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Broadway's Loretta Ables Sayre on an Unexpected Career as South Pacific's Bloody Mary

The Tony-nominated actress recounts her journey from Hawaiian nightclubs to Lincoln Center, and now, to New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.

"It's always something familiar and totally different at the same time," said Loretta Ables Sayre, who, at age 50, launched a career as the foul-mouthed Tonkinese Bloody Mary when she made her Broadway debut in the 2008 Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific. Originally a Hawaiian nightclub singer and community-theater performer, Sayre was thrown into the Broadway lion's den after winning over director Bartlett Sher with an audition tape from an unprecedented casting call in her home state. "You just need to get prepared, because your life as you know it will cease to exist," Sher said to Sayre shortly after giving her the part. "And it really did," she now recalls, looking back on her two-year Broadway run, which made her a Tony Award nominee.

Sayre, who also performed the role for a U.K. tour and at The Muny in St. Louis, will sing "Bali Ha'i" yet again in the upcoming production at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. The Hawaiian-native-turned-Broadway-star chatted with TheaterMania about joyfully continuing her tenure in the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. She shared some favorite memories from this wild theatrical ride, picked the next Rodgers & Hammerstein character she'd like to tackle, and detailed her recent love-fest reunions with former Broadway costars Danny Burstein and Kelli O'Hara — kissing and feet-worshipping fully involved.

Loretta Ables Sayre will reprise her Tony-nominated performance as Bloody Mary in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of South Pacific, directed by Rob Ruggiero.
(© David Gordon)

Were you back in Hawaii before joining this production?
Yes, I was. But the show just keeps coming back to me — happily! I'm very appreciative that it does. But it was just a little quiet time for a while. My soul and my body needed that desperately. [I've been] just performing there locally and doing some television. But there really aren't any chances to do theater productions like this in Hawaii.

Had you ever worked at the Paper Mill Playhouse before?
No, but when I was here working at Lincoln Center, people used to talk about Paper Mill in the highest regard and how they do such high-quality shows. Everybody just talked about it as one of the top-notch places. So when I found out this was at Paper Mill, I seriously couldn't pass up the chance to do it.

Describe the audition process for the Lincoln Center production.
I was doing a musical at my hometown community theater in Hawaii, and I heard that my name had come up to audition for this show at Lincoln Center. By the time they sent me the packet, and because I was rehearsing for this other show, plus I was working five days a week and singing five nights a week, it left me no free time to study. Literally, on the day that I was supposed to go in for my audition I had not had any time to memorize the sides of the script that they had given me and I was hugely overwhelmed because nobody ever comes and casts things in Hawaii ever. I felt ill-prepared, so I said to my husband, "I'm not going to do it. I'll just go in and make a fool of myself." And he said, "This may be the only chance that you have that something like this comes here. I think you should go and just do what you can do instead of passing this up and then wondering the rest of your life, Would I ever have been able to do it?" He drove me down there and I was just happy to get through the audition, and then they called me up a couple of days later and they had already shown the video to Bart Sher, and he had selected me for a callback to New York. It's unheard of in Hawaii to have that happen.

Was it surreal when you finally got to New York to start rehearsals?
It was like entering another world and learning by immersion because all I'd ever done in Hawaii is community theater. All of a sudden to be put on the stage with Broadway-caliber actors like Kelli O'Hara and Danny Burstein and the stress that you're going through thinking I suck! Every rehearsal was like a master class. I've been given this marvelous opportunity, and I have to prove to myself and to them that I deserve to be on this stage with them and I can't cut myself any kind of slack at all. It really kind of drives you to go with it.

And then to top it all off with a Tony nomination…
Can you believe that?! Just the fact that somebody thought my performance was worthy of being recognized — that when people look back in the books of the history of the Tony Awards long after I'm gone, my name is there tucked into the year 2008 — it's wild. I have the nomination plaque on my wall at home in Hawaii and when I'm vacuuming my floor I look up at that and I think, Honest to God, did that really happen? I know how many of my friends have come to New York trying to get a break and I know how many have never been able to do it. There's nothing about it that I take lightly. It's an honor I can't imagine meeting again in my life.

Have you visited any of your old costars while you've been in the area?
Yes! Well, my first stop was to go see Danny Burstein. He's meat and potatoes and strawberries and whipped cream and chocolate all rolled into one. I love him so much. So the first thing I did was go and see him, so I had to kiss him all over his face and worship at his feet. And then we went the next day and saw Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County. I could start crying just talking to you about it.

If you had to retire Bloody Mary, what other role would you like to perform?
In all honesty, I would love to play Lady Thiang in The King and I. To be able to sing "Something Wonderful" and have that and "Bali Ha'i" as the songs that I was acknowledged for in my career on Broadway, would make me really happy.

Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary in the 2008 Broadway revival of South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
(photo courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater)