THEATER

 

Act II: From Corporate Exec to 'Company' Man

By BARBARA D. PHILLIPS
November 21, 2006; Page D8

New York

[Bruce Sabath]What a difference a decade makes.

Back in November 1996, Bruce Sabath's résumé highlighted his then-current role as a director of strategic planning at American Express Co., as well as previous stints at Boston Consulting Group, First Boston Corp. and Arthur Andersen & Co. Today, the résumé of this 44-year-old with a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from Harvard and an MBA from Wharton sports a headshot on the back and charts a far different career path.

Nine years after ditching the corporate life at American Express to follow his dream of an acting career, Mr. Sabath is now a "Company" man, making his Broadway debut in that musical's latest revival, directed by John Doyle. Not only does Mr. Sabath act and sing as Larry (the wealthy, put-upon husband of Joanne, the acerbic lady fond of Vodka Stingers) in the Sondheim classic, now in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. He also plays the clarinet and drums in "Company," moving around onstage with the other actor-musicians with all the precision of a football half-time show.

Mr. Sabath, an outgoing, upbeat man, is clearly thrilled with his decision to leave his old life behind. Of course, the financial cushion he built up in the business world helped. So did the continued employment of his wife, Karen, in the securities industry, until she, too, quit her job a few years ago to spend more time with the couple's two boys, now ages 12 and 8. But Mr. Sabath needed a push from his spouse back in 1997 to switch careers.

As he tells it, Mr. Sabath had been acting, singing, and taking piano, clarinet and guitar lessons since childhood. "I was never very shy about getting up and performing," he says. "That was what I loved to do." In college, he was in a play freshman year and then joined the Harvard Din & Tonics, an all-male a capella group; in business school, he was a cast member and writer of "The Wharton Follies." But growing up in Rochester, N.Y., where nearly all the men he knew worked for Kodak or Xerox, or were doctors or lawyers, "a performing career just never crossed my mind," he says.

So Mr. Sabath pursued math, found that he had a real knack for computer programming (at Arthur Andersen in the 1980s, he and a colleague designed a computer system to analyze the mortgage-backed securities that Salomon Brothers was creating), and eventually moved into business development, management consulting and strategic planning. He figured that once he retired he'd have time for "community theater, where I could be happy." But retirement was still a long way off. In 1997, he was still in his 30s and miserable.

"It was at that time," Mr. Sabath says, "when I was having a hard time getting up and going to work in the morning, that my wife said one day: 'I'm so tired of hearing you bitching and moaning about how much you hate your job. If you could just do anything you want -- forget for a moment about where you'd work and how much money you'd make -- what would you do?'

"And I said, 'Well, I would act. But I can't do that, because obviously it's dumb. You never know if you'll get work, the pay is terrible, the hours are terrible, you have to travel. It isn't practical.'

"Then Karen said, 'But if that's something you really want to do, why wouldn't you at least try?' I knew so clearly once she asked the question that that's what I wanted to do," he says.

So Mr. Sabath began to focus on his own re-engineering. He wrote a mission statement. He made a list of people he needed to contact in the industry, "as well as any contacts I already had in the business -- which were few." He went to the theater and modeled himself after two actors he admired -- "the Kevins, Kline and Spacey" -- men he thought were "similar to me in style" and who seem to cross genres with ease.

He talked to a lot of people about acting, movement and voice teachers, and determined that William Esper, who had studied and taught with Group Theatre co-founder Sanford Meisner, would be the best acting teacher for him. Rather than dredging up personal traumas, as other types of Method acting do, the Meisner variant puts a greater emphasis on imagination -- "a more psychologically healthy approach," Mr. Sabath says. Then, while still studying with Mr. Esper, Mr. Sabath got his first gig -- as the mayor of New York in "Lyz!," a musical based on "Lysistrata" that was performed in "a tiny, dinky theater that seated 28 people," before moving up to the better-known Samuel Beckett Theater.

In finding dozens of roles since then, on stage, screen, TV and the radio, Mr. Sabath credits both luck and perseverance. He auditioned for the national tour of "Victor/Victoria," for example, "by accident" -- he'd been aiming for another audition across the hall -- and snagged his "first paid, professional job," in fall 1999. That same year, thanks to his real-estate agent, Mr. Sabath won two roles in a BBC radio production of "The Handmaid's Tale" that eventually opened the door to an Equity union card, valuable currency for a New York actor. And in 2004, Mr. Sabath played producer, picking a script, hiring a director and casting himself in the lead of "These People."

Meanwhile, for much of the past decade, Mr. Sabath has not had an agent of the non-real-estate kind. For the one year he did have one, the agent got him only a few auditions. "Most of the things that I have gotten were through either open calls or through people who saw me, or met me, or who I knew." Mr. Sabath hopes that with his Broadway exposure in "Company" he'll be "able to acquire an agent with more clout."

And how did he reach Broadway in the first place? Mr. Sabath had gone, with clarinet, to an open call for last season's Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd," Mr. Doyle's acclaimed production that also used a troupe of actor-musicians. There was nothing for him there, but someone remembered Mr. Sabath when he submitted his résumé for Mr. Doyle's Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production of "Company" -- and this time he was hired.

Mr. Doyle's directorial method is unusual, Mr. Sabath says. Rather than practicing and learning the music sitting down and then staging it, the cast, with their instruments, were "onstage" in the studio the first afternoon of rehearsal, "playing and singing and kicking our books along the floor," blocking out movements and experimenting with Mr. Doyle, who "came in with no preconceived notions.... It was, like, a week and a half before we opened that we finally got to 'The Ladies Who Lunch,'" the show's penultimate number. He says that even in New York, Mr. Doyle "is still going back, improving things; it's all about clarifying the story."

Mr. Doyle had committed to the nonprofit Cincinnati production well before "Sweeney Todd" opened in New York. Then "Sweeney" made Mr. Doyle the toast of Broadway, and by the time "Company" had its Ohio debut this March, important eyes were focused on that regional stage. New York producers came calling, "and there were four different offers at one point," Mr. Sabath said. Mr. Doyle, "a fantastic guy," insisted the entire Cincinnati cast be hired for any Broadway run, and they were.

Mr. Sabath says that "literally hundreds" of his family members and friends -- including a large contingent from his old life downtown -- have already purchased tickets. On Nov. 29, the show will have its official Broadway opening.

As we wrap up our talk backstage, in the cozy, candle-lit sitting-room that Raúl Esparza, the musical's star, has generously opened to the entire cast, Mr. Sabath reflects on that mission statement he wrote back in 1997. "In it, I said something like, 'working with people who are creative and love to be doing what they're doing, creating something for people who love to experience it.'" Mission accomplished in "Company," he says.

Ms. Phillips is deputy Leisure & Arts features editor of the Journal.