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updated: 11/15/2011 11:29 AM

Broadway singer found calling at Schaumburg High

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  • Broadway performer Sal Viviano met his future wife Liz Larsen -- where else? -- auditioning for a musical. The two are featured soloists this weekend at the Elgin Symphony Orchestra's "Broadway Romance" at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.

      Broadway performer Sal Viviano met his future wife Liz Larsen -- where else? -- auditioning for a musical. The two are featured soloists this weekend at the Elgin Symphony Orchestra's "Broadway Romance" at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.

  • Schaumburg High School grad Sal Viviano never considered a career in music until a prank to get out of detention brought him to the attention of music teacher John Van Hook, who drafted him into the school chorus.

      Schaumburg High School grad Sal Viviano never considered a career in music until a prank to get out of detention brought him to the attention of music teacher John Van Hook, who drafted him into the school chorus.

  • Video: Sal Viviano appearance

 

All he wanted to do was avoid a high school detention.

So Sal Viviano reluctantly auditioned for the Schaumburg High School choir, a seemingly innocuous act that ultimately gave him a Broadway career in such hits as "Romance/Romance," "City of Angels" and "The Full Monty."

It's safe to say that had Viviano not dodged that detention in high school, he and his wife, Liz Larsen, wouldn't be performing as soloists with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra this weekend at Hemmens Cultural Center.

Here's the story as Viviano remembers it:

"I wasn't a music student whatsoever," Viviano said. "I didn't have any interest in performing. I played sports.

"At the end of my freshman year, a friend wanted to audition for the high school choir, so some friends and I went with him for moral support.

"The music wing was being renovated, and we missed the passing period because there were no bells in the music wing. So, to get back to class and not get detentions -- and miss a track meet -- we all auditioned so we could get a pass back to class."

When the choir roster was posted two weeks later, Viviano and his three friends all got in.

But there's a wrinkle in the story. Viviano said no.

He dropped out. Two of his friends stayed in.

For the next year, Viviano went to see his pals in choir.

"Wow!" he said. "That looks like a lot of fun." Besides, "I knew I could sing a lot better than my friends did."

At the end of his sophomore year, Viviano went back to the music wing and asked if he could audition for choir.

This is where Schaumburg High's legendary musical taskmaster John Austin Van Hook comes into the story.

He told Viviano: "No. You may not audition. I understand you made a mockery of the system last year. You didn't really intend to audition; you just wanted a pass to class."

"That's true," Viviano said.

"Then I don't want you in my choir," Van Hook replied.

Looking back on this exchange, Viviano said, "I learned a valuable lesson that I should have been honest with him."

But when Van Hook posted the choir list two weeks later, guess what?

Viviano's name was on it.

"I went back and thanked him," Viviano said. "From then on, a friendship grew. He was such a mentor to me in all good ways. He gave me an opportunity to know I had abilities and gave me opportunities to grow those abilities."

After graduating Schaumburg High in 1978, the Detroit-born Viviano cemented his music education at downstate Eastern Illinois University. He began with a physical education major but switched to music.

"I had a few friends at Eastern," he said. "It was definitely the right place for me. One particular music teacher, Dr. June Johnson, was like a second mother to me. And doing a lot of theater there really prepared me for the career I've had."

In 1982, Viviano landed a teaching job at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview while earning his theater union card in Chicago at night.

He moved to New York in 1984 to perform in his first Broadway show, a flop titled "The Three Musketeers."

He went on to his share of hits both on Broadway and on tour, appearing in "Evita," "Anything Goes," "The Pirates of Penzance" and "Hair." He's also been on TV shows and hosted roasts, and sung with more than 100 orchestras across the nation.

He met Pennsylvania native Liz Larsen in 1987 while auditioning for the comic book rock musical "Starmites."

They read the script and sang together. Both got parts. In fact, they were cast opposite each other.

But there's a wrinkle in the story. Viviano said no. He turned it down. And left.

"So, even though we were cast opposite each other, we didn't work together," he said. "But that's where we met."

Let's let Liz Larsen take the story from here.

"I was in a hallway yapping it up with my girlfriends," she said. "He was standing at the end of the hall, leaning in a doorway. Very quiet. I kept looking at him because he was so incredibly handsome.

"I thought, there's no way! Because he was so gorgeous, and I'm a fat little Jewish girl."

"Hardly!" Viviano interrupted her.

"I tried flirting with him, but he was not having it," she continued. "I thought he only dated models."

More than a year later, Viviano was singing the national anthem at Shea Stadium where, through a twist of events, he re-met Larsen who had come with a friend, then-New York Times theater critic Laurie Weiner.

"We started talking and joking," Viviano said. "She thought I was uptight. I thought she talked a lot."

Something clicked. The couple not only has racked up an impressive list of performing credits on Broadway but has produced two sons, Alessandro Gian and Joseph Dante.

So what's the appeal of the performing arts for Viviano? Why not go into some other profession?

"I worked seven summers at a resort in Wisconsin," Viviano said. "I got to meet and introduce all the entertainers, singers, magicians and actors. I got a taste of what that felt like. That was something I wanted, something I needed to do.

"I felt at home."

-- Dann Gire

Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would be good to feature, send a note to dgire@dailyherald.com or jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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