actress and nightclub singer Loretta Ables Sayre, who has spent most of her life in Hawaii, is currently making her New York and Broadway debut as Bloody Mary in Lincoln Center Theater's Tony-nominated revival of South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Sayre's natural high about her Main Stem bow was palpable during our recent interview. And, that was even before she received a Tony nomination and a Theatre World Award for her wonderful performance. Sayre manages to find all the laughs in the role originally created by Juanita Hall, but she does so without sacrificing the character's heart. In fact, by the end of the evening, the audience has grown to care a great deal about South Pacific native Bloody Mary. After speaking with Sayre, that's no surprise: The woman who inhabits the role is about as genuine and nice as they come. My interview with 2008 Tony nominee Sayre follows.

Question: Congratulations on your Broadway debut.
Loretta Ables Sayre: Thank you so much! It's so crazy to hear somebody say that. It's still too surreal for me.

Question: Is Broadway something that you had hoped for?
Sayre: Only all of my life. I lived and grew up in Hawaii, and the possibility and probability of that just seemed absolutely nil. We're so far away from New York that it's another planet.

Question: Had you been here before?
Sayre: I had been here on two trips with my husband. They were both back in 2001 and 2002. Then I hadn't been here for five years when this came up, and I'm still absolutely just shocked by it all.

Question: How has the experience so far compared to what you thought it might be like?
Sayre: Bigger and better and grander and more fabulous than I could have ever dreamed it would be like. It's just amazing. Question: How did the role come about?
Sayre: They had been looking for Bloody Mary, and they had had a couple of very large auditions and were still continuing in the search looking for her. Ted Sperling, who is our musical director, was having lunch with a friend of mine who is an actor here. He lived in Honolulu for a while. He was telling Randall that they were still trying to find a Bloody Mary, so Randall said, "You're doing South Pacific. Have you ever thought of looking in the South Pacific, in Hawaii, for a Bloody Mary? I know a lot of talented women over there, and maybe you should consider it." He put Ted in touch with the artistic director of Diamond Head Theatre. I was in rehearsals for a show there. Ted said, "Do you know of this woman named Loretta?" and [artistic director] John Rampage said, "Yes, actually, she's in the next show that we're doing." And, then it just so happened that Ted told Telsey and Company about it. They were the casting agents, and one of their agents was going to be in Hawaii the following week. Isn't that crazy? So they asked him if he would give up one of his days and hold an audition and videotape it. They invited me, along with a large group of wonderfully talented women in Hawaii, to go to it. To tell you the truth, I almost didn't go.

Question: Why is that?
Sayre: For two reasons. I hadn't done a show in [many years]. My career in Hawaii has really been as a nightclub singer. This is the first show that I had done in five years, and I was a little overwhelmed trying to learn the script and the choreography and songs and all that. When I heard about this audition and was asked to do it, they sent a packet of sides and the sheet music. I hadn't had any time to memorize it, and I just thought that the possibility of me even getting into the audition or having anybody see me was so ridiculously small that maybe I shouldn't even waste my time. The women that were going to this audition were incredibly talented. So I almost didn't go, and my husband talked me into it a half an hour before I was supposed to be there.

Question: Aren't you glad he did?
Sayre: Oh, my God! It was crazy! I asked them if I could use the sides and the music, and they said yes. When I finished with my audition, Joe Langworth, the casting agent, said, "It's going to take anywhere between a month to 45 days for everybody that needs to see this tape to see it, so you should hear from us within about six weeks, and we can let you know something." I finished it, and I was so happy that I finished it. I did the best that I could do under the circumstances because it all came about so quickly. Then I got a callback three days later. It was in Hawaii. It was Joe Langworth saying, "You've been hand-selected by our director, Bart Sher, for callbacks." [Choking back tears.] I just couldn't believe it. These are words that you dream of, but you just never think you're ever, ever going to hear.

They flew me over here in August for my callback. I worked with Bart and Ted Sperling for a couple of days, and then I had my big audition…two of them actually. The first one was for Andre Bishop, and the second one was for the R & H people. So I did that audition, and then after the audition they introduced me to the people that were there. I had no idea that it was in front of Mary Rodgers and Alice Hammerstein. . . . Coming from Hawaii and watching Rodgers and Hammerstein movies, and to think that I was meeting the children of the men who wrote these shows. It was just overwhelming. [Choking back more tears.] So that in itself was big enough for me, just to meet them. And then when they told me after the audition that I had gotten the part, I didn't come back down to earth for a couple of days.

Question: I remember when we announced that you had won the role.
Sayre: I'll tell you, when that article came up on Playbill.com, that was enough to blow my mind forever. I just could not believe that my name and my face were on Playbill.com. [Laughs.]

Question: Is your husband here with you, or is he back in Hawaii?
Sayre: He's back in Hawaii, but he's coming out here once or twice a month.

Question: That's a devoted husband!
Sayre: I know. We call it conjugal visits. [Laughs.] But we're very close, and it really is hard to be that far away from each other. He's holding down the fort there in Hawaii. We had just bought a new house and moved my mother in with us. She's a kidney patient. She's on dialysis three times a week. So then this came about, and it was a big decision, "What do we do to take care of her?"

Loretta Ables Sayre in South Pacific.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Is she able to come here?
Sayre: She is, but we had to wait for a couple of things — for the weather to warm up because she can't handle the cold... Question: Tell me about working with director Bart Sher. What was the rehearsal process like?
Sayre: Oh, my gosh. It was like something I've never gone through before. He's just so brilliant, and his mind works so quickly. He has wonderful interplay with all the actors. It's a co-creative process, but his vision was so clear for the show. He had done so much research on not only the show itself, but on World War II, and putting everybody's mind at that point in the world and what our lives would have been like for the nurses and the sailors and even for us islanders. Instead of just doing a show about dancing sailors, it was really about putting our lives and our minds and our hearts in the middle of World War II. So that's the first thing he did. . .

It was just brilliant to watch him add layer after layer after layer and make everyone delve into their characters much deeply than I think I've ever seen a production go. Historically, Bloody Mary has always been played as kind of a wacky, crazy island lady. Instead, he made her so much more than that. She is a mother, and she's a survivor, and she's got to make every buck that she can make while these guys are on the island because she knows they're not always going to be there. There's a sense of desperation about her and vulnerability and anger. Lots of different things instead of just being some kooky little trinket.

Question: How do you find playing on the Beaumont stage?
Sayre: Oh, my God! That football field that's masquerading as a stage! [Laughs.] It's incredible. I've never been on, nor have I ever seen, a thrust stage before. When you're on it and you're way down in front, you just feel like you're surrounded by an audience. It was eerie the first couple of times that I was on it. . . Now I love the feeling that I almost feel like I'm standing in the audience, and I feel like they're sitting on the stage with us. All of a sudden those lines have blurred a little, and it's very comfortable to have them around. You can hear people breathing and, of course, when there's sobbing, it becomes so much more for us to feed off of, too.

Question: What's it like hearing that overture every night?
Sayre: It's magical. We're all getting ready to go onstage when that overture starts. There are some times when we're just in a rush to get our makeup and clothes on and to get out the door. And then there are some times when you hear the first "bum bum bah…" of the orchestra, and it's enough to just freeze you where you are. There are some nights where I'll just be sitting here moved to tears at the absolute beauty and the grace and the luck that I have to be in this show and to hear that. I wish that I could be in the audience too… The bad thing about doing a show is that you never get to see it. I wish that I could sit in the audience and be surrounded by them to feel what they feel when they first hear that overture.

Question: It's a great moment.
Sayre: When the stage pulls back, oh, my gosh! When we had our sitzprobe, [it] was the first time I heard the overture. I was a mess in a dress. I really was. You kind of forget how many fabulous songs are in this production.

Question: It really is one hit song after another.
Sayre: It's overwhelming at how beautiful [the score is]. And then to hear Paulo sing "Some Enchanted Evening" and Matthew do "Younger Than Springtime." My God!

Question: Everyone's got such a great voice in that show.
Sayre: It really is magical even for us in the show. We were all talking the other day that we rue the day, and know it's inevitable, that the cast starts leaving for other things. We have such a great cast. I don't know if that sounds cliché or not, but everyone gets along, and everyone loves each other and everyone appreciates the other one. It's so hard for us to imagine what it's going to be like without anybody that isn't in this original family.

Question: You recently recorded the cast album. What was that experience like?
Sayre: Oh, my God! [Laughs.] You have to realize all these things are firsts for me, every single one. To be there in the recording studio… and they added extra strings. To hear them start playing "Bali Ha'i" — there's this one line that the violins play right as I'm singing, "Bali Ha'i, Bali Ha'i, Bali Ha'i…" They have this beautiful line that they play, and I'm singing the song, and my eyes are all welled up and I'm trying not to get emotional to the point where I can't sing anymore. But it was magical. Again, I'm probably using that word too much, but that's really what this experience has been like. To perform with the orchestra like that, to do these two songs which are probably known across the world by most people, and then to be given the honor to be the person that's singing this song for posterity… that people are going to be picking up this soundtrack and referring to this cast and this cast recording for many years, what an honor. What an honor to be a part of this.

Sayre with South Pacific's sailors.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Bloody Mary?
Sayre: Oh, boy. There are two, and they're at absolutely opposite ends. The first one is the first entrance. When I make my entrance on the stage with the energy of all of the sailors running up the hill for me and jumping over the hill, that moment is incredible. Reaching the top of the hill and looking out at the sailors and just trying to hold onto the energy of that moment — I love that. And then I absolutely love doing "Happy Talk" because there's so much emotionally in [the song]. I'm kind of wrung out by the end of it. . . .To be happy and to be desperate and to be angry, and all of those emotions come out in one song. It's like a catharsis for me. [Laughs.] No matter what kind of day I have, I can sing that song, and everything is out of my system and I'm okay now. Question: I think what's so interesting about South Pacific is, at a time when musicals were often light and fluffy, along comes this musical that has such powerful and important messages in it.
Sayre: Isn't it incredible when you think about it? That they had the courage to write an entire show about prejudice and racial issues and the war, right after World War II and mount it. The lesson, even to this very day — to hear the lyrics of "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" and realize that those [words] were written 60-plus years ago and put onstage almost 60 years ago, and the courage it took to do that is just amazing. We had a lot of stories told to us [about] when this show [originally] went on tour — I don't remember exactly who it was that was playing Bloody Mary on tour, but she was not able to stay in the same hotel as everybody else because she was black. And, a lot of the places where they went to perform, it was still against the law to have an interracial marriage.

It seems like we've come so far, and at the same time, we haven't come very far at all. Not far enough, that we would still be dealing with these issues and that there would still be people that would feel uncomfortable. That's what I appreciated so much with Bart is that he had the courage in this production to make people feel uncomfortable and to put that racial division in their face and let them know that this is a part of our history, and it's a part of our present life, too, and it's time for dialogue — really putting it in front of people and making people talk about that. I'm so proud of that, that the show has made people do that.

Question: Have you gotten feedback from audience members?
Sayre: Yes, and I'm always overwhelmed at people who will come and talk to us with tears in their eyes, thanking us, not only for the beauty of the orchestra... everything… They'll talk about all of that, and then they'll thank us for letting them enjoy a show like this and bringing these things to light and how moved they are and how great it is for us to be able to do a show where we do move people. We sit back here, and we hear people guffawing out loud with all of the comedy. And then, by the end of the show, you can hear men and women weeping. How lucky we are to have the ability to do a show like that.

Question: Were you born and raised in Hawaii?
Sayre: No, I was born in Stockton, California. My biological father was from the Philippines. He fought in World War II in the Philippines and then came to America and, because he only had a sixth grade education, he ended up being a field laborer. He married my mother, and they had the three of us kids. His hopes were that his children would have a much better life than he had. He passed away, and my mom married my stepfather, who was in the military. We got transferred to Hawaii when I was six years old. My mom had always wanted to go there, and we absolutely fell in love with it. In my heart, it's really home. I was born in California, but Hawaii is and always will be my home.

Question: When did you start performing?
Sayre: Gosh, I performed all the way through school. I remember knowing when I was four years old, five years old, that I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to perform. You know how we have show-and-tell days, and kids would bring their pet gerbils and stuff. I would bring a Sarah Vaughan record and sing along with it! [Laughs.]

Question: Who were some of the singers who influenced you?
Sayre: Well, I made my living singing jazz standards, so really the jazz greats: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington. Those were the base for all of the music that I did. But I also am a child of the sixties, so the Beatles and any R&B, Marvin Gaye, all of that kind of music. That's all part of my soul, too.

Question: I noticed in your bio that you played Effie in a production of Dreamgirls.
Sayre: Yes!

Question: What was that experience like?
Sayre: Oh, my gosh, that was incredible! Of course, living in Hawaii, and this was in 1989, I hadn't been to New York. I had never seen a production [of Dreamgirls], but that soundtrack went around all of my friends, and we knew every song inside and out. They got the rights to be able to do it in Hawaii, and they did blind casting there because we didn't have a large African-American performing community. Because it was Hawaii, they had to draw from who they had to draw from. I was able to play that role and oh, my gosh! I mentioned the word "catharsis" before, but… when we did that show, I had just come out of a six-year relationship that had a very terrible breakup, and every single night, it was all I could do to barely get through "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." By the time we finished the run of that show, I could barely remember what that guy's name was! [Laughs.] It came out on the stage and rolled out on the floor and up the aisles! Question: That's what people need instead of therapy. They need to star in a production of Dreamgirls.
Sayre: Exactly! Oh, I am tellin' you. It was absolutely fantastic. And, we had a choreographer, Danny Herman, from New York that directed the show, and he did a great job of it, too.

Question: You mentioned before that you were about to do a show before South Pacific came up. What was that show?
Sayre: It was a local production by a writer in Honolulu, Lee Cataluna, and a Hawaiian musician, Keola Beamer. They had written a show about a woman and her family [whose] goal was to be in a certain entertainment columnist's column. He writes for the newspaper. The show was called You Somebody, which is a term they use in Hawaii for when somebody is famous. So it was called You Somebody, and it was about this woman who was willing to do anything and to make her family do anything — any kind of contest or talent show. . . . She'd have her daughter trying to do some hula thing, hoping that eventually she'd get into the column. It was a great comedy. And, like I said, I hadn't done a show in five years. So I was totally immersed in this show, but what was great about it is it had totally gotten me back into the chops of acting and singing and performing onstage as opposed to nightclub performing.

Question: How does it compare for you, doing a nightclub act versus a character in a show?
Sayre: There's no comparison. I've been fortunate enough to make my living in a couple of wonderful nightclubs at the two only five-diamond properties on Oahu. One, I was at for ten years, and the other one, I was there for seven years. It was wonderful to be able to do that, but you're there doing music for people to enjoy their evenings. They're not always necessarily a rapt audience. You're in the middle of some beautiful Duke Ellington ballad, and the blender goes on. [Laughs.] So, you do your best, and you do it because you love doing the music, and you kind of have to turn your ear off to the rest. To be able to be in a performance like this with an audience that's listening to everything that's going on onstage, that's listening to the entire dialogue, that are caught up in the entire performance that's happening, it's wonderful. It's that wonderful give and take with people that are listening. Plus, they bought tickets, so they really want to listen. [Laughs.] As opposed to just going and listening to a chick singer somewhere.

Question: How long will you stay with the New York production?
Sayre: My goodness, I hope to be here for at least another year. We have an open-ended run here now at Lincoln Center . . . so I'm prepared to be here for another six months definitely and hopefully for at least another year. At that point I kind of have to look back and assess what's going on back home, because I do have that responsibility. My husband has been so wonderful in taking care of my mom, and I have a couple of brothers and sister-in-laws that are doing that. But my mom is living in our home, and I just feel like I'm over here living my dream and taking this opportunity that I really never thought would happen. But the reality is that's where my home is, and I have responsibilities there, too. We just have to assess where things are a year from now, and hopefully she'll be doing fine. I would love to be able to stay with this show until the very last day, but the reality is this show could run for a very long time. Maybe I'll talk to them and see if they could let me go for a hiatus and then I'll come back again.

Question: That sounds very plausible.
Sayre: It would be incredible if they would consider that. I am quite far away. It would be different if I could jump on a plane for even a three or four or five-hour flight, but this is 11 hours. If I had my way, I would stay until the very last day. It's just an incredible moment in my life and a dream come true, and I want to savor every single moment and second doing the show and doing it with the people that are in this cast. I just can't say enough about them. Kelli and Paulo and Danny Burstein, who is a rock star in my eyes. The last two trips that I came here, the only show I saw was The Drowsy Chaperone. I saw it twice, and I could not believe the incredible talent that was in this man's body. And then when they cast me as Bloody Mary, and they told me they were casting him as Billis, I just about lost my mind. They could have said it was Mick Jagger. My reaction would have been the same.

[South Pacific plays the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street. Tickets are available by visiting telecharge.com or www.lct.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
A host of Broadway favorites will take part in an upcoming concert to benefit Diverse City Theater Company, the organization founded in 2003 to focus on "promoting diversity and multiculturalism in the theatre arts." The June 23 concert, titled An Evening of Music Celebrating Diversity in the Theater, will be held at the Helen Mills Event Space & Theatre in Manhattan. Show time is 6:30 PM. Among those scheduled to lend their vocal talent to the evening are Allison Blackwell (Les Miserables), Nikki Renee Daniels (Aida, Beauty and the Beast), Angel Desai (Company), Ali Ewoldt (Les Miserables), Rona Figueroa (Nine, Miss Saigon), Norm Lewis (The Little Mermaid), Jose Llana (Flower Drum Song, 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee), Julie Danao Salkin (Lennon) and Amy Spanger (The Wedding Singer, Chicago). The Helen Mills Event Space & Theater is located in Manhattan at 137 West 26th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Tickets, priced $250 and $500 (includes a post-performance VIP champagne reception) can be purchased by calling (212) 916-0508 or by visiting martha@diversecitytheater.org.

Famed Carol Channing tribute artist Richard Skipper will star in a one-night-only benefit performance of Hello, Dolly! at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ. Directed by Thomas Morrissey, the June 14 performance will feature choreography by Connor Gallagher and musical direction by John Fischer. Show time is 8 PM. Skipper will star in the title role, which was originated by Channing. He will be joined onstage by Charles Karel (Milk and Honey, Dear World, Zorba) as Horace Vandergelder, Kristy Cates (Wicked, Jerry Springer The Opera) as Irene Malloy, Jim Weitzer (Little Women, Phantom) as Cornelius Hackl, Chris Gunn (Little Women, Jerry Springer The Opera) as Barnaby Tucker and Jenna Coker-Jones (Evil Dead The Musical) as Minnie Fay with Anne Kissel (Ernestina), Jack Hallett (Rudolph), Hernando Umana (Ambrose), Brooke Wallace (Ermengarde) and Gary Mottola (Judge). The Paramount Theatre on the Boardwalk in Asbury Park is located at 1300 Ocean Avenue in Asbury Park, NJ. Tickets, priced $15-$50, are available by visiting www.ReVisionTheatre.org or by calling (732) 455-3059. For more information go to www.RichardSkipper.com.

Casting has been announced for the York Theatre Company's upcoming production of Grind. Part of the Musicals in Mufti series, the musical will play the Off-Broadway venue June 13-15. Annette Jolles will direct with musical direction by Steven Marzullo. The cast features Bob Ari as Harry, Joe Cassidy as Doyle, Nikki Renee Daniels as Satin, Brandon Victor Dixon as Leroy, Wendy Fox as a Stripper, Chasten Harmon as Clementine, Linda Hart as Romaine, Larry Keith as Gus, Max Quinlan as a Juggler, Michele Ragusa as Lizzie, Christopher Sergeeff as Juggler and Jasmin Walker as Ruby. Grind will play five performances: Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2:30 and 8 PM, and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 PM. Audience discussions will follow the matinees. The York Theatre Company plays the Theatre at Saint Peter's, which is located at 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue. For more information or to purchase tickets, priced $35, call (212) 935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.

Several veterans of the Broadway company of Mel Brooks' The Producers will star in the upcoming production of that Tony-winning musical at the St. Louis Muny, the nation's oldest and largest outdoor theatre. Playbill.com has learned that the June 16-22 run of the hit musical based on the Brooks film of the same name will feature Lewis J. Stadlen as Max Bialystock, Don Stephenson as Leo Bloom, Anthony Cummings as Franz Liebkind, Larry Raben as Carmen Ghia, Lee Roy Reams as Roger DeBris and Angie Schworer as Ulla. The ensemble will comprise James Anthony, Michael Baxter, Christina Hammersmith, Leah Hoffman, Nicole Hren, Andy Jones, Aaron Kaburick, Ana Llewellyn, Nathan Madden, Ruth Pferdehirt, Alex Puette, Peggy Quinn, Jennifer Smith, Kendal Sparks, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Jeanne Trevor, Keith Tyrone, Gia Grazia Valenti and Amos Wolff. For more information call (314) 361-1900, ext. 550 or visit www.muny.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.