Loretta Ables Sayre / Loretta Ables Sayre has gone from Mililani’s cane fields to Lincoln Center near Manhattan’s Great White Way, co-starring in the revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific. Sayre attended Pearl Harbor Elementary, Aliamanu Intermediate and Radford High and went on to perform as opening acts for the Beach Boys and James Brown, in local plays and in Hawai’i-set TV series. Sayre received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Bloody Mary, one of the greatest Pacific [characters.In] this interview, Sayre discusses Mary’s surprising origins, moving from Mililani to Manhattan and being a local girl whose dream of enchanted evenings has come true on Broadway.
How did you become an entertainer?
I’ve always performed, ever since I was small. All I ever wanted to do was sing and act…and I did throughout school. I started doing it professionally when I was in high school, I’d get paid to sing at weddings. My very first professional big time job was in the late 1970s as the first featured female vocalist with Keola and Kapono Beamer back in the Honolulu City Lights days at the Ocean Showroom in the Reef Hotel. Andy Bumatai was their opening act…I worked as their sales manager, reservationist and hostess, and one night, Andy called me up to do a number…The very next day Keola…asked me if I wanted to be in their show…I sang I Fell In Love With Honolulu and Ka Mamakakaua…and we did a skit in fat suits… Tom Moffatt produced [the Beamer’s] record and executive produced the show. I love Tom; I’ve actually known him since my first professional gig.
What are some of your other notable gigs?
I haven’t done lots of theatrical ;lproductions in Hawai’i, mostly because I made my living as a nightclub singer…I sang jazz standards at the Halekulani and the Kahala. Theatrically, I did Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s Song for the Navigator, Dreamgirls at Hawaii Theatre, and Lee Cataluna’s You Somebody at Diamond Head Theatre.
How did you get the Bloody Mary role?
New Yorker Randall Ask–an actor at Diamond Head Theatre for a while–returned to New York and dined with a friend, Ted Sperling, about a year ago, who said he was going to be the musical director for a very big production of South Pacific. Despite several large castings they still hadn’t come up with Bloody Mary, and sent searchers out through the Pacific where there were woman who could look the role, because they wanted to cast it as correctly as possible. Historically, the role has gone to African Americans–Juanita Hall [who won a Tony for playing Mary in the original 1949 play and co-starred in the 1958 movie], because there just hasn’t been a big pool of Pacific actresses to tap into. Randall suggested to Ted that they consider looking in Hawai’i, and put the musical director in touch with Diamond Head Theatre’s artistic director John Rampage. One of the casting agency’s agents was going to Hawai’i for vacation, and he took a day for an audition. I was called amongst incredibly talented women, including Marlene Sai, who’d just done Bloody Mary with Hawai’i Opera Theatre.
I almost didn’t go to the audition because I hadn’t done a production for five years. You had to kick in the brain cells for the memorizational process. I didn’t feel prepared and decided not to go, and my husband talked me into it literally at the last minute. I had half an hour to get from our house to Diamond Head Theatre. He said, “I’d much rather that you go and do what you can, instead of regretting it six months from now. I’ll drive; you practice in the car.” That’s literally what happened, driving from Mililani to Diamond Head I was trying to memorize the lines and song. I went in, did the best that I could, and I really didn’t think I’d hear from them. They said it would take four to six weeks for everyone that needs to see the tape to see it–they called me two days later and said I’d received a callback from director Bart Sher, a year ago. They flew me to New York and I auditioned… for the heads of Lincoln Center Theatre–including the daughters of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
How did you prepare?
I tried to bring a local quality. Bloody Mary’s brassy, talks pidgin… Working with the director and going back to the book this is based upon, Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, she’s a much earthier character than how she’s normally portrayed. People have tended to see her as a wacky kooky woman. But when you read the book you see she’s an extremely strong woman who’s ultimately a survivor. She’s so different from the way most women from the South Pacific or Asia were portrayed before. Bart made me tap into sources; women I was raised with, going back to teachers. All the different racial backgrounds. All the local women experience you grow up with, I tried to take a little bit of everything. I lived near a Samoan church, and I’d see how strong Samoan women handled their children…
Some believe one of the real individuals Michener drew upon for Bloody Mary was Samoan hotelier Aggie Grey.
I met her actually…I did a show in Samoa and stayed at Aggie Grey’s hotel. I had no way of knowing that 30-plus years later she was one of the two women Michener based the character on. The other woman was Madame Gardel, who lived on Vanuatu [where South Pacific is set]. She spoke French and was able to get hula dancers, whatever the sailors were looking for. For the brassiness and color of the characters, Michener went back to Aggie Grey. When American soldiers landed in Samoa [during WWII] she started setting up hamburger and hot dog stands and would sell things to them.
What is South Pacific’s relevance today?
Next year will be 60 years since the play’s Broadway debut. We’ll still basically dealing with the same issues. We’ve come so far, yet haven’t come far enough yet. The fact…that there would be any tension about the possibility of having a bi-racial, African American president. We’re still in war, still sending our soldiers to fight in foreign countries…If your child dies it’s still a feeling of slaughter. So, South Pacific is still relevant.
Is there really a Bali Ha’i island?
Apparently… in Vanuatu… More than anything, Bali Ha’i is symbolic for everyone, that line in the sand we cross over to take a leap of faith to find out what our passions are, what we believe in, that challenges what we were told to believe and what we find out for ourselves. [In the cast] we ask, ‘what’s your Bali Ha’i? What are you taking a chance on? What are you going to leap over and try, instead of just wondering the rest of your life?”
That audition led to a Tony nomination. What was that like?
To this day it still boggles my day. I didn’t have enough time to take it in when it happened because you hit the ground running the day the nominations are announced. It didn’t really hit me until the night of the Tonys. Then it was overwhelming, and humbling… Being seated in Radio City Music Hall and seeing all the other people who’d been working at this profession for decades. It was overwhelming to think that my name was in that list and will always be in that book of nominees for perpetuity… By some grace of god you’ve been placed in the category of such incredible performers… I look at the plaque with my name in nomination and still am shocked and wonder if they got it wrong and are going to take it back because there was a boo-boo… I didn’t expect to win. Truly, to have your name read–in my first show on Broadway. I can’t tell you what an honor that is.
What is life in New York like?
It’s about as opposite as you could possibly come from… The juxtaposition, coming from quiet, lazy, cool Mililani, beautiful green O’ahu, to the biggest city in the U.S. with huge apartment buildings, hustle and bustle, there’s a timing and flow to the way people walk on the sidewalk. You just can’t stop and look for something in New York–you’ll get run over. It’s so exciting, New York is everything Hawai’i isn’t. It makes you appreciate both places so much. This is where the heart of corporate America and theatre is, so much excitement going on constantly. Hawai’i is where my heart is, calmed, settled and at peace. It creates that balance for me to handle what’s going on here, knowing that’s where my soul lives.
South Pacific may run for years, and I’d love to stay for the duration of the show. This really is the opportunity of a lifetime. When will this ever happen again? What are the odds that they’d look to cast Bloody Mary with someone from the Pacific who’s short, brown and round?… I’m having the time of my life!