By Wayne Harada
A incredible dream come true. Good fortune. Hard work. A Tony nomination. A lifestyle change. Sharing aloha and Spam musubi.
These reflections of Loretta Ables Sayre, a Mililani Mauka resident, will live forever because she was lucky enough to land the role of Bloody Mary in an exquisite Broadway revival of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which just closed this past Sunday after a two-and-a-half-year run at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
“This has been the most unexpected, most thrilling and most gratifying opportunity and job I have ever had in in my life,” Ables Sayre said in an exit interview.
Before Bloody Mary, she was a chick singer of jazz and pop standards at upscale hotels like the Halekulani and the Kahala Resort. She starred in two productions of “You Somebody” at Diamond Head Theatre, which galvanized her star status in the Islands.
But she was 50, describing herself as round and brown (a “plus” woman, of mixed heritage including Filipino) when she made her Broadway debut. By New York standards, she was a late bloomer — but the experience ultimately transformed her life. Now 52, she’s wiser and seasoned — leaving her mark on the Great White Way by delivering two big show numbers, “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk,” in the classic “South Pacific.”
“As soon as I got to my dressing room after the final bows on Sunday, I cranked up my iPod and played the Sunday Manoa (especially Robert Cazimero’s voice, she noted) and sang along out LOUD to “Honolulu, I am coming back again.”
While she had passion and dedication, to the show and to her character, she is so ready to resettle and readjust to a “normal” life back home in the Islands. You know, putter around the house and garden, schmooze with her dog Makamaka, be a tita again, bake cookies and cakes to her heart’s content.
She shared thoughts about Broadway, the fans, living far from home, the friends she made and the unexpected highs of her presence and creation of the souvenir hawker in a show that had never been revived in six decades — a part she deftly defined for a whole new generation of theater fans.
So here’s our Loretta — fresh from her triumph:
Q: "South Pacific" has changed your life, personally and professionally. How do you perceive and analyze the journey you’re experienced?
A: I was lucky enough to make my living as an entertainer in Hawaii for 30 years. But, the opportunity to perform on Broadway was a dream I really thought I would never see come to fruition. And, the reality of that dream has been bigger and more beautiful and more fantastic than I could have ever hoped it could be. What started out as a three-month engagement, turned into a two-and-a-half year long run. To be a member of a cast of 40 with an orchestra of 30 in a classic, beloved musical that had not been on Broadway since it had premiered 60 years earlier, to be mounted at Lincoln Center Theater, one of the most respected artistic venues in the world, in a show that received 11 Tony Award nominations and 7 Tony Awards, really is more than I could possibly have ever asked for. Receiving a Tony Award nomination (Featured Actress in a Musical) in my Broadway debut is something I still can't quite believe myself. But the real challenge has been to strive to give nightly performances that reach the level of my seasoned fellow actors. Performing on stage with them, under the brilliant direction of Bartlett Sher, is like taking a daily master class in theater. I cannot believe my good fortune in working with them. At age 50, this experience has opened up a whole new world of performance possibilities. You never expect something like this to happen, especially at this age. Who knows what the future holds. I'm so thrilled that this even happened once in my life.
Q: What has been the toughest challenge?
A: Being away from home, my family, my friends and the touchstone that they are to me. It can be a very surreal experience here in New York. And, you miss the reality that your closest friends and family give you.
Q: And the personal sacrifice, like living in New York while you're performing, and publicist-husband David Sayre taking regular trips between NYC and home — how did you cope with the lifestyle change?
A: You just make it work. There is no way to plan ahead for something like this. But, you realize what your priorities are; being in touch, being connected, and being together. This experience isn't happening to just me. It's happening to us. I have to give great credit to my husband David, who made it possible for me to be here. He took care of my mom and our home and his business. And yet, would fly out to be here with me every month. Plus we had our daily phone calls to make sure our communication stayed open. And, we made an effort to keep involved in each other’s lives. When you are married, you share the good and the bad. And having somebody support you and love you is the most important thing of all.
Q: How did Bloody Mary evolve since the time you first inhabited the role? Did you get to better know her inner core?
A: Definitely. When you first start a show, you are worried about memorizing your lines and finding your marks. Then, as time goes on, it's your job as an actor to dig deeper and deeper into your motivation and understand all the many sides of the humanity in your character. Making her real means finding her vulnerabilities, her manipulations, desperation and what propels her forward. The challenge in doing a long run is to keep your character alive.
Q: Any revelations from backstage that you can share?
A: I tried my best to share aloha with the cast. Cooking, baking for them weekly and twice a week on two-show days, I would make them hurricane popcorn...but I would take it a step further by adding into the popcorn goodies that people from Hawaii would send me. For example, macadamia nuts, wasabi peas, candied ginger, iso peanuts, etc. Plus, I would make them Spam musubi...which they refer to as Spam sushi...and they were all surprised at how much they loved it.
Q: You elected to stay with the original company at Lincoln Center, instead of touring with the national company. Do you anticipate or welcome a brief run as Bloody Mary in the near future?
A: I was offered to go on tour after the show here at Lincoln Center Theater closed. But, in a way, I've been "on tour" in my own way by living here in New York and away from Hawaii. So, after almost three years in New York, I've opted to come home and spend some time with my husband and my family instead. However, there is still talk of a West End run (London) and possible other tours, so we'll see what happens with that in the future. Right now my priority is to spend some time at home.
Q: A local girl gets homesick, right? Share your secrets of bringing a bit of home to The Big Apple.
A: Coming from Mililani, looking out at a Manhattan skyline can be jarring. So, I did have to bring as much Hawaii as I could into my home for all the comfort that brings. I made Hawaiian print covered pillows and slipcovers. I bought palm trees for the apartment. I replaced the art on the walls with photos of tropical plants from our garden at home — monstera, red tea leaf, laua'e, etc. Artist Art Furtado gifted me with one of my favorite pieces of his; a beautiful print called "Heleconia" that features a local woman praying amongst hanging heliconia that has hung in our Manhattan apartment. Also listening to Hawaiian music helps brings balance into my hectic life. There is nothing like listening to The Brothers Cazimero when you are standing on the corner of Broadway and 65th Street amongst taxis zipping by, to make you feel grounded.
Q: You've had your share of backstage/stage door visits by the rich, the famous, the average, the hometowners. What are a few memories that you'll cherish forever?
A: A knock on my dressing room door and opening it to find Bette Midler standing there. (They are both Radford grads, so immediately talked pidgin — and flashed shaka signs). Hearing the words "James Taylor is backstage and he would like to meet you." Walking into my dressing room and finding a hand-written note from Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (I'll treasure that forever). Receiving a bottle of wine from Sting. I've been equally moved by the overwhelming generosity and aloha given to me from local people who have come all the way from Hawaii to see the show. I've been moved to tears by those that have waited by the stage door and offered fresh lei that they brought all the way with them. The ones that would take the time to say aloha and by those who would just leave a note or a box of chocolate-covered mac nuts. Any sign of aloha would fill my heart with joy. One very special moment was when Halua I Ka Wekiu came to see the show, gathered in the hall by our dressing rooms and sang and chanted to me. Members of our cast still remember that chicken skin moment and talk about it all the time. I've taken great pride in sharing Hawaii with our cast. But a magical moment like that is something none of us will ever forget.
Q: What are your plans for life in Hawaii again. A return to club singing again? Community theater?
A: After two-and-a-half years of doing eight shows a week and, in the process, suffering a torn meniscus in my knee, a tear in my rotator cuff, and complete vocal and physical exhaustion, my immediate plan is to rest, rest, and then get more rest. I'm looking forward to soaking in the sun, feeling the trade winds, being with my husband David and our dog Makamaka, and hopefully not hearing any car horns blaring for a while. I don't have any plans of working in nightclubs anytime soon. However, there is the possibility of several pending projects here in New York in the not too distant future...but, nothing that I'm at liberty to discuss at this point.
Q: What will you miss most about Broadway?
A: First of all, I will miss working at Lincoln Center. The people that make up this organization, are the kindest, most professional, welcoming, loving, supportive family you could ever hope to work for. I will miss the thrill of performing a classic, timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece. I will miss working with my wonderful fellow actors like Danny Burstein (Luther Billis in the show). He is a consummate professional, a brilliant actor, and my best buddy in the show.
If you saw "South Pacific" with Loretta Ables Sayre, share your comments here about her, your backstage visits, your impression of the production.