Paul Sorvino Sings!
The masses know Paul Sorvino for his portrayal of Sgt. Phil Cerreta on TV’s Law & Order in the early 1990s and/or for his roles in such films as Reds, Dick Tracy, Goodfellas, Nixon (in which he played Henry Kissinger!), Romeo + Juliet, and The Cooler. Previously, the actor had earned acclaim as Coach Phil Romano in the original 1972 Broadway production of Jason Miller’s play That Championship Season and in the 1981 film version. (He also starred in and directed a 1999 TV movie adaptation.) If you’re a theater maven, you may be aware that Sorvino co-founded the American Stage Company at Fairleigh Dickinson University. And if you watch the Oscars on TV every year, you won’t have forgotten his highly emotional reaction when his daughter Mira won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995).
However, unless you happen to collect cast albums of obscure Broadway musicals, you probably don’t know that Sorvino possesses a beautiful, opera-quality voice. He can be heard on the first recording of Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife (he replaced Topol in the male lead out of town but the show never made it to New York) and the only recording of the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner score for Carmelina (opera great Cesare Siepi starred in the 1979 Broadway flop but Sorvino made the record). Now, he’s taking on the challenging but rewarding role of Napa Valley vintner Tony Esposito in the New York City Opera production of Frank Loesser’s operatic musical The Most Happy Fella, opening March 4. I spoke with Sorvino via telephone just as he was beginning rehearsals, and here’s what he had to say.
THEATERMANIA: You have quite an impressive background as a singer. What was the last musical you did?
PAUL SORVINO: Fiddler on the Roof, last year in Raleigh.
TM: I didn’t realize until I read your bio that you were in two of the most famous Broadway musical misfires of the 1960s: Bajour and Skyscraper.
PS: Oh, yeah. Skyscraper by way of a film; I wasn’t actually in it. One of the characters had a fantasy about an Italian movie star, so they needed a Mastroianni type for this little film they used in the show, and that was me. In those days, I looked like that! In Bajour, I was in the chorus and I understudied the romantic lead, Robert Burr.
TM: Did you see the original production of The Most Happy Fella?
PS: Yes, I did. I had the record before I saw the show, and I loved it. I played that record every day; I must have heard it a thousand times. The music is extraordinary, and Tony is almost as hard to sing as Rigoletto. I’m a tenor, and it’s challenging for me — but for a baritone, it’s monstrous. There won’t be any transpositions for me, because I’m a dramatic tenor with a baritonal sound. That’s where my voice works. But no baritone should sing this role six times a week, like Robert Weede did.
TM: Giorgio Tozzi starred in the 1979 Broadway revival. He was a bass-baritone, and I remember that he had some difficulty with the part.
PS: I’m sure he did! You know, I was offered that production. I turned it down because I didn’t think they had a good grasp of how to do it — and they didn’t. Tozzi was very good in it, but they transposed everything down for him. The part is close to two octaves here and there. In my voice, I have three octaves. I don’t find the range daunting, but to do it right is daunting. I want to do it right.
TM: Have you actually sung opera?
PS: I did six performances of Die Fledermaus in Seattle in 1981 [as Alfred, the Italian tenor]. They wanted to find out if I could sing! I got good notices, people liked it, and it sold out.
TM: Did you ever pursue opera as a career?
PS: I couldn’t do it because I had acid reflux and I couldn’t depend on my voice. That retires a lot of singers. I had an operation a couple of years ago, and that took care of the problem; but, by then, I wasn’t inclined to go back to opera so much, though I did a number of concerts and things like that. In the last couple of years, I’ve decided I want to sing opera, and now I shall. I assure you, The Most Happy Fella is an opera. The challenge is not the high notes; it’s the tessitura. It only goes to a G, which is the normal top note for baritones, but it keeps going F, F, F-sharp, F. You don’t want to keep going there as a baritone! But it’s a beautiful score. I sang through it once today, and there are parts that I can hardly get through without crying.
TM: I feel the same way when I listen to The Baker’s Wife on CD. What are you chief memories of that experience?
PS: Well, of course, we never came into New York. When we were out of town, I exhorted them to write the role of Aimable stronger. The Baker’s Wife is based on a French play and film, and it has a very French sensibility. The cuckold is not a figure of myth for Americans as he is for the French; you cannot have such a passive character as the lead in a musical. I felt that nobody would identify with him, and I was right. It didn’t work.
TM: You sound terrific on the album.
PS: My voice was very light back then. Now it’s darker and bigger because, technically, I know more. Will you hold on for a moment? [He takes another phone call.] That was my son, Michael. We’re having dinner tonight. Now, I’m going down to bond with some lady’s poodle. My daughter Amanda is an animal rescuer and one of the ladies who’s very interested in her work wants me to come because I’m the Dogfather. We have a group called Dogfellas.
TM: How many children do you have in all?
PS: I have three — Michael, Amanda, and Mira — and two grandchildren.
TM: Before I let you go, I have to ask about that famous moment at the Oscars when Mira won and they showed you in the audience, literally weeping with pride.
PS: At first, I was embarrassed that I was so emotional at such a public event. I was brought up in the John Wayne era — but it turns out that John Wayne was a very emotional, sensitive, affectionate guy. It was an intensely beautiful moment between me and my daughter; it just so happened that two billion people saw it.