Backstage at the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Chicago, when folks talk about brotherly love, they don't mean Philadelphia. It's Sabella all the way. David opened as the female impersonator Mary Sunshine in the revival of Chicago and Ernie joined the show in January, replacing Joel Grey in the role of Roxie's sad-sack husband Amos. When we caught up with the Brothers Sabella between performances. the siblings cavorted in their dressing rooms at Broadway's Shubert Theatre, and confided in Playbill Backstage.
"He's much older than I am," David teased.
Ernie laughed, "15 years."
< "I was a complete surprise." David smiled.
"I call him the summer vacation baby." Ernie teased. "I was in high school. Mommy was happy, so I was happy. Because she was pregnant and she was 37, the doctor told her that basically she had to stay in bed during her whole pregnancy. "So I was assigned the indoor chores -- vacuuming, washing, watching TV . . . eating potato chips. I loved it because it was hot in Florida, and every time I opened the door, it was 9,000,000 degrees out there. So I'd close the door, and say `Mommy's pregnant. I have to stay inside and clean up.'
"Because of this, I was completely absorbed in the world of Lucy Ricardo, and Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore -- all the television shows. I said, `That looks like fun. I think I want to do that.' "
"So it's my fault?" David said, "Is that what you're saying?
"I owe you a lot? Ernie said, laughing.
Ernie's dressing room is up one flight, just down the hall from Marcia Lewis. Treasured photos of past opening nights, among them Laughter on the 23 Floor and Forum, are nestled comfortably on the overhead shelves. Ernie with Nathan Lane. Ernie with his girlfriend, Cheryl. David glances around, then points to a second room. "You see! He's got the double suite, and he's got a car -- yes! And he's a replacement! I want to make that perfectly clear.".
Ernie: "I have a color TV."
David: "I have a smaller one."
Ernie: "I have a humidor."
David: "I just have a humid Cuban."
Ernie chuckled, "The matinee ladies love him!"
"They shriek and scream, because I actually look just like them," David grinned. "They don't believe that it's me. Every day, I hear, `So who was the woman who really sang? Why didn't she take a bow?'
"You know," he exclaimed to his brother, "I'd love to play a male character."
Ernie's laughter bubbled over again.
"Well, it is kind of interesting," David continued, "that in my career, casting against type has meant playing a man. I was in La Grand Scena for a few years, and there I did Aida and Madame Butterfly."
"So I want to play Jo-Jo in The Life. I really do. Cause that's the kind of tenor I am. I just love Cy Coleman's music. The girls downstairs are sick of me, because I've played my Life CD so much that it cracked. Every day when I warm up I start with Jo-Jo, then Pamela Isaac's song, then Lillias'. I just keep singing higher and higher. At the end, of course, I do both parts in the duet."
"You know," Ernie said, beaming, "David won the Pavarotti International Voice Competition in 1995." When Pavarotti announced his name, dad and I nearly fainted."
"This I will never forget," said David. "I'm up there singing a Handel aria. All of a sudden, Pavarotti stopped me. The whole room just sort of went 'uh oh,' The over the 'God' mike, he says, `David. I don't have to hear to the end. This is excellent. You go to the concert hall.' "
"Last night in the wings," Ernie said through misty eyes, "I turned to Clifford, our production stage manager, and said, `I'm looking at my investment.' Because before my mom died in 1978, she told me, `Take care of David.' So I put him through college and now I'm looking at my payoff.' When he graduated, I was a mess. I kept wishing mom was there. I wish she was here now. All I can say is `We did it.' "
Ernie's own career is flourishing. He's in commercials for Infiniti cars, Canon copiers and Dr. Pepper running simultaneously. He's doing Lion King II [film] which opens Oct. 27 and a new sitcom, ["Encore! Encore!"], with Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright, which NBC has picked up for a fall debut. He just finished filming The Out of Towners with Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin.
But for Ernie, Chicago is his dream come true. "You know, I've wanted to play Amos Hart for 22 years, and I worked on it. This was always my dream. It's my favorite part of all time, because it's a character man's triple play -- funny, touching a little dance -- a solo number. I guess you can have that in other shows, but this one's a diamond, and you're one of the rubies around the diamonds."
We climbed two more flights to watch the actor who sings the highest notes in the show turn himself into Mary Sunshine. The entire transformation takes David Sabella about 20 minutes, including eyelashes. Situated in front of the lighted dressing mirrors, he applied a new blue cream eyeshadow of a slightly more glamorous hue. A subtle gardenia incense wafted through the room. Creeds have been etched onto the mirror in ruby red lip pencil as inspirational reminders: "Remember, it's called a play." "If you're not happy here and now, you never will be."
On a souvenir shelf is displayed a weapon. Is that gun real?
"That's from John [Kander, composer] and Fred [Ebb, lyricist] for opening night -- there's a funny story. President Clinton came to see the show. He came on a Saturday night between shows, so the Secret Service made us evacuate the building. They inspected the entire building, and in every single dressing room they found a gun. It's a lighter, but they didn't know that. It was like the Booth Theater."
In January, when Ernie opened in Chicago," recalled David, "I had an anxiety attack backstage. They had to hold the intermission. My blood pressure dropped. I was shaking. I was so joyous I was crying.
"Ernie's phenomenal in Chicago. Not only is he a great talent and a great older brother, he's the greatest person on this planet. He's really the lynch pin of generosity. You know, he used to sing me to sleep when I was a baby," David paused. "We were living in Thornberg, New York, but every night, no matter what happened in town -- auditions or whatever -- he'd come home to read a bedtime story and sing to me.
"We hope to do more shows together," said David. "We've got plenty of ideas. I'd like Stephen Sondheim to write us a show, or Kander & Ebb. Cause our life really is The Rink, only the characters are brothers instead of mother and daughter. Basically that's it. I'd like to do something like The Rink Meets La Cage Aux Folles -- that kind of thing. Have Terrence [McNally] write the book. Or maybe there's something else we could do -- a musical of The Producers.
By now, Mary Sunshine's makeup is finished. At our request, he's standing on the sofa clad in his Clark Gable undershirt, pointing out his opera performance posters. David managed to combine his opera and Broadway thus far in his career, and this summer David will perform in Monteverdi's The Coronation of Pompeii and as a soloist with the New England Symphony at Carnegie Hall. "You know I have to say -- and this is for the record -- I spent the first year and half of being in Chicago, thinking I should be somewhere else. Honestly! Because I was so hooked up into the opera and classical musical world. Now it's like opening night all over again, and I'm just so ecstatic -- especially now that Ernie's here.
"Fate has always kept us somehow close together . . . "
". . . try as we might," laughed Ernie, popping into the dressing room.
"We're very close." David quipped with an impish grin, leaning over to poke his index finger into Ernie's check, "Bruuu--ther."
"With a tender smile and perfect comedic timing, his brother retorted, " I hate him."