Six Questions for David Sabella, Mary Sunshine of “Chicago”

David Sabella originated the starring role of Mary Sunshine in the 1996 revival of Chicago, with Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and Joel Grey.  David, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of this iconic revival with four special performances of “Loopin’ the Loop – A Celebration of Chicago and the Music of Kander and Ebb” at Metropolitan Room, November 2, 9, 16, & 23, 9:30pm. The show features music from Chicago with insider tidbits and backstage stories from the early days of the mega-smash hit, gleaned from Mr. Sabella’s ten-year involvement in the show.

NiteLife Exchange had some questions for David Sabella.

NiteLife Exchange Society has come a long way since the original Broadway production of Chicago opened Forty years ago at the 46th Street Theater in 1975. Having attended one of the shows very early in the run, I can attest to the fact that the audiences’ eyes widened and audible gasping could be heard in the theatre when Mary Sunshine went for the reveal by pulling off her wig. While it wasn’t called “a spoiler alert” in those days, you could hear when people in the piano bars were discussing the show saying, “I can’t tell you anymore, but there’s a surprise,” or words to that effect.

 Twenty years ago, when you originated the role of Mary Sunshine for the 1996 revival of the show, did you get the sense that there was still shock from the audience when that moment took place?

David Sabella – Yes, there was absolute shock when the reveal happened. Fred Ebb once said to me “we never even thought that anyone would mistake Michael (O’Haughey) for a woman, but they actually believe that you are woman!” And I remember several nights looking out into the audience and seeing people in utter disbelief and shock. And, after the movie came out with Christine Baranski playing the role, the audience really didn’t expect it. That turns out to be the greatest gift Rob Marshall could’ve given me at the moment and any actor playing the part on stage.

NLE – The Mary Sunshine character was so much about her voice and the song “A Little Bit of Good” sounding realistically as being sung by a woman. When did you realize you could sing as a male soprano, and how did you train?

David Sabella – I was in college, and a (male) friend of mine came walking down the halls singing soprano, just goofing off and I joined in not at all knowing that any sound or even come out, but it did. It was like discovering a super power. After that, I couldn’t stop singing soprano. I would sing every Maria Callas aria known to man, because I thought she sounded a little bit like a guy anyway. And my first job after college was with La Gran Scena Opera Company, where I spent several years singing as a male soprano all over the world, in opera houses and in concert halls.\ and singing big operatic roles like Aida, Butterfly and Lakme. That was my “on the job training.” I did that until about 1993 and then I decided to get serious about my voice as a male soprano, so I took a year off to train as a real countertenor. I emerged in 1994 and started competing in voice competitions. In 1995, I won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition and right after that, came Chicago. However, I have to say, this show is really NOT about me being a male soprano. There’s a gentle note to Mary Sunshine in the show of course, but in most all the numbers, I’m singing in my lower (tenor) register.

NLE  You are a vocal coach now and own your own voice studio. What’s one piece of advice you find yourself giving most of your students?

David Sabella – ACT!!! Being able to sing is a necessary component of a career in musical theatre, but it’s also the one thing that is the most taken for granted. You wouldn’t be in the room, you wouldn’t be in the audition, if you couldn’t sing, but nobody ever got a job simply based upon the sound of their voice. You’ve got to fully realize the performance of the song with your acting ability. So, after we learn all the scales and learn the proper technique of how to sing and keep your voice healthy through an 8-show-a-week run, then it’s time to try to unleash your actor and let your voice go where your actor wants to take it. I say to my students on a daily basis, “The only reason to study a technique of voice, is so that your voice can go where your emotions want to take it, safely. If you sing with beautiful technique, but your actor isn’t present, then it’s just boring.”

NLE  You have been very involved working within the HIV Positive community as an activist over the years. What is one of the achievements you feel most satisfied to have personally accomplished?

David Sabella – Thank you for asking about this. I came out as HIV-positive in 1997, because I thought the stress of keeping a secret like this would be worse for my health. As someone who was in the spotlight at that time, I thought it would be empowering for other people to see that it was totally possible to live a full and happy life (and endure a Broadway schedule) under those circumstances. Since then, I’ve gone on to get married, adopt two children and live the full and complete life that we only dreamed about in the ’90’s. So when you ask me what I am most satisfied to have personally accomplished, that’s a tricky question. Partly because the real accomplishments are on a person to person level. Talking to people in the same situation, helping them through a primary diagnosis, being an example for anyone who contacts me online or otherwise, but those things are quiet. They are ‘satisfied in private’ accomplishments.

NLE  What is one of the most unusual things to ever happen to you during a performance?

David Sabella – Oh my gosh, there are a few. How about my brother’s opening night as Joel Grey’s first replacement as Amos Heart? I was so nervous for him that I spontaneously got a bloody nose during intermission, just before he was about to go on. But one that really stands out and now you have me telling stories out of school, is something that happened to me very unexpectedly one night with one of our many, many Roxy’s. Now, I have done the show with hundreds of Roxy’s and they’re all beautiful and talented, but there was this one Roxy, God bless her soul, who was so strange to me and so far out in left field (as far as what she was doing on stage), that I was completely dumbfounded for most of the evening. In the scene before “Class,” where I’m on the radio, I’m supposed to say “Mrs. Hart’s behavior throughout this ordeal has been truly extraordinary.” Instead, without missing a beat, or even realizing that I had done it, I said “Mrs. Hart’s behavior throughout this ordeal has been truly horrific!’ Well that was it for the cast and poor Bebe and Marcia had to go on with singing “Class” right after that. I think that has to take the cake for the strangest thing to happen to me on stage and let’s hope it never happens again.

NLE  Ira Siff, who founded La Gran Scena Opera, was a very well known member of the cabaret community in the 1980’s and gave many of his first performances in the cabaret rooms of the day. As a member of La Gran Scena, what was one of your favorite experiences interacting with Vera Galupe-Borszkh?

David Sabella – OK, well this is probably my favorite question because I loved that time of my life so much. I learned so much from Ira Siff and from all of my castmates in La Gran Scena. I think one of the most important lessons I learned from both Ira AND Vera, is that when you are fully committed to your character, you really can’t do anything “wrong.” Just stay present, be in the moment and be fully committed to your character and what his or her needs are and the comedy comes out of that. The comedy comes out of the situation that your character is in. You don’t have to try to be funny. You just have to try to get around in those circumstances as your character would. The audience gets to decide whether or not it’s funny. You have to stay real.