BWW Interview: Sean Patrick Murtagh Debuts MARIO! at The Green Room 42
Sean Patrick Murtagh has been making the rounds lately, hitting the open mic nights in the nightclubs and cabarets and wowing the crowds with a voice the like of which is not heard every day. This writer sat in one of those open mic crowds, eyes and jaw both wide open in wonder, and took mental note of the date August 14th because that is the night Mr. Murtagh will debut his new cabaret musical Mario! at The Green Room 42. Mario! Is a tribute to an artist from the last century that was known as the golden tenor of Hollywood, Mario Lanza, and given the performance I saw, Mr. Murtagh is the right man for the job. A San Francisco native, Sean Patrick is still considered a fixture of the cabaret scene there, even though he has been living and working in New York City for a while, and with Mario! He will make his Manhattan solo cabaret debut. The intimate and nostalgic evening, directed by Chris Giordano and musical directed by Cody Dry, will feature music from classic Hollywood musicals, the world of Opera, and some Neapolitan favorites, all put on display by Mr. Murtagh's own golden vocal cords.
After witnessing his Herculean vocal performance at an open mic, I reached out to the singing actor, who told me a little about the enterprise and action of creating this one-man musical love letter to an idol worth remembering.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Sean, do you prefer Sean or Sean Patrick?
I go by whatever people want to call me. I come from a big family, so I'll even reply to the dog's name, but Sean, Sean Patrick, SP, however people feel comfortable calling me.
As long as they get your attention, huh?
Exactly! And buy tickets!
Sean, who is Mario?
Mario Lanza is the golden tenor. He's the icon, what to live up to, what to aspire to. He is, for me, a mentor from beyond. His legacy really sits with me and is an inspiration.
The golden tenor of Hollywood, is that something he was known as or is that an affectionate endearment that you created?
To be honest, I'd have to look that up because I'm not sure if I actually read that somewhere or if it's just how I've always referred to him. When I was putting this show together and I was pitching it to The Green Room, they said "Tell us about Mario Lanza" and I said "He's the golden tenor of Hollywood" and they put that on the postcard for my show. There's really no other operatic tenor in that golden age of Hollywood that really exists. It was him, he created it, it started and it finished with him.
Mario Lanza's been gone a long time, you're a young dude - how did his first artistry reach your attention?
I was introduced to him by my voice teacher in San Francisco, Richard, who was another tremendous singer - big, huge, larger than life voice, touched by god and when I started training with him he said "You need to listen to Mario and that's how we need to start training your voice. It's what you need to aspire to be. Keep listening to him, don't mimic him but listen and find what he's doing and how he's doing it, how he's filling all that space with passion while still respecting his instrument." That's when my love affair with Mario began and has been going on ever since.
How old were you when that happened?
I was 22.
So, before the age of 22 how would you classify the way that you sang?
I've always tended toward the more legit or classical sound but even before that, when I was ten, I couldn't match pitch and I had Richard and another voice teacher, who kept with me and made me a singer and made me musical. When I came back from college and took up singing with Richard again we started going down this path. He said "you need to learn all these songs" and he threw all this sheet music at me of all these Italian art songs, Neopolitan songs, arias, basically the Mario Lanza songbook is what he wanted me to learn.
What is Neopolitan?
Italian music from Napoli, from that region. Their cultural songs, this day to day lifestyle songs that they sing while walking down the street, while doing this or doing that and so it represents that part of Italian culture. O Sole Mia is a good one, Santa Lucia... those are classic Neopolitan songs.
Now, when you rehearse them, do you rehearse them while walking down the street?
(Laughing) Yes, actually I sing everything walking down the street in New York. I'm constantly vocalizing, I'm that annoying person behind you in the subway humming and going through their falsetto and making sure everything is working that day. I do sing O Sole Mio and lots of other songs as I'm getting them into my body.
Why do you think it's important to put this spotlight on Mario now?
A lot of times when we talk about singers like Mario, whether or not people are familiar with him, for those who are, the constant sentiment is "Oh we just don't make singers like that anymore" or "What a gift, it's a shame nobody sings like that anymore". No, people DO! We just don't celebrate them, and we need to change that. We need to celebrate those singers and not forget that this is great singing. This is a beautiful art form and I think, especially, the bigger goal of mine is to introduce him to a newer audience. I'm glad to share this love affair with people who grew up listening to him, whose Nana's played the records growing up, who have such an experience with Mario - I'm glad to share that with them and relive those memories. But I think that it's really important, because he's a wonderful role model, as far as singing goes, for young artists to aspire to - to sing with full passion, everything you have, feel every moment, and to not let anything slip through. That's my bigger goal, to share him, because I think we need more mentors like that - people need singers like Mario to look up to.
This show is about more than just Mario, to you, isn't it?
Yes. Richard was a very influential man in my life. He took a chance on me, I worked for him in exchange for voice lessons and he really believed in me. I was almost like his protegee, but unfortunately, he had more in common with Mario than just a voice - he had his demons and it ended up spoiling our working relationship, and I left him as a student, as an employee, and as a friend - and he was more like family. It really hurt - it was as if he died. Richard did end up passing away and it was like I had to mourn him twice - and I got very angry, and all my experiences with him were soured. Then one day I was at work and I was listening to Mario, as I tend to, and I just started crying. Uncontrollable. But it was also beautiful and in that moment I felt that I had this healing with Richard, I was forgiving him. Mario kind of taught me how to forgive him. I realized that while Richard couldn't take care of himself and be there to protect himself, while he couldn't be the mentor for me, he had given me Mario, as somebody to look after me in his absence. It was a really beautiful moment of communion and reconciliation at the same time, and letting go and forgiving. I couldn't do the show if I didn't do it in honor of Richard as well - those are my two big tenors, two big influences. So now when I listen to Mario, I'm also hearing Richard as well.
Having been so lovingly mentored by other people, do you seek out artists to mentor yourself?
(Laughing) That's always difficult. I feel like you find yourself in those situations. I feel like I still am growing and learning so much constantly... I would be happy if I could impart and share any wisdom because I feel like that's how we pay it forward. This information is not to be kept to yourself, this is to share - somebody shared it with Mario, somebody shared it with Richard... especially in the classical world - the way it works is your teacher's teacher is your grandfather teacher. It works just like a family tree, there is a lineage and it is important to pass down and to share this information because we want this art form to survive, we want these songs to survive, this music... I would gladly offer anything I could to somebody who is seeking this information and help, but I'm not sure that I'm there yet. One day.
You told me that you've been singing baritone these last few years, what's it like to be back in the stratosphere?
It's a lot! It's a lot of work, it's a lot of rest. A lot of people ask "You already know how to sing, why do you still train, why do you still study?" It's an Olympic sport. Singing is very athletic, especially singing this tenor rep, it's a lot. I have the notes but it's about negotiating where you're going to live. When you're a baritone you use a little more gas on the lower notes and there's not much left for the upper register, so it's a matter of splitting it out. But it's nice to go down memory lane with this material and be singing up there. It's fun. But I'm definitely living like a nun: no drinking, eating healthy, working out, making sure I get plenty of sleep - I mean, you should be doing this anyway, but I'm on heightened alert now that I'm in this tenor world again.
You've worked extensively with the cabaret community of San Francisco, what is it that you think still makes this medium popular to both performers and audience members?
What I love about cabaret is it's not just about the songs. I could easily get up there and say "In 1921 Mario Lanza was born on the thirty-first of January" but that's not as interesting as what the songs mean to you. I just saw Natalie Douglas at Birdland singing about Roberta Flack and the most touching parts were when she was sharing how she was impacted by this. Music touches us in so many different ways - and people want to know that they're not alone - like "I felt that way when I heard that song too" or "I didn't know anyone else was going through that and this song got them through." There are so many different things that happen in our lives, and the way music narrates and keeps us going and lifts our spirits. And the art of cabaret is sharing that. What is it about these songs, beyond these songs, that is so compelling and draws us to them. I love that. It's not really scripted, it's from the heart, and that's why people keep showing up. Cause the songs go past what we can express. That's what this show's going to be, too. It's not just me singing the Mario Lanza songs, it's me kind of talking about how these songs kept me going.
I've been reading your resume online: Why did you choose musical theater instead of opera?
I have this voice, that's what my voice is. It's always been back and forth "you're a tenor, you're a baritone, you're legit, you're musical theater" and people have been pulling me all different directions... and musical theater just felt more welcoming, in many senses. I love the classical world, I'm a huge opera fan, but you are kind of limited to your voice type. There's not as much freedom with expression. In this show, I will be singing a tenor aria but I'm a baritone, and I would never be able to sing that in the classical world. I like that there's a freedom of expression in musical theater, in cabaret, in all this concert work. It's what you bring to it - where you are, as you are, and that's the most interesting way to tell a story.
I once heard Patti LuPone say that when she's getting ready for a show, in her dressing room she listens to rock music. What do you listen to while you're not on stage singing?
When I'm not on stage singing I have this little playlist that I listen to but I always end up going to this one song. It's a recording of Grace Bumbry singing Delilah's aria 'Mon Coeur' and there's something about mezzo-soprano voices that just soothes me and relaxes me. I'm listening to this and my body relaxes and it gets me in a good place for singing.
Of all of Mario Lanza's performances, which is your personal favorite?
Oh my god, there's so much of him that lives on. I think The Great Caruso is one of the greatest. It's so many big opera classics in one movie, and him getting the chance to honor his hero, his mentor, Enrico Caruso. That's what this show feels like - it's my "Great Lanza". (The movie is) so much passion, it's from the heart and he's singing like he's meant to sing. It's beautiful.
Sean, I'm a stranger who doesn't know you and I'm looking for some authentic New York cabaret action. What am I going to find at Mario that makes me happy I heard about your show?
Oh my gosh, well, I think... I hope you'll find an experience that you wouldn't find in any other cabaret. I feel like this show will transport you. It's a walk down memory lane for me but I invite my audience to feel what they're feeling, let the songs touch them and spark joy in them, the way they do to me. And it's going to be familiar. Even though you don't know me, I always want my guests to feel welcome. In San Francisco, when I do my shows it's half family, half strangers, and by the end, the strangers who are seeing me for the first time are like "I felt I was in your living room, I felt like I was there when you were sharing those memories". That's what I want this show to be, I want people to feel comfortable and happy they came.
Sean Patrick Murtagh in Mario! Plays The Green Room 42 on August 14 at 7:00 pm