Pearls and “Jules”: David Sabella Revives Julian Eltinge

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David Sabella as the legendary Julian Eltinge. Photo by Anthony Ruiz.
David Sabella as the legendary Julian Eltinge. Photo by Anthony Ruiz.
David Sabella as the legendary Julian Eltinge. Photo by Anthony Ruiz.

Michael Levesque’s provocative Jules, a new play with music about the legendary female impersonator Julian Eltinge, wraps up its run at Teatro La Tea (Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St., 212-868-4444) on June 28. Directed and choreographed by Andrew Glant-Linden, and featuring musical direction and arrangements of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern songs by Tim Di PasquaJules stars Broadway vet David Sabella in the title role (as well as Cameron Hansel and Edward Prostak) and is co-produced by Third Eye Theatre Company and Teatro La Tea.

For tickets, click here.

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Our interview begins with a personal statement:

David Sabella isway too busy! Necessity has made me a master multi-tasker. Forget two things at once, very often I am in the middle of six-to-eight things at once, including being a father, a husband, running a private voice studio, being on faculty at two universities, president of a not-for-profit organization, executive director of the Broadway Theater Project, and, oh yeah, acting…and singing. Luckily, I love every single one of these descriptors. And, in fact, things are calming down a bit. The kids are now a bit older (7 and 11), the voice studio is flourishing, and I just ended my second (and last) term as President of the New York Singing Teachers Association after six years. So, slow down? Nah, let’s do a show where I never leave the stage. Yes, life is blissfully full.

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And now, 5 questions David Sabella has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“What do you love most about your work?” This question also implies that there is great joy in the work, which is true. And it also separates the love in your work from the love felt in your personal life

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Do you sing in your real voice?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Did you have to have an operation to sing like that?”

The full Sabella
The full Sabella

One is struck by the irony of Eltinge’s existence: the most famous female impersonator in the world living in a world full of violent, virulent homophobia. As an actor, how do you treat that information yet keep him real yet not feel pity for the man?
Oh, I don’t pity him, at all. He was an incredibly strong man, whether or not he was gay. The play assumes he was, even if he didn’t know it, or could ever admit it.

But for me, the more striking realization (and yes, irony) is how much strength he had to have in order to function in that time and world. He not only survived and flourished, but was also revered as “high class” entertainment for his truthful depictions of women. In stark contrast to the other female impersonators of that era, who were all basically “clowns” in female makeup, he was absolutely RG (Real Girl), and his ability and talent raised him to a level of respectability and acclaim that very few other stars in history have achieved. If there is any pity felt at all, it’s because of how society’s view of his particular talents changed over the years. His career was killed by politics, and that’s a shame.

For you as an actor, what is the most bewildering aspect of Eltinge’s life? If you’ve watched any video of him (we found one on YouTube), do you think he’s actually any good, by 21st century standards? Why did the crowds love him so much?
There are a few examples of Eltinge on YouTube, unfortunately none of the performance clips include sound. There are a few clips of him speaking in interviews, but not performing. So, what his singing voice may have sounded like is a complete mystery. For me that’s the most bewildering aspect of his career and life. I made a choice early on to honor the great composers who wrote of Eltinge (i.e., Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern) by singing the songs as truthfully as possible to the character, whether that meant using a character voice or full-on RG soprano (“Those Come Hither Eyes”):

For those writers to have invested the time and energy to write for him, we must assume that not only was he “good” but that (as in written reviews — paraphrased here) “his illusion was so complete as to make it impossible to tell he was a man.” For my money that’s pretty damn good and a lot to live up to.

Bonus question:

Eltinge is back from the dead and seeing your final performance and he’s agreed to do a post-show Q-and-A with you. What are your three most important questions for him? What frock would you want him to wear?
Well, first off, not the same frock as I would be wearing because I think he would look much better in it than me. My three most important questions for him would be:

  • Would you sing something for me?
  • What did you love most about your work?
  • Can I ask 37 more questions?