I dreamt of being in a Broadway show, but I was a short, brown, round girl from Hawaii. Who would hire me?!
About the author:
Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about Loretta Ables Sayre, who received a richly deserved 2008 Tony Award nomination for her performance as Bloody Mary in Lincoln Center Theater’s hit revival of South Pacific: She spent seven years as a headliner at the five-diamond Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Oahu, where she grew up. She played Effie in Dreamgirls (!) at the Hawaii Theater. She had a recurring role on Baywatch Hawaii. She opened for James Brown one New Year’s Eve and for the Beach Boys the following year. She was voted Favorite Female Vocalist by the readers of Honolulu magazine. And now Ables Sayre is happily in her second year as a Broadway star. Still, Broadway.com couldn’t help wondering: After building a very successful career in America’s vacation paradise, how has Ables Sayre adjusted to living and working in New York City? Well, we’re glad we asked, because Loretta answered our question by writing a First Person essay that’s as warm and winning as she is!
“Loretta, you have been chosen by the director for a callback for a leading role in a Broadway musical.” Those were the words that changed my life.
Not that my life was terrible. It was far from that. I had lived in Hawaii since I was six years old and had made my living as a singer. That was all I had ever wanted to do.
I can remember when I was four or five years old, singing along with my mother’s albums—those black vinyl discs that you would stack up on a “record player” and listen to scratchy, monaural songs over and over again. Sometimes when the needle would wear down, we would tape a penny on the arm to give the needle a little more weight to dig into the grooves in order to listen to those records a few more times before buying another needle.
I listened to all the music that we had: Mario Lanza, the Beatles, Ruby and the Romantics, Marty Robbins, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn and yes, South Pacific. I would play those albums and everything else we had, over and over, memorizing each word.
When my siblings would want to play cards or board games, I would choose to listen to our records instead. To this day, I have never played a game of Monopoly or Spades, but I can sing every song on Dinah Washington’s Hand Full of Stars, if you’d like! I was so crazy about music that once for Show and Tell at school, while everyone else brought guinea pigs and petrified rocks, I brought a Beatles album and sang along to it. I dreamt of being in a Broadway show, but I was a short, brown, round girl from Hawaii. Who would hire me?!
While that dream was on hold, I amazingly ended up having a pretty successful career as a singer. I sang mostly with a jazz duo or trio performing jazz standards in the best hotels in Honolulu and loved doing it. But after 30 years, I felt it was time to make a change in my life.
In the fall of 2006, my husband and I bought a big, beautiful new home up in the middle of Oahu. We moved my mother in with us, along with our two dogs, and began a journey of great domestic bliss. I decided it was time to slow down. I had a huge kitchen and I would bake and cook to my heart’s content. I was in home decorator bliss: sewing curtains for our 20-foot living room windows; sewing duvet covers and bed skirts and pillows; designing the tropical landscaping and watching it all come together.
Ah, life was slowing down. And then that wonderful phone call came. I flew to New York for the callback audition. All of a sudden, my life was in a spin and in January 2008, I moved to Manhattan to begin rehearsals for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater. I was 50 years old, short, brown, round—and I had a job on BROADWAY!!
It’s been a lesson in acclimation, assimilation and acculturation. I went from 80-degree January in Hawaii to 15-degree January in NYC. I went from working with two musicians to singing with an orchestra. I went from being the “chick singer” in a group to being in a cast of 40. I went from singing in a room with 100 guests to performing on a stage for more than 1,000 guests. I went from glamour gowns and pumps to brown teeth, boots and shrunken heads.
There is so much I miss about Hawaii. I miss the music. I miss the trade winds. I miss the kindness and humility of the local people. I miss the Aloha spirit. I miss the food. I miss the flower lei. I miss the sound of the ocean. I miss the sound of laughter when my family and friends are gathered. I miss hearing “pidgin” English being spoken.
I miss sleeping in my own bed next to my husband every night. I miss seeing him every single day. I miss our long talks together the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. I miss our golden retriever (a.k.a. our “child” Makamaka), who is normally by my side every waking hour.
I miss cooking with my mom in our kitchen. I miss our neighbors and friends, standing in our yards watching the kids play and laughing with them. I miss getting in my car and going to a mall. I miss my life in Hawaii. But I wouldn’t change a thing about my life right now.
I am living my dream. I grew up seeing Lincoln Center only on TV. Now, I work there! My new family is our cast. I have sisters and brothers and neighbors in the halls. We laugh and we cook and we bake and we eat and we bicker just like all family and friends do. But we love each other.
My husband comes to see me as often as he can, and we cherish every moment together. I’ve been home a few times to see my family and Makamaka. Someday, I will have my life back in Hawaii. But right now, eight times a week, I get to live my childhood dream onstage at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City.
And life, my friend, is very good.