By Jessica Wu
Sharing a dressing room with Loretta Ables Sayre is akin to sharing a room with your cool, slightly foul-mouthed aunt who also happens to be a part of Broadway history. Tony nominated for her portrayal of Bloody Mary in the recent Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, Sayre has since made a second career of playing the Tonkinese trinket merchant. During our Thursday evening performance of South Pacific at the wonderful Paper Mill Playhouse, I was able to pin her down for a quick interview between her exit after ‘Bali Hai’ and our entrance into the scene before ‘Younger than Springtime’.
Sayre’s road to Broadway was a wholly unconventional one. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing this. I come from Hawaii, which is literally as far away as you can get from Broadway and still be in the United States. Doing something in LA would have been huge. Broadway wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities!”
Before her career took its unexpected detour through New York, Sayre made her living as a jazz singer - performing in nightclubs and swanky properties in Hawaii five nights a week for over 25 years. “I also worked during the day doing voice over work, commercials, and whatever was filming in Hawaii – whatever I could to make a living singing and performing.”
Besides jazz, her other love is singing R&B and Funk - “I was fortunate enough to open for great acts like James Brown, the Four Tops, Kenny Loggins, and the Beach Boys.” – a love that becomes very evident during the South Pacific Sunday night half-hour dance party tradition!
In this day and age of musical theatre programs around every corner, it’s always a little stunning to hear when a hugely successful performer has had no formal training before starting professionally. “Growing up, we didn’t have any money for lessons and I only had the choir classes and school shows I did in high school.” Sayre’s reminisced, “I just started doing it and landed on my feet in the nightclub world – singing and building a repertoire.” It wasn’t until much later that she began taking lessons, “Mainly because musical theatre is a totally different style of singing and training those muscles is important so you don’t blow out your voice.”
Sayre had also never taken any formal acting lessons before booking her Broadway debut. “The biggest acting lessons were getting into rehearsals. Every day was a master class working with and learning from Bart Sher, and watching Kelly O’Hara and Danny Burstein and what they were able to bring as far as intimacy and truthfulness.”
The Broadway Debut
In June of 2007, Sayre had been singing five nights a week, working six days a week, and was going to be taking some time off to do her first musical in five years at the Diamond Head, her hometown theatre. “A friend of mine who had lived in Hawaii and moved back to New York was having lunch with Ted Sperling, who happened to be the musical director for the upcoming South Pacific revival.”
They were in the middle of the casting process and after months and months of holding auditions in New York, LA, and everywhere in between they hadn’t found a Bloody Mary. “They were now looking in the Philippines because they knew they wanted someone from the South Pacific and my friend suggested they look into casting in Hawaii and threw my name in the hat.” Ted Sperling took this information with him back to his next production meeting and it turned out that Bernie Telsey had a casting agent who happened to be vacationing in Hawaii the next week. They asked that agent, Joe Langworth, to give up one of his vacation days to hold an audition – everyone who fit the bill was there and were put on video tape.
“I almost didn’t go – I felt I was incredibly underprepared and it was unbelievably daunting to be auditioning for a New York casting agent. It was my wonderful husband who talked me into it last minute. They said it would probably take at least six weeks for everyone to see the tape, but two days later they called me and said Bart Sher had selected me for a callback in New York.”
“In August, they flew me to New York for several days of callbacks and at the end of that week, after my final audition, Bernie Telsey pulled me back into the room and told me I got the role in front of the entire team!” In October there was a week long principal cast read through and in January of 2008 Sayre moved to New York for what ended up being the three year run of South Pacific on Broadway.
So, I’d heard this story from several revival’s original cast members and I had to ask Sayre to talk about the famous South Pacific sitzprobe. She immediately smiled and a softening overcame her Bloody Mary painted features. “This is going to make me cry!”
Sayre had made her living working with jazz duo’s and trio’s and the occasional R&B band, but had never before sung with an orchestra. “We had gone through the entire rehearsal process with just the piano and then on the day of the sitzprobe the 40-piece orchestra started playing the overture and my heart started racing.”
“Kelly and Paolo got up and sang their songs and I could hardly breathe at that point. And then it was my turn to sing ‘Bali Hai’ and I had never heard this arrangement or stood in front of an orchestra as they played it. I had to sing the song and I couldn’t breathe or hear and at the end I could barely sustain the note. When the song ended, Ted wanted to go back and work on something with the orchestra and he said, “Can we go back to so-and-so part” and I couldn’t speak and I just burst into tears. I was 50 years old and had never sung with an orchestra before. So that feeling was just overwhelming. It was like hearing these angels playing and you’re given this gift to be able to sing along with that.”
When she turned around, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cast and rehearsal had to be stalled. Whether they were happy for Sayre or for themselves or just filled with pride for the production, everyone knew it was a special moment. “It was one of those experiences in life that you will never forget. Nothing will ever replace that feeling.”
The Now and The Future
After the Broadway revival ended, Sayre went on to do the UK tour, the production at the MUNY and now the run at Paper Mill Playhouse. Her subsequent time with South Pacific has been interspersed with happily living at home in Hawaii, performing concerts, and occasionally returning to her roots for nightclub gigs. With several unmentionable things on the horizon, the immediate future for Sayre also includes doing a play, and then co-directing a production of South Pacific at Diamond Head in Hawaii. “The tour never made it to our state… The people of Hawaii have been such a part of this whole ride with me and it will be amazing to bring this production to them.”
Bloody Mary’s Words of Wisdom
When I asked if she had any advice for aspiring performers chasing their dreams, Sayre became very serious. “Follow it. Know what your strengths are, but learn everything. I asked all these people who were in a casting position – Chris Gattelli, Bart Sher, Bernie Telsey - what it was they were looking for and it overwhelmingly wasn’t someone who was really great at one thing.”
“I discovered they want people that are flexible and malleable – people who are able to sing in different styles, dance or move in different ways. They want people they’re able to work with who can put their egos to the side, get out of their own way, and let other people help make them their best. Go for it!”