He garnered more attention as the lead in the late Jonathan Larson's intimate musical tick, tick…BOOM!. In 2002, he was tapped to play the title role in the Kennedy Center production of Sunday in the Park With George. He won a Tony-nomination for Taboo, but the poorly received musical was short-lived. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gave him his first Broadway lead, but again the show did not please critics and draw audiences. With John Doyle's innovative new production of Stephen Sondheim's iconic work about relationships and commitment, Company, the actor stands his best chance yet at seizing the stardom that theatre pundits have long said is his for the taking. Esparza spoke to Playbill.com from his dressing room at the O'Neill Theatre about the appeal of a Cincinnati tryout, his growing understanding of the Sondheim musical and learning to play the piano.
Playbill.com: How did you get involved in Company?
Raul Esparza: Both my manager and casting director Bernie Telsey decided it would be good for me to meet [director] John [Doyle]. I was asked to meet him and talk to him. It was during the previews of Sweeney Todd. And we really hit it off.
Playbill.com: Did you go see Sweeney Todd before you decided?
RE: I had already seen Sweeney Todd. I saw the dress rehearsal. So I knew the way he was working. Then I went back to see it after I met him. I saw Sweeney Todd like three times. I just loved it. I couldn't get enough of it.
Playbill.com: So you liked the concept of acting and playing an instrument at the same time?
RE: I loved it. And I especially liked the idea of getting out of town.
Playbill.com: You didn't mind going to Cincinnati for the tryout?
RE: Not at all. To me, that seemed like a real plus. I was in the middle of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the show wasn't doing so great. The audiences were sometimes packed, sometimes not, but always more interested in the set than the people on stage. I thought it would be good to regroup, to get away from the attention and the spectacle and just get down to working on something simple. One of the reasons I got into acting is I had a magnificent Spanish teacher in high school, Beatriz Jimenez, and she studied at the University of Cincinnati. She had been an usher at the Playhouse in the Park, and she always talked about it as this great place. There was something very sentimental about going to work there, the place that inspired her. She's coming to opening night. There was something very peaceful about going out of town. Playbill.com: Especially for something so complicated and new like Doyle's production.
RE: John kept asking me, "Why would you want to go to Cincinnati?" It appealed to me, being in something in a much quieter way.
Playbill.com: When he got there, did John change his opinion of Cincinnati?
RE: He didn’t have an opinion yet. I really enjoyed dragging him to the mall. I said, "C'mon John, let's go shopping!" That was a hoot.
Playbill.com: What was the rehearsal process like?
RE: We spent six weeks out there. He begins with music the first day. Then he divides his days up, so you do music in the morning, and then in the afternoon you'd get up and drag the music behind you with your script and you'd stumble around. One of the most interested things about his process is he likes to do the scene work in the morning over and over and over again, without setting anything—just trying variations on things. Then in the afternoon, we'd put together what we had done in the morning, all the little bits and pieces. And then you would do that over and over and over again. The repetition becomes—well first it becomes maddening, and then it becomes really free. Because by the time you've got through a scene, you've done it about 30 times and tried it 30 different ways. I found that really inspiring, because it allowed me to get rid of things and make a lot of choices. Then you find out which one choice would be the most valuable one to hold on to. That's a real luxury.
Playbill.com: I imagine you've seen Company before.
RE: I've seen Company a couple of times. The first time I saw it I hated it. I didn't get it at all. I was sort of annoyed by it. And I don't think it was a particularly good production. Then I saw it at the Kennedy Center a couple times, which was a lot of fun. I liked what John Barrowman had done with Bobby. But it was very much a production of the 1970s and what it was supposed to be—what we were all doing down there at the Sondheim celebration, which was just do the show, don't have a take on it.
Playbill.com: And did you "get it" that time?
RE: Um, well that time I really enjoyed it, but I think the thing I didn't get is how much heart it had as a piece. I thought of it as an awful lot of fun, but it seemed like the same writer had not written, say, Sunday in the Park With George and Sweeney Todd. The emotions that just pour out of those shows—it didn't seem like Company was asking that of you at all. I thought, well, it's a goof; it's a really fun sitcom with some great songs and it's of its time. But I liked it. I sent people. I sent my parents. My parents were certain that they had seen the original production on Broadway and they were certain it had starred Lauren Bacall. I said, "I think that's another show, Mom."
Playbill.com: Musical fans all have their theories about what Company is really about. What do you think is going on in Bobby's head?
RE: I think he's at a normal crisis point. I'm of two minds about it. Sometimes I think he's a kid that doesn't want to grow up, which is an easy way of looking at it. And other times I think he's really terrified of being wrong in his life, of committing to anything because it eliminates all of the other choices. And that leads to complete paralysis, when you want to have so many options open to you that you don't choose any, for fear of closing doors, you end of paralyzed and not able to choose anything at all. I think that's normal. I think that's part of what happens when you get older. The play for me is really about a leap of faith on his part. The more he gathers information, the more he knows how bad things can be. It gets scarier to say "I'm going to jump."
Playbill.com: Most of the reviews mentioned Bobby's solo number "Being Alive" as being a highlight of the production in Cincinnati. Is that a favorite moment of yours?
RE: "Being Alive" is just a culmination of everything for me. It's the moment that he cracks.
Playbill.com: And you accompany yourself on the piano.
RE: I do, but that's part of the whole story for us. John saw what he said was a really wonderful production at the Donmar, that he thought was really powerful. He said it really moved him, and he knew the show could be powerful. And I said "OK, I didn't know that, and it would be really interesting to tell this in a really powerful way." We both also felt, how do you earn "Being Alive"? Building to that moment was very important to us. One of the things that informed that was that Bobby wouldn't play for himself; he couldn't play for himself. His friends were his company, literally, that made all the music in his life, too. If you took that far enough, we thought, he eventually has to play for himself and he has to play "Being Alive."
Playbill.com: Is that the only time you play in the show?
Playbill.com: Is piano an instrument you've always had?
RE: (Laughs) No. I learned some piano for an Off-Broadway show called tick, tick…BOOM!, but I was too scared to really play it, so I would do the fingering and the band would do the music. With this show, I had to sit down and really teach myself.
Playbill.com: So what I'm hearing from you is that you know how to play only one song on piano really well?
RE: (Laughs) I can actually play "Marry Me a Little" now, but we didn't use it [the piano idea].
Playbill.com: So, no requests.
RE: No. (Laughs) But, you know, I really love it. It's so emotionally freeing to be able to dig your hands in there. It just releases things emotionally. It's a really interesting thing that happens when you're physically engaged in something on stage. You stop acting, and it takes care of itself. That's the cool thing about playing the piano.