Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Hug the Moment, Make It Last

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Hug the Moment, Make It Last

Article excerpt

50 years later, actor James Dybas reflects on Do I Hear a Waltz?

It just transports me back to that time," I James Dybas tells me as we flip through I photographs from his Broadway debut in Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents's Do I Hear a Waltz? (marking its 50th anniversary in March 2015). "There I am, barely 21 years old," he says, "my first Broadway show, with Steve and Arthur Laurents and Mr. Rodgers. The crème de la crème. You have to pinch yourself every now and then." He laughs a little and then spontaneously sings the phrase, "I was younger then ..." from "Someone in a Tree." Not entirely unexpected from the buoyant and affable performer who also originated the role of the Old Man in Pacific Overtures 11 years later.

At age 70, Dybas has had a long and diverse career on Broadway, in road companies, regional theatre, TV and film. But the spry, agile actor got his start in the romantic 1965 musical playing Vito, the young son of Renato Di Rossi, portrayed by Italian crooner Sergio Franchi, also making his Broadway debut. With a sharp memory and keen sense of storytelling, Dybas relates how his ability to be ethnically ambiguous has served him well.

"It started with Do I Hear a Waltz?" he explains. When I went into the audition, the casting director asked me if I had an Italian background because, 'Mr. Rodgers only wants Italians to play the Venetian characters.' And of course I said yes, my name had been shorted from Dybacelli; my father was from Palermo and my mother from Sicily. Nobody caught on," he giggles. Actually, his parents were firstgeneration Americans of Polish and LTkrainian descent, but he'd learned that if you want a life in the theatre, you need to do what's necessary to book the job.

Like Pulcinella, the crafty stock commedia delVarte character, Dybas went to the phone book and looked up Italian-born actor Ruggero Romor, who played Vito in Laurents's The Time of the Cuckoo, the 1952 play that was the source for Do I Hear a Waltz? (It also formed the basis of the 1955 David Lean film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn.) Dybas set up his tape recorder and asked Romor to repeat some lines from the show so he could hear the authentic Italian accent. Next, Dybas read for the play's director, John Dexter, and afterward he was brought back to sing for Rodgers and Sondheim, smartly choosing the Neapolitan ballad "Torna a Surriento." It nailed the role for him.

Ironically, by the time the musical came to Broadway, the character was a speaking-only role. 'As it turned out I didn't really sing in the production," he points out, "though there was a song in which I had a few bars to sing called 'I\vo by I\vo.'" But the song was cut during the out-of-town tryout, and those bars of music were replaced with the song 'Here We Are Again.'" His part survived, though rewritten in the form of couplets sung by Signora Fioria (Carol Bruce), the sensual proprietor of the Venetian pensione that serves as the musical's focal point.

"Then, when the notice goes up that we are scheduled to do the original cast recording over at Columbia Records, I see that my name isn't on the list," he tells me. "And you get a week's salary for that! " But resourceful actor that he is, he decided to show up at the recording session. 'After all, I did have a line I shouted in one of the numbers ['Here We Are Again'] 'Buona sera' and someone would have to do it. " He didn't tell anyone he would be coming; he just showed up, said the line and got a week's salary.

Arthur Laurents has said, "I think that doing a musical is kind of hell, and you just hope it will be worthwhile at the end. " Though much has already been written about the extraordinary tension that pervaded the production, Dybas says, "The cast members were really tight. We had so much fun in spite of all that had been printed about the collaborators and what was going on between Mr. Rodgers and Steve. We would all go out dancing on Thursday nights, which was payday, and we'd go to places like Arthur's and the Peppermint Lounge. …

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