If there were a degree in Annie, Richard Sabellico would have earned his PhD several times over.
After taking on the role of the "Easy Street"-loving swindler ‘Rooster' in the original Broadway production of Annie in 1981 (replacing Broadway's first Rooster, Robert Fitch), Sabellico quickly became the go-to Annie expert. Now an accomplished director and acting coach for some of Broadway's biggest stars, he made his directorial debut helming a production of Annie at South Kingstown Rhode Island's historic Theatre by the Sea in 1983. In celebration of the theater's 80th anniversary, Sabellico has returned to Theatre by the Sea this summer to revive the classic musical — and he's brought his 30 years of Annie and life experience with him.
How did you find your way into the cast of the original production of Annie in 1981?
At the time I was actually doing an industrial for Susan Stroman — before she was Susan Stroman (laughs) — and I got a call to…audition for a musical called The First. So I went and auditioned for The First and after I finished singing, Martin Charnin said to me, "Have you ever auditioned for Rooster?" and I said "No." And he said, "why not?" And I said, "Well, nobody would see me." So he laughed and he said, "We're seeing you now. We're seeing you on Friday at a final callback at the Alvin Theatre." The whole thing took about four days from not even having ever auditioned for it to getting the part. And I did it for about a year and a half.
And after that you went straight into the Theatre by the Sea production?
I left [the Broadway production] at the end of August in 1982 and the show closed in January. Then that March, Tommy Brent announced he was doing it at Theatre by the Sea and he was looking for directors. I had never directed anything other than just community theater stuff [but] I applied and he hired me.
Why did you decide to pursue directing at that point?
I always wanted to direct. It just seemed a perfect time to do it. As a matter of fact, that summer in '83 I was offered a couple of jobs at a theater I had always wanted to work at called the Milwaukee Melody Top…I turned down those acting jobs to direct Annie.
You had some great people in that cast in '83.
In that cast was Judy McLane — she's the lead in Mamma Mia! now — she was in the chorus. I think she had just graduated from Ithaca. And then Gary Lynch was in it, who's done a couple of Broadway shows, and Michael McGrath was here that summer too, who just won a Tony for Nice Work If You Can Get It. The Annie just walked in…I'll never forget: red overalls and a sort of striped polo shirt, hair in braids…same way Martin cast me, I cast her. The instant she walked onstage I thought, "My god, she's so perfect." Then she sang and I thought, "This is the kid," and we cast her right then. [It was] Jean Louisa Kelly. We talked about her coming and playing Grace Farrell this summer and she said, "I'd love to do Miss Hannigan if I can," but she's still too young and cute to play Miss Hannigan. (laughs)
Was this show your transition from performing to directing?
Yes. [And] my first union directing job was [also] Annie at the Darien Dinner Theater. The girl who played Lily in that production is playing Miss Hannigan in this production. So in '86, that was the first time I had done a "professional" Annie. And then…I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've done it since then.
Why do you keep finding your way back to Annie?
It's one of those things…It's a show you get known for. And people like the person who was in the Broadway show doing it, so they call you.
Do you direct each production differently?
Yes, absolutely I do. Each time I try to make it much more of a play with music than just a musical where people sing to the audience. I want to spend a good deal of time on the acting scenes.
What made you choose to take it in that direction?
On television, they do everything short of showing you somebody with diarrhea. It's so realistic that it's so hard to expect an audience to become truly involved with people who are not completely dimensionalized, people who they can really connect to on a visceral level rather than just on an "oh isn't that sweet" cute little musical-comedy level.
What do you think is the biggest difference between the Theatre by the Sea production you're directing now and the one you directed thirty years ago?
I'm thirty years better. I'm a smarter man, I know a lot more about life, about relationships. In '83 I pretty much directed everybody as one thing: the meanest woman in the world, the quintessential orphan, the richest man in the world. I just basically gave them one place to go, one thing to play. Now I offer them a whole palette of things to play and they pick and choose and I pick and choose and we come up with something that has a lot more depth to it. And you've got to really grab the audience…because they're fifteen minutes away from the refrigerator. They're only used to watching things in fifteen-minute increments and you've got to create characters [who] are going to compel [the audience] to pay attention to them for more than just fifteen minutes.
I'm guessing audiences' attention spans are difficult these days.
Very difficult. They tolerate less. If you don't grab them…in the first fifteen minutes, you're hitting the water. You haven't got them.
How do you know when you've lost them?
You feel it. As a director, I find that the audience is the absolute barometer of how I gauge whether the show is going well or not. Jerry [Herman] said when he did Hello, Dolly! for [David] Merrick, Merrick said to him, once the show is up and running ,you sit in the box and you watch the audience, you don't watch the stage. The audience is going to tell you if what you have created on that stage is landing with them. That's what I do. I can't really tell how the show is landing until the performance.
Do you look at theater through different eyes as a director than you did as a performer?
The theater for me at that time was a salvation. I [didn't go] into it because I had a calling to create characters that can alter how people feel about themselves and how people feel about life. I just wanted to be noticed. (laughs) As a director, I don't even like people knowing that I'm the director. I loathe if anybody tries to invite me in the stage for the curtain call. My greatest satisfaction is that I can see that the people who are sitting in that audience for two and a half hours of whatever I've just presented have been taken out of their own lives and transported into a situation that they care about. When Annie triumphs, they triumph; when Annie is hurt, they're hurt. So at the end, when everything falls into place and when all the loose ends are tied together, they feel fantastic, and they walk out of there richer than when they walked in — even if it only lasts for that night.
And you feel you can accomplish that better as a director than you could as a performer?
Yes, much better. I never performed for the right reasons. I never performed to get my hands dirty, to find out as much as I can about a character, to bring in colors, and nuances, and subtlety. Everything was straightforward. Everything was, how's the audience going to react? Am I going to get a laugh? Is the audience going to like me? Is the audience going to like me the best? Am I going to get the best applause? That's all I gave a sh*t about. Yet, you look at someone like Meryl Streep. What she does as an actress is what I hope I can do as a director.