The artistic duo producing the original show Music and Dance: Broadway's Best at Eight O'Clock Theatre first met on Broadway 40 years ago.
The show they have created "is about the music we love," said director Rocco Morabito, 67.
But Morabito almost didn't see the show that he and choreographer Ronnie DeMarco had dreamed about come to fruition.
At 2 a.m. Feb. 12, he was in an ambulance, being taken to Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor.
"I had been home alone and started feeling big pains in my chest. I knew I was suffering a major heart attack,'' he said.
Surgeons installed a stent and Morabito was hospitalized for 10 days. But his thoughts were somewhere else.
"I just kept thinking about how auditions were to start on Feb. 26,'' he said.
As soon as he was released from the hospital, he made a series of phone calls: to DeMarco, a founding instructor for the Broadway Theatre Project at the University of South Florida; to Emi Stefanov, the show's musical director; and to Betsy Byrd, Eight O'Clock Theatre's business manager.
He told them the show must go on and that some rehearsals could be held in his home while he recovered.
"I have a grand piano in my living room,'' he said.
The team agreed to do it Morabito's way, but that doesn't mean they weren't worried about him.
"When he had the heart attack, I was willing to not do the show,'' said DeMarco, 71.
Morabito shakes his head when asked if he considered cancelling the show for his heart's sake.
"The theater is my heart,'' he said.
So for eight weeks, musicians and singers trekked to his Safety Harbor home for rehearsals in his living room.
"But there came that point where we had to marry the singing with Ronnie's part, the dancing," Morabito said. For the final three weeks, the production moved back to the Largo Cultural Center, with Morabito wearing a heart monitor during rehearsals.
"It's gone off three times," he said. "What it does is if my heart seems to go out of rhythm, an alarm goes off. The first time it happened we were discussing a stage entrance. I just pushed a button and let it know I was okay.''
Music and Dance: Broadway's Best, which opened May 3 and continues through Sunday, has an extravagant set design that puts the orchestra on a second level, above two dozen singers and dancers performing on the stage.
Twenty-six show tunes are performed, starting with numbers from Pippin and Sweet Charity and ending with ones from Chicago and Chorus Line. In between there are classic songs like Everything's Coming Up Roses, The Grass Is Always Greener and Don't Cry for Me Argentina.
With a dozen picks from shows such as Cabaret, The Pajama Game and All that Jazz, the production gives a big nod to Bob Fosse, Morabito said.
The show is also a nod to the long friendship of Morabito and DeMarco.
Morabito got his start in show business as a hair and makeup artist for Broadway performers including Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. He directed several cabaret shows in New York.
In his early days, DeMarco worked for well-known dance instructor Luigi in his studio, Luigi's Jazz Center on 55th and Broadway.
Morabito and DeMarco met in 1970, when Morabito was working as associate producer for Chita Rivera. "We were dancing at Luigi's, and Ronnie was teaching there. We became fast friends,'' he said.
The friendship has continued in Florida while Morabito has operated Rocco's Hair Studio in Safety Harbor and DeMarco, a Clearwater resident, has continued teaching dance and choreography.
Together, they've done six productions, including the Eight O'Clock Theatre's 2007 production of Cabaret. For that show, Morobito received a prestigious LARY Award for best director while DeMarco received one for best choreographer.
During opening night for Broadway's Best on May 3, Morabito sat in his director's chair near the stage. He said he was no more nervous than usual.
"And no, my monitor did not go off,'' he said. "I'm just always excited. It is the element of nerves that propels you to do good theater.''
James Grenelle, the assistant director for the production, was not surprised that Morabito went on with the show after the heart attack.
"The theater is Rocco's life,'' said Grenelle, who has worked with the pair in several shows and performs Wilkommen from Cabaret.
"To describe Rocco and Ronnie's work, I'd use words like classy,'' he said. "I'd also use the word heartfelt. I know that's ironic, but heartfelt is the truth.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.