Since his Broadway debut as Riff Raff in the Tony-nominated revival of The Rocky Horror Show, Raul Esparza has become a dominating presence on the New York theatrical scene. His performance in tick, tick...BOOM!, written by and based on the life of the late Rent composer Jonathan Larson, received glowing notices, and the Delaware born actor who was raised in Miami followed that performance with another critically-hailed run, playing the pansexual Emcee in the Roundabout Theatre Company's mounting of Cabaret. In fact, during his initial Cabaret engagement, The New York Times exclaimed, "Anyone who has ever wondered how a Broadway star is born can watch it happening to Raul E. Esparza." Currently, Esparza is doing double duty at the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration: By day he is rehearsing for the Center's upcoming production of Merrily We Roll Along — he will play lyricist Charley Kringas — and by night he is starring opposite Melissa Errico in the title role of Sunday in the Park with George. Esparza spoke to Playbill On-Line's Andrew Gans about past successes, plans for the future — and the many colors used to create Sunday in the Park and Merrily in DC.
Playbill On-Line: When did you know that you wanted to be a professional actor?
Raul Esparza: It took a look time, actually. I didn't know I wanted to be a professional actor until I was in my mid-20s.
PBOL: Did you go to the theatre much as a child?
RE: We went some. When we were in Miami, I saw some touring companies, and I loved it, and I always participated in plays — and I enjoyed that — but I didn't think I had the constitution for it, and I also thought of it as not a real career.
PBOL: What do you think changed idea that for you?
RE: Well, I decided that — at least for our generation — it didn't seem like any career was a real career. Everybody seemed to need to go to graduate school, and even some of my closest friends were attorneys, and they weren't getting hired. And, I thought, "Well, there are no guarantees in life." I was going to be a lawyer, actually, and I was studying theatre and English with a psych minor. And I thought, "That's what I'll do." And then I decided, no, why do this? Why not try and see how it goes? And, on the other side of it, my parents actually encouraged me to try to become an actor because they kept saying, "Life's too short, You should do what you love."
PBOL: What was your first professional job?
RE: My first professional job was right out of high school. It was a play called Mixed Blessings. It was produced through an AT&T Onstage Grant at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. And it was wonderful because it was a Cuban version of Tartuffe. Also, the Grove Playhouse really did not hire local actors, and it was a very big deal that local actors were cast in the show...I was a teenager at the time. PBOL: What year was this?
RE: It was 1989 I guess.
PBOL: The last few years have been incredibly busy for you. What role do you think propelled you into the view of Broadway casting directors?
RE: It sort of depends. My career really began for me in Chicago. I spent eight years in Chicago working [1992-2000]. What really propelled me into being noticed by anyone in New York was one of my shows at Steppenwolf, which was an adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five, which led to a New York agent — even though I put them off for three years — which led to getting hired to play Che in Evita. The thing about that Steppenwolf gig was that I started getting sent out for things in New York. Sometimes I'd fly in for auditions if they seemed particularly cool. I did that with Evita, though I hadn't done a musical in all those eight years.
PBOL: Have you studied voice?
RE: No. It [wasn't] my thing. I really, really, really disliked musicals, and I thought they were cute and it didn't take much to be a [musical theatre] actor. Boy, was I wrong! And, also in Chicago, you have to make a decision. if you're gonna do musicals, you're gonna do sort of the dinner-theatre circuit. And I wanted to be a different kind of actor, and my dream was to get to work with Goodman and Steppenwolf. So, Evita came around, and it was one of those things that I went in to audition for. A lot of times I'd be called in from Chicago for some interesting projects by Bernie Telsey's [casting] office in Manhattan. In terms of New York, my first two jobs in New York when I got there — well, not in New York — one was a job at the Long Wharf, and that was through Bernie's office and then Rocky Horror, which was also through Bernie's office. And, in the meantime, you just keep auditioning. Bernie just really believed in me, and sorta in the middle of that, I'm not sure exactly how that happened, but [casting director] Tara Rubin also started having me do little workshops here and there, and I flew to London for something for her, so there was a little bit from her. I guess that's the long answer to that question! [Laughs.] It's not like it's one role...just the many, many, many auditions where you get to go up for things that you don't get for Bernie, which suddenly leads to him saying, "Well I believe in this guy."
PBOL: Was Evita your first musical then?
RE: I had done other musicals, I guess. In college I had done some things, and in high school. And when I got to Chicago, my first two jobs were very brief runs of musicals. After that I didn't do any [musicals] for eight years. The very first two in Chicago were Of Thee I Sing and Grease. I played Danny Zuko. [Laughs]. It was fun actually. I almost drove the car into the orchestra one night!
PBOL: What was the Rocky Horror experience like for you?
RE: Rocky Horror felt like a rock concert every night. And it was, I thought, such an imaginative production, so well designed. It was really, really fun to be part of it. And members of that original cast are some of the most talented people I've ever worked with — Jarrod [Emick] and Alice [Ripley]. Alice is one of those few performers I've ever worked with who sort of intimidated me on the first day of rehearsal because she's so gifted. And our sort of insane leader was Tom Hewitt, and Tom was so generous and simple and humble that I think it created this wonderful atmosphere where we all felt like teammates, and we still hang out together, the cast. We still make it a point to see each other as a group. And, you know that doesn't happen with casts. The problem with Rocky Horror is that because it's a show that the audience participate in, it stops feeling like something that you're doing or controlling or performing, and it starts feeling like a bit of a circus, and it stops being enjoyable to do. About six months into Rocky Horror, everybody starts to feel like, "Well, I'm not really contributing anymore." I really think that's just the nature of the show, with the participation and everything because unlike other shows where things can change every night, with the audience participating you can't change anything. They run the show. At first, it's so much fun, but after about six months, you're like, "Oh, God."
PBOL: After that you went into tick, tick . . . BOOM! How did that role come about?
RE: Tick, tick...BOOM! happened because...I knew they were looking for someone, and I'm friends with Stephen Schwartz, and Scott was the director, and, I think, Scott had wanted to work with me, and I wanted to work with Scott. We had met and had never worked together. Everybody sort of knew each other socially. I guess I'd come to somebody's attention with Rocky Horror, and they were excited about me there, and I came in for it. I didn't want to come in for it at first. I thought it was some sort of sad biography. I didn't realize it was something [Jonathan Larson] had written. I didn't realize that it was all of his new music. I thought it was gonna be some sort of movie of the week kind of play. And I went in, and I remember looking up and one of the producers was crying when I looked up from my reading of one of the monologues. I realized right at that moment that this is a real person, you know, this is different, this is somebody these people knew. Then, coming back in the second time for his parents — I was a little worried about that. It was kinda scary. And I thought they're not gonna like me. And, now, my God, it's Al and Nan Larson, who feel like second parents.
PBOL: How involved were Larson's parents with the production?
RE: Al was there every day, every single day. It was one of the saddest, most painful things I've ever had to watch in a way because he wanted to protect the show, and he wanted to protect his son. And, particularly in rehearsals it was a very, very emotional play because it was so close to home. And we even cut things out that were even more specific. There were things that Jonathan wrote about himself that were shocking. He kept saying his heart was going to explode. He kept saying he was going to die of a heart attack at any minute. And [script consultant] David Auburn said we have to cut this, we can't have this in here. But we would do this music which hadn't been sung since Jon sang it, and I'd look over, and Al would be sitting there. And I think he was really, really hurting, and he looked like he was in pain. But he had to be there, and we would say, "Al, go home, don't this to yourself." And, he would say, "No, no..." He was so instrumental. Everything about doing that show felt right. You know — when you do something, get up in the morning and you take a trip or you make a choice in your life — sometimes you're like, "Oh God, I don't know what's going to come of this." This was like, "Well I don't know what's going to come of this, but it feels completely right." There was something about it. It was scary to leave a Broadway show to go do it, but I remember walking over to the Jane Street Theatre for the first day of rehearsals and feeling like this is right. It could have been a terrible move; it could have been a total fiasco. I didn't know what to expect, and I was very nervous about it, but I knew just getting to work on it — even if nothing came of it — was really going to be rewarding because just reading the script was moving.
PBOL: From there, you went into Cabaret...
RE: Well, from there I really went into Assassins. I left tick, tick...BOOM! to do Assassins. I hadn't even finished tick, tick...BOOM! when Sept. 11 — when the attacks occurred. We were down for like three days. I was still in tick, tick...BOOM!, but I was supposed to start rehearsals for Assassins. They canceled that within a week, which I think was a mistake, but I understand why they got sort of shy about it. We did a reading of that play, I guess it was in November and I thought it was so smart and so appropriate and so moving.
PBOL: Are there any plans for it now?
RE: Yes, I think they want to do it. From what I keep hearing, I think they want to do it in the 2003 season.
PBOL: Will the same people be involved?
RE: I think so, that's what they're hoping for. I met one of the investors here the other day, and that's what they would like...I just wanted to work with Sondheim and Joe Mantello and the Roundabout. I knew it wasn't going to be as rewarding as tick, tick...BOOM! It was going to be different, but you don't get those kinds of parts ever. You do not get to play someone who doesn't leave the stage for an hour-and-a-half and sings 14 songs and they're all new, and it's that close to home and moves everyone. You don't get to do tick, tick...BOOM! very often. I was going to leave, and then they canceled Assassins, but I had already given notice at tick, tick...BOOM!, so [Roundabout Theatre's artistic director] Todd Haimes said there was an opening for the Emcee, and he wanted me to come in for it, to play it...
PBOL: Was it difficult stepping into a role that was so closely identified with Joel Grey, first, and then Alan Cumming?
RE: No, because I loved it. I saw that production, and I wanted to do it one day. I didn't ever think I'd be in that production. I just thought, "Well I'd love to play the Emcee somewhere in like Peoria, maybe get to do it in some small theatre in Chicago." I was just so excited by it. I always wanted to play the part, and I thought I need a job, and I thought I can do this. Alan's performance is one of the best things I've ever seen. I got so excited by it. I tried to figure out how he made that work. It's kind of like "Jeopardy." They give you all the answers, and they're all right, they're all perfect, so then you have to figure out what the questions were. When you do figure out what the questions were as an actor, then you can change the answers. Then you can do things that are your own. I just knew that building from what they created was going to be really rewarding and exciting. I wanted to be really faithful to it, and, I don't know, I guess I changed it slowly. It's just a show that every night you do it is rich. That second act really just gets ya. It's a wonderful opportunity for actors, that production. A lot of times in shows you're onstage going, "Wouldn't it have been great if they had done this? Or, oh, they missed that moment. Or that scene is really about, but we're not doing it that way." And in that production, every time you're onstage, you're like, "They did do that, and they went for it."
PBOL: Are you going back into the show?
RE: [I'm] hoping to. This summer is sort of a leave-of-absence thing where I would come back in to Cabaret for the end of the year. We're not completely set on it, but I would love it because I didn't feel like I was finished with it. I felt like I could still keep going.
PBOL: Did Assassins lead to your casting in the Sondheim Celebration or how did that come about?
RE: Well, Stephen had seen me in tick, tick...BOOM!, and James Lapine had seen me in tick, tick...BOOM! I did the audition for Eric Schaeffer — and Tara Rubin, I had done pieces for — so the only person left for me to meet was Eric Schaeffer, really, for George. And Chris Ashley had directed Rocky Horror. I honestly thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to get tickets to this?" I never thought...
PBOL: When did they tell you they wanted you for both Sunday and Merrily?
RE: I went in for Sunday in the Park with George, thinking "Wouldn't it be nice if...but how fun to audition." I was hoping that Merrily would happen first, and they called about Merrily, and then called to say that George looked like a major possibility, but they weren't completely certain of a Dot yet, and they didn't know if they could work out both shows. I guess it was January when they called and said, "Yeah, you can do both, and we want you for both."
PBOL: What was your initial thinking about doing both shows. Were you excited?
RE: Yeah, so excited. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that I'd get to work at the Kennedy Center. I couldn't believe that I'd get to work with Stephen all summer and that I'd get to play George. And Merrily was a show I fell in love with in college, and I always used to think, "God it would be so great if somebody produced this." I left tick, tick...BOOM! because I thought, "How often do you get to work with Stephen Sondheim?" And, I didn't think ever. Not only do I get to work with him but on one of his masterpieces.
PBOL: Had you seen the original production of Sunday in the Park?
RE: No, but I've seen the videotape.
PBOL: How did you go about approaching the role of George?
RE: Very carefully. [Laughs.] I went to Paris. And I tried to learn to draw. And I tried to learn what it means to see as a painter. Stephen said the show is about a creative artist, and I didn't quite understand what he meant by that. I was like, you know, that's not much of an answer. But what he means is it's a play about making something out of nothing, whether it's a child or a work of art, and those are the two things that we can really leave behind us. What we create is what we leave in this world. It's really a play about family, and how you create a family, whether it's through art or through human connections, so Stephen was obviously completely right. He knows what his play's about. [Laughs.] There was something about learning to figure out how an artist sees the world that really kinda got me into the part...I think Matisse said that "I have learned that if I have not drawn something I have not really seen something." And to draw something ordinary, in the middle of it, you realize how extraordinary it is. It becomes a sheer miracle, it changes in front of you. So the most ordinary things become extraordinary, which is what the play does by the end of the first act...I tried to learn the music as faithfully as I could. It's an impossible score and probably the hardest thing I'd ever done. Before this I would have said it was Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, and they have a lot of similarities. [Esparza did Stoppard's play in metro Detroit, at Meadow Brook Theatre.] It's a spectacular play, and I think this is even harder. I think it's got almost a three-octave range, and the songs come out of nowhere. They just start. Nothing there to help you.
PBOL: What moments do you enjoy in the show?
RE: You're gonna think I'm sick, but I love doing "Putting It Together." [Laughs.] It's a mean, dirty trick to play on an actor, but it's fantastic. It's such a rush. Actually, Stephen said, "You look like you're enjoying it too much. You're supposed to be upset." And I would have to say the last 20 minutes of the play are probably the most magical thing I've ever been part of onstage, ever, ever, ever in my entire life. Melissa Errico and I were looking at each other during one performance of "Move On," and without saying a word, we both just knew you're gonna remember this for the rest of your life, what it is to get to do this play here at the Kennedy Center. Act I is actually less satisfying to perform than you would believe, because Act I is so much about being solitary and repressed and tight and constricted and cold and all the things he's feeling so much but unable to show it. Creating the painting is pretty spectacular, too, in Act I, putting everyone in place. It is such a moving show. It's really, really beautiful and emotional and honest, and I had no idea. I had no idea when I came into it. Just from the videotape you do not get a sense of what the show is like. And I've always liked the videotape, but I just had no idea that it was this. It's fragile. It's like a beautiful gem. I sound like a fool talking about it, but it's a very rewarding play to do.
PBOL: Was Sondheim very involved in rehearsals?
RE: Yes. Stephen's been around every week. I guess that's another thing I'll never forget, sitting in the rehearsal hall singing "Finishing the Hat" for Stephen over and over [laughs] and him giving you suggestions about this, or try that note, or what about here and what do you think this is about or try this idea. And, when you get it right, he gets very happy. He throws his arms in the air and cheers. And I don't think we can be grateful enough for what's happening down here, honestly. I think that as a theatrical community, this is a tremendous example of what, not a National Theatre, but what you can do in a place like DC — at a production level that, I think, people would believe is impossible. I think also that we have the best of all worlds here because if this were a commercial production, Stephen would be involved but the pressures would be enormous. And if this were a regional production, we would have all this luminous "Oh my God, I'll never forget this" reaction to the play because there wouldn't be so much pressure about it, but Stephen would not be involved.
PBOL: Have you started Merrily rehearsals yet?
PBOL: How's that going?
RE: Jesus Christ. [Laughs.] So, now, my second part of the answer is "What the hell was I thinking?" We did a read through of the play on Tuesday and I decided to try to just sight-read the score, which I do not know. I thought "What the hell?" One of the things we've seen down here, seeing the three shows that are up right now, side by side — Sweeney, Company and Sunday. They're so completely different. You would swear a different man wrote each one. People say his shows are alike, I don't know what they're thinking. So, Merrily is a pure-bred Broadway musical. It sounds like that, it moves like that. And, yet we're learning this song ["Opening Doors"] — it's all about syncopated typing at one point and singing over it. I have painting and words that go 300 miles an hour where he's got that whole stream-of consciousness thing in Sunday. They are equally difficult. Also, Merrily's put together in little bits and pieces. Everything's got fragments of everything else in it, and it's going backwards. So, we're sitting there,and I'm just trying to sight read it, and I was having the best time, and afterwards Chris Ashley was like, "That was great. You made wonderful choices. How'd you do that? You're so prepared." I said, "I'm not prepared. I just realized that I don't know it, so I can't possibly get it wrong." And I'm never gonna know it [laughs], so I might as well have a good time. Emily [Skinner] said the same thing. She was like, "You know what? We might as well really love it and have a great time." And, if there's anything we learned about doing Sunday and Company is we're never gonna get it right. You just have to keep trying. Part of the point of being down here is the unbelievable thrill of it. You know, we don't get to run them that long. It's never gonna be perfect. Someone's gonna hate it, and someone else is gonna love it, but you get to do it.
PBOL: How has it been sharing the stage with all the other shows?
RE: All three shows are hung simultaneously. Pieces of the set are backstage for every show.
PBOL: Have there been any instances when the wrong set comes on?
RE: No, although Stephen did say he's really looking forward to seeing what happens when the tonsorial parlor from Sweeney Todd ended up in the French garden. We were thinking we wanted to do them all simultaneously, some sort of sick joke, and see if Bobby could withstand Sweeney's razor and George will paint them. I don't know what we'd do. We thought all the neo impressionists could come to the barber shop.
PBOL: What are your plans after Merrily?
RE: After Merrily, resting [laughs]...probably going back into Cabaret. We're talking about tick, tick...BOOM! a little bit.
PBOL: In what sense?
RE: In terms of either a tour or a London production, which I would love to do.
PBOL: Have you ever worked in London?
RE: No, but I would love to. Jarrod [Emick]'s out there now; I guess he's doing a really good job in Full Monty. There's talk of some plays. I'd like to do some plays. I'm a little musicaled out. This has been very tiring.
PBOL: Are you doing eight a week?
RE: No, we're not, but nonetheless, it really is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, this role. I don't know how you would sing George eight times a week, although maybe it would be a little easier than what we're doing because doing them in rep. You know, when you do a show eight times a week, it gets in your body. When you take a day off, you need it, and you come back and it's still okay. You take even three days off from a show, and you feel a little out of it. We haven't done it enough to really have it in our systems, so you're always functioning on adrenaline down here.
PBOL: Will you overlap with Merrily?
RE: We're never really gonna be a true rep. There are local actors here who are doing true rep from the ensemble of each show. We have people in Sunday who are in Sweeney. There is Walter Charles, who is doing Judge Turpin [in Sweeney], and because there was an accident, he's playing Larry in Company because he played it before.
PBOL: What happened?
RE: Someone was hurt. The actor who was playing it was hurt. I don't know where it happened, and he hasn't been able to finish the run. But this thing of taking on two leads over the course is bonkers, just bonkers. It would have been comparable to somebody doing Sweeney and then doing Giorgio [in Passion]. I don't know what I was thinking. [Laughs.] I really do have to say it's a magical experience.
PBOL: Any talk of any of the shows coming to New York
RE: A lot of people have told us that we've solved Act II. Even some of the original producers of the Broadway production of George came to say that they thought we'd done all the right work and made Act II feel like it was perfect. Somebody actually said, "What did we ever think was wrong with Act II?" — and they would love to see this in New York. I would love to see it in New York. But what's really magical about this is the whole repertory aspect of it and this museum retrospective quality that they've tried to create. It is all being done for the amount of money it would take to mount one show in New York. The production values are fantastic. The orchestrations are the full orchestras, and the actors are the very best in the business, and I don't see why we couldn't put this together in Manhattan. Certainly, where Sunday is concerned, it's like it's been 20 years. People are ready to look at this show again. It would be great, and I know Melissa and I would love to keep doing it, and we could probably do more things. I just don't know whether we have the money for it in New York. You know what I mean?
PBOL: I understand at one point there was going to be some sort of performance at Carnegie Hall.
RE: I've heard some things, but I don't want to say anything because I'm not sure. Something is gonna happen, but I don't where. It's going to be a highlights concert, but that's not enough. I think we should be doing some of the shows in New York. I know Merrily hasn't had a major Broadway production since it opened. Sunday hasn't had a major production at this level since it opened in America. A Little Night Music, I think, people are very excited about again. Company has been tremendously received. I would love to see it in New York, and I think this is such an example of what can be done with not too much money. And, sure, I'm not making a New York salary, but I'm not starving either. I'm getting to do some of the best work I've ever done in my life. And, whether or not I'm good at it, whether or not we succeed completely, we're all growing and getting better for it, and it would be wonderful if this sort of thing could happen in New York.