It's been 30 years since Paul Sorvino last appeared on Broadway, and more than 40 since he's been seen on Broadway in a musical. The 66-year-old New York City native will rectify that this month, when he takes center stage in the title role of New York City Opera's revival of Frank Loesser's 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella.
Sorvino, a lifelong opera buff, considers himself as much an opera singer as an actor. He is known primarily for his performances on stage, film, and television (he was a Tony nominee for Best Actor in 1973 for That Championship Season, and went on to a distinguished career that has included such films as Goodfellas, The Cooler, Dick Tracy, Nixon, and The Firm, as well as the hit TV series Law and Order). But he began classical vocal studies as a youth and has never stopped.
Thus far, the closest he's gotten to an operatic debut was in the operetta role of Alfred in Die Fledermaus in Seattle in 1981. "It was so much fun!" he says. "I did it as a Pavarotti imitation, with the white handkerchief. We broke all records; we did six performances, and sold out every one. I'd like to think I can take some credit for that. And when I did Fiddler on the Roof in Raleigh last January, they broke all kinds of attendance records there. I love that so much; it's a wonderful role. I guess there are either a lot of people who want to hear me sing, or a lot of people who want to know if I can sing!"
The Most Happy Fella will certainly answer that question. A musical comedy in name only, the work is highly dramatic and, with its mostly sung-through libretto, is essentially a Broadway opera. "For me, this is the best opera written in the past sixty or seventy years," Sorvino insists. "What a shame Frank Loesser did not write more operas. I mean, Guys and Dolls is a fantastic musical, but after you've heard this…! It's absolutely out of this world. This is very Puccini-esque, with passages that sound amazingly advanced and contemporary today."
Loesser's ambitious work was based on the successful 1924 Sidney Howard play They Knew What They Wanted, a comedy-drama about a downtrodden young waitress who is tricked into being a mail-order bride for a much older, plain-faced Italian vintner in Northern California. The two insecure souls are surprised to eventually find in each other a source of true and abiding love. Pauline Lord and Richard Bennett, two of the great stage stars of the era, created the roles of Amy and Tony in Howard's original play. "Tony's a wonderful guy," says Sorvino, "who has had no romance in his life. When he meets his Rosabella [Tony's pet name for Amy], he finds such joy. It's 'love conquers all', it's forgiveness, it's belief in oneself and belief in the future. These two people find each other and really love each other, after a very rocky road in the beginning.
"I've played older characters since I was in my thirties; but it's better that I waited to do this one. It makes more sense." When The Most Happy Fella opened on Broadway, baritone Robert Weede, a star at both New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, was Tony. In subsequent revivals, the role has been sung by the operatic baritone Louis Quilico and even by basses such as Giorgio Tozzi and Spiro Malas.
All of which makes one wonder how Sorvino, who bills himself as a dramatic tenor, can tackle it. "For the most part, it's really written for a voice like mine," Sorvino insists. "It really is too high for a baritone. It's bangin' on F's and G's all the time. So I'll be doing everything in the original key. It fits my voice very well; it's right for me, but it could not have been right for poor Robert Weede. He was one of the best baritones we ever had, but the tessitura was too high for his voice. As for the parts of the role that do dip down into the baritone range, well‹that's not a problem here. I have three octaves so that doesn't really bother me. When it was sung by basses like Tozzi and Spiro Malas, the keys were lowered for them. I saw Tozzi, by the way, and he was wonderful! Not just his singing, but his acting! He was warm,he was funny, he was endearing."
Sorvino's love affair with The Most Happy Fella goes back a long way. Its original-cast album‹a full three-disc set‹was one of the first recordings he ever bought, and he used to listen to it nearly every day. "We were a musical family," he says. "My mother was a piano teacher. And my uncle Costantino was a singer. I first discovered singing when I was fifteen. I had already won a poetry recitation contest at Casa Italiana when I was twelve or thirteen, and the prize was the Licia Albanese-Beniamino Gigli recording of La bohème, which I treasured. Mario Lanza, too, of course, just bowled me over. Pretty soon I discovered Caruso. He did me in! I wasn't like other kids at the time, listening to doo-wop and such. I was so entranced by the greatness, the majesty, the beauty of the operatic voice. And I still am."
Sorvino took his vocal studies seriously, and had every intention of pursuing an operatic career, but that was subverted by a persistent, chronic acid reflux condition. "That's something that ends a lot of singing careers. And I had my bouts with asthma when I was younger. Finally those things were taken care of; I was cured of my asthma when I was 25, and the acid reflux required an operation. It was done, and now I'm so much better." He has since formed The Sorvino Asthma Foundation, which is dedicated to opening asthma centers nationwide to treat the disease in both children and adults.
Who knows what path his life might have taken had Sorvino pursued a career as an opera singer rather than an actor. For him, it's a moot point. "My voice is very young," he states. "It has no wear on it at all, because I haven't used it much. Thanks to my voice teachers, Joan De Caro and the late Ugo De Caro, my voice is in excellent condition. Ugo was the one who resurrected Tebaldi when she had her vocal crisis in the early '60s. She went on to sing eleven more years. Ugo and his wife, a Joan, whom I study with now, have made my voice much better than it was, and made it something that is fully realized."
That doesn't mean he's taking it easy. "Someone once said to me that this role is like Rigoletto. So I'm on quite a regimen. I take three or four voice lessons a week anyway, and since the fall I've been coaching the role of Tony with Gerald Steichen, an assistant conductor at City Opera. I'm also working out with a trainer, because it's a very strenuous part. You've got to be strong to do it." Although he'll be averaging four performances of the role per week, he will sometimes be doing two in one day‹matinee and evening‹and he wants to be fully prepared. "As this is my return to New York," he says, "I really don't want to let people down."
Eric Myers is the author of three books, including, most recently, Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Time Out New York, Opera News, and Variety.