BWW Interview: ON THE TOWN's Tony Yazbeck on His Birdland Concert and Debut Album!
There's no way a show can be stolen from the formidable talents of Patti LuPone but Tony Yazbeck came close to doing so. In the highly acclaimed 2008 production of GYPSY, Yazbeck's rendition of "All I Need is the Girl" stole the hearts of the audience and received thunderous applause. Partnered with Tony Award winner Laura Benanti, the dancing and vocalizing soared in ways it never had before in other productions of the show. Of course, the following scene included "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and returned the focus to LuPone and her vivid characterization of Mama Rose. Still, Yazbeck's stellar rendition of "All I Need is the Girl" stole the hearts of the audience and was rewarded with thunderous applause.
"I always felt it was in my blood to play that role," says Yazbeck in a phone interview. I always wanted to play Tulsa and thought that was my last shot at it age-wise. I was doing the revival of A CHORUS LINE playing Al when they were casting the show for City Center. I got an audition and when I got into the room I found that director Arthur Laurents was there and he'd been informed beforehand that I was in his version of GYPSY starring Tyne Daly because he had directed that one as well. When I did my number I saw that Arthur was crying and I realized it had affected him."
Yazbeck continues: "I got a call later that day advising me that I got the job. It was one of those moments in my life were I felt a dream was coming true. I was sorta full circle--having played a newsboy in one production and now I was getting the chance to play Tulsa in another. We thought we were going to play City Center and it would be huge. We had no idea that we'd have any run beyond City Center because the Bernadette Peters version had happened five years prior. A couple of months later when we got a call that we were going into the St. James Theater, none of us could believe it."
Yazbeck, whose father is Lebanese but whose mother is of German/Irish/Ukranian and Romanian extraction, was born in Riverdale, CA. When his parents saw him watching and mimicking Fred Astaire, they enrolled him in dance classes. He was a mere four years old at the time. When he reached the age of eleven he was making his debut as Clarence and his Classical Clarinet in the 1989 GYPSY, which saw him dancing as one of the newsboys as well. The Yazbeck family was living in Bethlehem, PA at the time and his mother took upon herself the responsibilities of driving her son two hours each way to the theater. Yazbeck gives great props his parents who supported him from the very beginning.
The Tyne Daly version of GYPSY allowed the young Yazbeck to observe the pros in action. "It was my introduction to story telling and I wanted to merge dancing with singing and acting. I wanted to give myself on stage." That may have been true but it wasn't until his college days that his singing voice was actually found.
"I was at Point Park University in Pittsburgh when a man named Ricardo Tobia heard me trying to sing through the walls," the dancer recalls, "and he said to me, 'I can make you a singer.' In the course of a few lesson he astonishingly brought out a voice."
That voice can currently be heard eight times a week at Broadway's Lyric Theater, where Yazbeck is starring in the acclaimed revival of ON THE TOWN. He recieved a Tony nomination this past season for his performance as Gabey, the love smitten sailor in the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green classic. Not only does he display the wondrous dancing styles of Gene Kelly, Edward Villella and Peter Martins, but his impressive vocal skills become apparent in such melodious numbers as "Lucky to Be Me", "Lonely Town" and the show's signature tune, "New York, New York (a helluva town)". Many avid theatergoers consider this to be Yazbeck's true breakout performance in a show that originated at the Barrington Stage.
"Barrington Stage was and still is a theater that is a thriving, nurturing place to work, " Yazbeck recalls. "They really care about the work there. I got a call from John Rando a couple of years back and he said, 'Hey, I'm doing this show with Josh Bergasse. Are you interested?' I said 'Of course, I'll do anything with you!" I really thought it were just going up there to do a sorta summer stock formula show in a regional theater. We didn't have much time to put it up and the run was to be about four weeks. They had assembled this amazing cast and when we got up there we just had a blast. It was a great summer."
The actor continues: "We opened the show and all of a sudden these reviews started coming out and after that producers and investors started flocking to the Berkshires. We began to think 'What was going on?' Then the whole company began to realize it was bigger than we originally thought. It was at that point we started hearing rumors of a move to Broadway. Now, I don't get my hopes up in this business because there's too much disappointment as it is, but I knew that there was something special going on here. Then we had these producers Howard and Janet Kagan, who believed in it and wanted to take it fully to New York. That was the beginning of it and when we finally opened on Broadway, I got married three days later. It was a pretty good weekend for me!"
In this production, Yazbeck's character, Gabey, does more dancing that in previous incarnations of the musical. "I think I am the first actor on Broadway to sing and dance the role fully with the extended ballets--especially the Dream Coney ballet. I believe I'm the first actor to do that. In previous versions they just had Gabey sing songs and didn't have much to do in the second act.or in the Times Square ballet or the Dream Coney. He'd sing and someone else would come on to do the dancing. It's so great to have such a chance. When I was first introduced to the role, I had never known a part like this existed--where I could sing these big legit--almost classic-like songs--they way Bernstein wrote them and then dance with a Jerome Robbins-like feel in a jazz style, then switching to a ballet where I could partner with Megan Fairchild of the New York City Ballet. It never occured to me that something like this existed. Being able to put my skill-set to this is really a dream come true. I was really fortunate to come across ON THE TOWN."
All of this comes with a certain price-tag, though. "It's one of the most physically challenging shows I've ever had to do," Yazbeck comments. "It's hard. People don't realize that eight shows a week can really, really beat down on your body. There are a lot of physical things I have to do to prepare. I'm constantly in a physical therapy mode with chiropractic visits and and massages. I ice my legs every night after the show and there's a lot as far as health goes. I have to make sure I get enough sleep and drink enough water in addition to taking the right vitamins and minerals. Then too, your body kind of adapts after a while and it becomes almost like a machine. It's great to know it can happen but it's pretty draining."
On one of his nights off from ON THE TOWN (June 28th at 9 PM), Tony Yazbeck will be doing his show "The Floor Above Me" at Birdland. "It's actually a big show for a venue like that," he says. "We're going to transform the space a bit. I'm bringing in some hardwood floors to put down and have a four piece band. It's a song and dance show with a couple of guest stars: Clyde Alves from ON THE TOWN and Melinda Sullivan who's a great tap dancer. The repertoire will range from M-G-M classics to new, contemporary pop charts that I've taken and put a new spin on. I'm able to tell a little bit of my story in the business and interweave it with my story of growing up through my parents' divorce, through falling in love--and then falling out of love--and then eventually meeting my one true love in the best possible way. I think it will have a big impact in a space like Birdland." The show will include at least one number from ON THE TOWN as well as "All I Need is the GIrl" done with a contemporary spin.
Also coming up for Tony Yazbeck is a debut album which bears the same name as his show at Birdland: THE FLOOR ABOVE ME. He explains: "When I was very young and started dancing, my mother would make me go down in the basement and practice for a long period of time in the morning before I had to get to school. I'd be down there at 5 AM. As the disciplinarian she is and the love she had for her kids--and the love I had for what I was doing as a dancer--she pushed me. If she didn't hear me tapping she'd stomp her foot on the floor above me. It would keep me going until I was finished. Then I'd go to school. The title is sort of a shout-out to my mother and an ode to all parents who do it the right way. When you're a kid, you think it's a lot but it's really the right thing."
Jerome Korman is the musical director of the CCD.. "He's also the arranger and pianist," Yazbeck happily mentions. "He's created some beautiful arrangements. We have Tom Hubbard on bass and he's a beautiful musician and a great collaborator. We also have Paul Pizzuti on drums and he's renowned in New York, as a wonderful drummer, while Mark McGowan is on trumpet and he's one of the best in the business. We just actually recorded the album on Monday and Tuesday at the Avatar Studios. It's all down and now I'm eagerly awaiting the mix. I'm eager to hear how it all sounds. The release date for the album is August 11th and I'll probably be having some sort of album release part and that'll coincide with a huge concert in some large venue that is soon to be announced. I'm very excited about it."
It might be said that Tony Yazbeck has some sort of Midas Touch because everything he seems to touch seems to figuratively turn to gold. His show at Birdland and his upcoming CD are certain to be outstanding. Meanwhile, his performance in ON THE TOWN remains one of the brightest and most compelling currently on stage right now. He's no longer coming close to stealing the show from Patti LuPone; this time he is the show. See him there, see him at Birdland on June 28th and enjoy his CD. You can never get enough of a good thing.
To purchase tickets for ON THE TOWN, go to: On The Town - Official Broadway Site
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos