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BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd

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"The talent pool has been diminished across the board, and here I am. I thought, 'I'm going to step into that,' and I'm going to do just that."

BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd David Sabella spends much of his day focusing his energy outward. He teaches the students who come to him to learn, whether it is the art of singing or the business of conducting business in the ever-changing world of cabaret. He is a doting father to two young women who are both moving up the educational system by heading into their college and high school years. He is the creator and moderator of the oft-visited website Cabaret Hotspot, doing what he can to keep an industry close to his heart in a constant state of prosperity, evolution, and visibility. He is also a devoted friend to many of his colleagues, like his Cabaret Hotspot work wife, Sue Matsuki, with whom he penned last year's SO YOU WANT TO SING CABARET, which is now being used in the University classroom. So, with all his attention focused outward, on other people, who is taking care of David? Who is making sure his days are happy ones and that he is living in his bliss?

Right now, at this moment in time, David is.

After years of, happily, making other people his priority, David Sabella is going back to his first love: theatrical storytelling. Coming out of the pandemic, the OG Mary Sunshine of the longest running revival in Broadway history, decided that it was time to get back to work... the work that created him, that brought him to Broadway, that has been tucked away for a few years, patiently awaiting their reunion. To that end, David Sabella is debuting two brand-new cabaret shows this season. The first one, PANDEMIC RELIEF, steps into the light tomorrow night at 7 pm at Pangea, and it promises to be an exploration of music and emotions unlike one audiences have had before. The second show, 25CHICAGO25, will take a bow at Feinstein's/54 Below on November 17th, and it's... well, it's sort of all in the title, isn't it?

Before the multi-tasking maven takes to the stage tomorrow night, I asked if we could have an informal chat by phone and, a few days ago, he shared his thoughts on being a working single parent, how the pandemic has created some casting opportunities for him, and how a party trick (and some heavy duty manifestation) led him to The Great White Way.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

David Sabella, welcome to Broadway World! How are you?

I'm good, thank you so much. How are you?

No complaints from me - we're all still here.

We are! And with some things to sing about.

You and I spoke in the first month of the pandemic, and then I watched your life be swept away by all that online activity. How did it go for you?

It was one of the busiest years I've ever had, and it taught me a lot about reorganizing my priorities and such. I got very busy teaching online and getting my students to move online by using technologies that could really do it like JamKazam, things that really mimicked being there in the room - I could play for them, they could sing live, we worked together. It took a lot because if you don't have any of the technology at all, like if you have nothing except a computer then it's about $200 worth of technology, so for many of them I said, "Your first two lessons will be free. I just want you to have this technology and then we'll work for the rest of the year," and, luckily, they went with me on this journey. So, I was able to keep my schedule. Some people just left the business, some people were shocked... For the first couple of months, people were just shocked and remorseful and mourning the loss of their performing gig, and their waiting job ,and their New York apartment and just needed time to process. That was most of 2020, and then the orange Cheeto was doing crazy things. It was just crazy! Then we had things like the election, and last summer was George Floyd... it was an unending battle to get through the year, and it really didn't let up until the inauguration. Then people began to be a little hopeful and decided they wanted to sing again if there was something to sing about. So just speaking professionally, as a voice teacher, it was really difficult until the turn of the year, and then it started to happen again, in different ways.

At what point in your career trajectory, did you begin working as a teacher?

Always. After college, people would ask me "Would you give me a voice lesson?" I wasn't serious about it, but I knew how to do it, so I would; in those early days, like everything else, you're just sort of parroting back what you learned from your teacher, and then there's this moment where you're confronted with a student for whom the parroting doesn't work and ... "How am I going to get them to have the right result?" So I began to study how to teach, the pedagogy of it. That process... I think that happened concurrently with my being in CHICAGO, in those days that were a little freer, before we had the internet. So, in the late nineties, I sort of decided, I better study how to do this. So I studied voice science, voice anatomy, acoustics - which turns out that the big deal thing is always voice acoustics - so by the turn of the millennium, let's say 20 years ago, I was firmly ensconced in voice pedagogy, not just how to teach what I learned, but voice pedagogy. Teaching became more of my thought process... not that I considered myself a TEACHER so to speak, but I was more able to teach whoever was in front of me. Then I started moving my financial life to be less dependent on theater gigs and more self-reliant because I wanted to have children - that was probably around 2002 - I sort of dove into it full time, and ever since then, it's been my full-time gig, teaching at home, and I've taught at Universities and I've taught master classes and workshops all over the country - but I think that the big shift was when I decided I needed to move my financial life to something that could sustain having children.

Did all of that work that you did, studying teaching techniques, change the way that you approach your work as a performer?

No, I can't say it changed my work as a performer. The thing with voice science, and voice acoustics, and vocal techniques is that you need to learn it and know it, and then completely forget about it. It can never come on stage. It has to be something that is assimilated, it's in you, you don't have to think about breathing, you don't have to think about how to reach that high note, it's just in you; because the last thing you want to see on stage is somebody thinking about technique. It's like doing your barre work in a ballet class and then coming onto the floor. Your whole work is informed by your barre work, but we don't do the barre work on the floor.

Did you ever do any barre work? Did you do any dancing in your career?

Oh, only minimal. What I did in CHICAGO, what I did in musical theater shows; I was never, never, a dancer. I used that analogy because I teach a lot of dancers, so it works for them - they immediately get it.

So have you fully stopped performing in musical theater? Are you restricting your performing to nightclubs?

BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd No, I have not fully stopped performing in any way, shape, or form. In fact, that was one of the things that the pandemic made me realign. I always knew I wanted to come back to performing live on stage, and I've done some things since 2012, 2013... I've done plays, I've done small musicals off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway. The thing is the timing of it, right? I have (or had) two school-aged children who needed me - I was a single parent, for all intents and purposes, so I couldn't go on tour, I couldn't travel. So just the business aspect of it made it impossible for me to participate in a lot of what theater is, like going away for six weeks or not being home every single night, and most of the weekends. So, I opted not to do that until the kids were of a certain age. I think there are many performers who are new parents that think, "Give yourself that five to seven years," and "I'll go back to work when the kids are in school," or "I'll go back to work when they're teenagers or adolescents." In my case, something always got in the way of that. My husband was very ill through all of our marriage, my daughters have their own unique needs. It kept me from being able to really say, "Okay, I'm putting this time for myself. I'm going to go back into theater full time," or even audition for something. So I did what I could. I did the cabaret, the concerts, where I could predict the time I could become artistically fulfilled and live both worlds.

Now Iraina is off to college and Faith is starting high school, and we've been through a year of complete isolation and quarantine, and I emerged from this thing saying, "Okay. It's definitely time. Now is the time." Because I'm a man of a certain age and I think character men in my age group, a lot of them have left the city. They've literally left the business thinking, "Okay, I'm done," - there are people that gave up their apartments and are not coming back. So, the talent pool has been diminished across the board, and here I am. I thought, "I'm going to step into that," and I'm going to do just that.

And have you already started or is that just the next step for you? Have you jumped back?

I haven't jumped back into walking into a room and auditioning; here's what I've done... the steps that I've made. I asked a friend of mine because, the other thing is, (Laughing) that it's all so completely different now than when I was originally auditioning! It's all like Actors Access and Casting Networks and Backstage profiles, and you gotta have all these technology things going on and upload all your stuff. So, I'm in that process now - I uploaded the profile to Casting Networks and to Actors Access, and I think Actor's Equity has one as well, so I'm culling all that stuff together, putting the resume on there, putting some vocal clips on there... and it's daunting. (Laughing) It's a lot of paperwork. But, this is how it happens now. I'm putting my feelers out for representation ... I'm very old school. I feel like I want to walk into a room where I have an appointment and they expect me to sing a song, not just a 16 bar audition at a cattle call. I haven't wrapped my head around that yet. I'm not saying I won't, but I haven't done that in 30-some years, so I'm hoping to not have to do that again. I'm hoping that I'll be able to secure a manager or an agent and have submitted calls and do the stuff that is right for me because I don't want to waste my time and I don't want to waste their time - send me up for what I'm right for.

But you are going back to work in a new show that is opening on July 22nd at Pangea.

My new club act opens in a week, PANDEMIC RELIEF, and you are the first one to know that I also have a date on November 17th at Feinstein's/54 Below ... we're signed, sealed, and delivered, it's called 25CHICAGO25 for the 25th anniversary of CHICAGO, which is on November 14th. So, November 17th is my show in the same week as the 25th anniversary, and it's a show I developed with Mark Hartman and it's the music of CHICAGO. I basically take you through the album and all my backstage stories, all my "putting the show together" stories, all of my little gossip stories that are funny and nobody else knows ... so it's really fun. It's really fun. I approached them, I called over to 54 Below, "Hey, I have this thing," and, Jennifer Tepper was very nice - as it was early on, like in February, and she said "We're really interested in it, but I have to book all of my people who lost out last year. We'll catch up with that". So I called her again in May and she was like, "YES, I'm ready. Let's do it." So I booked the date and I'm looking forward to that.

You're being very active about getting back on those boards.

The pandemic made me realize that that's where my heart is - that's where my joy lives, and life is too short not to follow your joy.

When's the last time you got to go out and do a show.

Well, in December of 2019 I did a show at Urban Stages that was part of the Winter Rhythms, with plans to reprise that in March and April of 2020. So I had these things booked. Before that I did a show in 2017, an off-Broadway play, and I won the Outstanding Performance in a Male Lead Role for the Fresh Fruit Festival, and then a couple of years before that... minimally, like once a year or every other year, I'll do a musical or I'll do a play, like in the summer, ike when I can - that's the life of a performing parent. I try to keep my hand in the game, as it were but I haven't done a long run show since I left CHICAGO, which was 2004, and so I'm looking forward to actually diving into a character

When you take significant chunks of time off and you get ready to go back into a show, is there any kind of training that you have to do, the way an athlete would?

BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd Absolutely. Especially if... now, I don't anticipate that I'm going to go into a show, singing high soprano like I did with Mary Sunshine, but you've got to condition your voice. Now, I teach voice every day. So, my voice is very used to, and accustomed to, the patterns and the technique that I teach: put that into the world of a show, and you've got to stretch, and workout, and pattern your voice to hit all the marks, the high notes, and the phrasing of what's required in that show. If I ever have to sing as high as Mary Sunshine, I have to take several days and just warm that up, and keep that fresh and going; so you do definitely have to condition yourself and sort of work back up. I left the show in late 1998, and then in mid-99, they asked me to go to Vegas to do it over the millennium, and I'd been off for a few months... So, I had to sing that song a few times and work it back into my voice, and remember the athleticism of it. It's a really good word you used - like an athlete - because it's not just what you do on the front of the stage in front of the lights, it's all the stuff you do backstage. It's remembering how many flights of stairs you walk up and down - that's energy. It's remembering how to put on the makeup and do it quickly. It's you remembering to do everything you have to do in that evening, and it's just for that one show, so yes, there is athleticism involved... which is one of the reasons why I bike everywhere I go. I bike through the city, like a madman, building up my own respiratory stamina and stuff like that.

When you're a young singing actor preparing your career, how do you discover that you've got notes that will accommodate the role of Mary Sunshine?

I'm going to speak anecdotally... I think for most of us it comes literally in play. It comes in having fun and trying to mimic and imitate and all of a sudden you realize, "Oh, what's that... I can do that." And it's a little wild and it's a little sort of like a party trick, and then you've got to, hone it in and work on it. I remember the first time I heard the original CHICAGO with Chita Rivera, and Gwen Verdon, and Michael O'Haughey, and a good friend of mine, Michael Alves, showed me the CD - he put that track on, he knew that I could do this party trick at that point, and he goes, "That's a Man!"

I went " Whaaaaat?" From that moment on, and I say this in my show, whenever I prayed (which was not often but whenever I prayed), I would say, "Please god, why doesn't someone revive CHICAGO?" because I knew I could do it. And I sang that song at every piano bar in the eighties and nineties that I could - around the piano at 88's and Don't Tell Mama, just because that was my party trick. Then, I took it more seriously and eventually I ended up auditioning for it on Broadway, and having lived with it so long I knew exactly what to do with it. But remember, this is a time where nobody was doing that. Counter tenors in classical music were just beginning, in the nineties, to have their little renaissance of popularity, and nobody on Broadway was thinking about that.

So it was after CHICAGO opened, after our recording came out, after people heard me on the recording, that I got a slew of calls from other actors saying, "Teach me how to do that. How do I do that? I don't know, I think I can do that. I don't know how to get there." The guy who's doing it now, Ryan Lowe, he first came to me for coaching on it and he was magnificent. I was, "Okay, we gotta get you in for an audition." And I got him into an audition and he got the role! And he's done it ever since. Because if you can do it, and it's very rare to do it, then why not train to do it specifically.

So you'll be sharing stories about CHICAGO in your November show. Tell me a little bit about Pandemic Relief.

Pandemic Relief - I am very, very happy with this show. This show thrills me musically. Most of my shows in the past have been somewhat theatrical, from my experience, but this show is less theatrical and more music-oriented. These are, for the most part, arrangements that I worked on during the pandemic with different music directors and we did them remotely on JamKazam or Zoom... all of those things I was teaching people to do. Like I hooked up Gregory Toroian with his JamKazm set up and in return, he said, "Let's work on an arrangement." That's how he paid me for helping him and etc. So the same thing happened with Chris Denny, with Rick Jensen - we had gone through this sort of war together of how are we going to make music online and then it was, "Hey let's do an arrangement. Let's do a song together." And Mark Hartman is a big one... Mark Hartman is my musical muse as a music director and always has been, he's the guy I've always used and loved. So all these songs are songs you know and love, but the arrangement is warped... Reimagined... Warped in a way that honors the kind of warped year we went through. I've set "Losing My Mind" to "It Never Entered My Mind" - this is Gregory's arrangement. I'm singing "Losing My Mind." and in the piano, you hear "It Never Entered My Mind," stuff like that. Our political statements around the Black Lives Matter Movement that happened last summer hit me very hard and I turned to Mark Hartman and said, " I gotta do something. I have to create something around this, a statement around this." And also as a teacher and as a musical lover, I'm thinking "Where's the art that was created during the pandemic?" - the music and arrangements and stuff that was created there, because I knew it was very prolific.

So all that's what's going to emerge, and I'm very excited to see all that. But with Mark, I wanted to do this song called, "How Did We Come To This?" from Andrew Lippa's Wild Party and if you just read down the lyric, it really speaks very well to the state of our union in 2020, so I said, "I want to sing this and I want to make it political," and we bounced around a few ideas and finally we came up with "America, The Beautiful," so it's "How Did We Come To This" interwoven with "America, The Beautiful," - it's a fruitful, devastating arrangement. So, all the songs in the show - most of them, I would say - have this sort of this little mash-up thing, or the arrangement is different and reimagined. I call them my COVID creations. I'm just really, really excited about that kind of artistic expression. It's just sort of my roadmap artistically of what happened for me in 2020, nd that's a powerful political statement. Some of it's fun. Some of it's just, "Hey, let's throw our cares away and enjoy this." You know, Rick Jensen passed in March, and Rick and I were working on arrangements right up until the day he died, which was such a surprise. We weren't even done, but this is what we got... and it's a jazzy, downtempo kind of bluesy arrangement of Freddie Mercury's "The Show Must Go On" and this is right at the time of the first anniversary of the lockdown, and we were just talking about the isolation of it and being locked for a year and favorite restaurants and clubs closing, and now how it appeared like there was some light at the end of the tunnel, and things should be good to open up again, and we couldn't wait to get back on stage and the show must go on. And he died four or five days later. It was shocking, shocking stuff. Right? And so he gave me this beautiful MP3 of his arrangement that we worked on. So, it's "Ok, I gotta do this arrangement." That was what we were going through. So it's all that, all the songs in this show, celebrate that, take us to that, examines that, and I love every single one of the arrangements in the show.

Is it fair to say that this is going to be your most personal show to date,

Musically, this is the closest I've come to expressing myself musically. It's not personal. I'm not talking a lot or talking about my life. I want to talk as little as possible. Several songs have no patter. This is about the music. The music says it all.

Don't you think that, as a musical artists, this is cutting very close to your personality, your personal feelings? You don't necessarily have to go out on the stage and give it all away in the rhetoric.

Exactly, exactly. This is musically saying everything I want to say. If you read the lyric, I mean, every single word of it, that's just how I feel.

Given your description of the show, it doesn't sound like an act that requires a great deal of patter.

I don't think it is. I specifically didn't want it to be. I think we all have the experience of going through this pandemic. I don't have to tell you what I went through; you went through the same thing. So however these songs hit you, that's on you, I want you to have experience. I don't want to tell you what my experience was.

Well, there's something in the pandemic experience that connects everyone who survived it, just as much as there's something different about everyone's varied experiences...

Right.

Well, it's a week away. How are you feeling?

(Deep breath) Great! (Laughing) I'm feeling great.

Do you get nervous before a show?

I don't like that word. I don't. I think the same exact symptoms can be used to describe excitement. So I'm going to say I'm excited.

Good. That will feed your performance, which I'm going to be at.

I'm so glad because I do want you to see it. You don't really see me on stage. I mean we know each other but I don't think you've seen me do what I do.

BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd

I got to see you do something at The Lineup with Jim Caruso. And it made me want to see a whole show.

That was the night before lockdown.

It was actually two nights before, because that was Tuesday, and the lockdown happened Friday.

Well, I'll tell you, what you saw, it was the opening number of my CHICAGO show in November.

Well, you're having a busy... I'd like to say a busy year, but it's sort of... the year's half over. It'll be a nice six months for you, to get back on the stage and getting your sea legs back.

BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd Yeah. I'm loving it. And I have to tell you on another note, like having nothing to do with this performance, right now I'm in the midst of Fordham University's summer session, and for the first time ever I'm teaching SO YOU WANT TO SING CABARET performance workshop as a University class, and they're using our book as a textbook.

This is an exciting time for you, isn't it? To go out of the nightmare of the pandemic, into such an exciting time must be really wonderful

Quote, unquote full-stop: it is. I feel like it's a rebirth, a second chance, a rediscovering or recommitment. When you go through that experience, you can't come out of it exactly as you were. You gotta make the most of it ... it's gonna be different. Now it's something new. Now it's, it's the next chapter. So I'm trying to take as much advantage of that as possible.

BWW Interview: David Sabella of PANDEMIC RELIEF at Pangea July 22nd and 23rd

David Sabella PANDEMIC RELIEF plays Pangea July 22nd and 23rd at 7 pm. For information and tickets visit the Pangea website HERE.

David Sabella 25CHICAGO25 plays Feinstein's/54 Below November 17th. For information and tickets visit the 54 Below website HERE.

Visit the David Sabella website HERE.

Visit the Cabaret Hotspot website HERE.

Photos provided by David Sabella


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