BWW Interview: Tony Lo Bianco - Creating Magic with THE LITTLE FLOWER

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The living room of actor Tony Lo Bianco's NYC apartment is stunning: period furniture, mirrored walls, comfortable sofas, delft china and a breathtaking view of Central Park and its reservoir. As the sun sets, the lights of the city twinkle and the view becomes downright magical. There is one thing that's incongruous about the apartment, though. In front of the gilded fireplace sits a desk, a vintage telephone, the "funny papers", and a microphone that used to be referred to as an "enunciator". It's the set for THE LITTLE FLOWER, the one-man play based on the life of New York's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that Lo Bianco will be starring in.

Lo Bianco is nattily dressed as he welcomes his guest into the apartment and offers him something to drink. He explains that he'd just come back from Washington, D.C. where he performed the play to extremely enthusiastic crowds. The political aspects of the piece resonated with Washingtonians, for sure.

Best known for his film work in such distinguished projects as the Academy Award winning THE FRENCH CONNECTION with Gene Hackman, Oliver Stone's NIXON with Anthony Hopkins, THE JUROR with Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore and BLOOD BROTHERS with Richard Gere; Lo Bianco is no stranger to television viewers, having appeared with Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier and Ann Bancroft (among many others) in Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series JESUS OF NAZARETH, the 1982 mini-series MARCO POLO, and opposite the legendary acting teacher Lee Strassberg in THE LAST TENANT. He starred in the ground breaking series POLICE STORY, for which he directed several episodes. An acclaimed stage actor, Lo Bianco won a Tony Award nomination and an Outer Critics Circle Award for his portrayal of Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, and received an Obie Award for his performance in Jonathan Reynolds' Off-Broadway play YANKS-3, DETROIT-0, TOP OF THE 7th. He also starred in an earlier Broadway production of THE LITTLE FLOWER which was called HIZZONER!, written by Paul Shyre. There had been many re-writes and revisions of the play and before Shyre passed away he asked Lo Bianco to take over, saying "Tony, you know the play better than anybody.." Lo Bianco did just that and the program now credits the actor as playwright, director and star. Right under those credits, Shyre is credited as being the author of HIZZONER!, upon which THE LITTLE FLOWER is based.

Lo Bianco is an Italian-American whose grandparents were born in Sicily and whose parents are native New Yorkers. "My father was a taxicab driver and owned his own cab. Mom was a housewife, which was very common in those days. I have two brothers, Joseph and John. We were inseparable and we were a loving family. Growing up in that environment--an Italian family with so much going on, and much drama--as many people know Italians are very emotional and live life fully. Not only are we known for our great cooking but we also did lots of singing. I grew up with that. Whether it was playing baseball or boxing, --all of this was dramatic stuff but I never made it easy on myself. I was always pressing myself to do better."

Lo Bianco's interest in acting was sparked by one of his teachers in a vocational high school. He was entered in a "Declamation Contest". His teacher, Patricia Jacobson, had taken an interest in him, noticing that he had no interest in anything mechanical. "I just went to the vocational school because it was one block my house. I followed my brother Joey who went to that school and became a commercial artist. So because he was a commercial artist, I took it up too."

Lo Bianco became the leader of his class and entered the Declamation Contest. "A cousin of mine just happened to have a poem about a soldier who was wounded and dying in a foxhole and finally sees God. He has a conversation with God. That got me to win the contest for my class. Ms. Jacobson then gave me something called 'I Have a Rendezvous with Death' and I won again-this time for the school. Then Ms. Jacobson gave me a speech from CYRANO DE BERGERAC -the famous 'nose' speech. I won that contest as well-this time for Brooklyn." The final competition between the winners of all five boroughs didn't bode well for Lo Bianco. He lost out to another participant who gave a very patriotic reading.

After high school Lo Bianco went to the Dramatic Workshop where he devoted himself to not only learning acting but to learning everything about the theater: lighting, scenery, props, costumes and anything else that went into making a good performance. He went on to presenting plays in the little theater and ultimately that led to another school where he was asked to teach acting-even though Lo Bianco hadn't had any professional credits. The actor taught while he was studying. "I taught Mama Cass from The Mamas and the Papas, Frankie Lyman and a few others." One of Lo Bianco's fellow teachers was Joshua Logan who was teaching classes on directing. "Joshua Logan set me up for a reading for a play directed by Carmen Capaldo who had directed THE THREEPENNY OPERA and many other shows." The play ultimately fell through but Capaldo asked the young actor to go into THREEPENNY to replace Jerry Orbach.

"I went down to see the show and was knocked on my 'tuchis' because it was so fabulous. I went back to see Capaldo who asked me to sing. I told him I couldn't sing but Capaldo wanted to use me because he thought I gave a great reading. It turned out that Lo Bianco didn't get to play McHeath and audiences were spared his rendition of "Mack The Knife". Instead, he played Bob the Saw" one of the members of the gang.

Lo Bianco went on to co-found the Triangle Theater in 1963. He served as the theater's artistic director for six years. In those six years he attracted the talents of lighting designer Jules Fisher, Jason Miller-who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for writing THAT CHAPIONSHIP SEASON, and actor Roy Scheider of "Jaws" fame. Lo Bianco directed eight productions and produced twenty five others. The Triangle Theater is still active and is located on the Upper East Side.

The conversation eventually shifted to Lo Bianco's current project: THE LITTLE FLOWER. The play takes its title from La Guardia's first name. In Italian, "un fiorello" means "a little flower". Lo Bianco came to the role in 1984. "We did the play in Albany and it was commisioned by WNET. Paul Shyre was the writer and he asked me to do it. I looked at some footage of La Guardia and experimented in acquiring that voice, as well as his size and mannerisms. I felt that I could do it and I agreed to do the role."

The actor continues, "We did it in Albany for all the mayors in New YorkState. The show was more of a Valentine to La Guardia. It didn't have much substance. I read a lot about the man and suggested putting in things about him. We did the show and when it was taped for television it won five Emmys. Mayor Ed Koch narrated the television version. We continued do the show on stage and made change after change in it. It had a different title at that point. Eventually we did it on Broadway in '89. It wasn't well received. It was too long and it covered a lot of things that were not what the critics or other people know about La Guardia. I think it was too heavy. I could be wrong but it was cumbersome and I was performing with my foot in a cast because I'd broken it. It didn't help to have me clomping around on stage."

During the Broadway run of HIZZONER!, author Paul Shyre passed away. "In fact, he wasn't around for too many rehearsals and he told me to go on with the play; which I did. I became interested in the character and found there was a great parallel with what is going on in our country today. This is the absolute key as to why I do the play. It seems that all the issues that took place in La Guardia's time are still with us today. My belief is that we should be the smartest people in the world but we're the stupidest. I think we've lost our way. History's our teacher and we shouldn't turn out backs on it. We should know better. The play covers inflation, juvenile delinquency, unemployment, school problems and almost everything that plagues us."

While Lo Bianco is talking about the play and the character of Fiorello H. La Guardia, something magical takes place. Little by little his voice rises in pitch. His mannerisms change and his normally trim figure seems to be hunched over a bit and gives the impression of having a paunch. Sitting his living room, with the New York skyline illuminated through the windows, Tony Lo Bianco transforms himself into one of politics most colorful and vivid personalities. He does so without makeup or lighting. It just happens and it is truly magical. This is much more impressive than a Disney robot because Lo Bianco is a flesh and blood human using his gifts to create-or even channel-Mayor LaGuardia. It was an incredible to behold. This is what true acting is all about.

Theater-goers will be able to witness this same transformation when Tony Lo Bianco perfor4ms in THE LITTLE FLOWER at the Da Capro Opera Theater beginning on March 22nd. For tickets go to www.SmartTix.com or call (212) 868-4444. For more information about Tony Lo Bianco, visit his website at www.TonyLoBianco.com

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