Rebel Without a Song

Special Features   Rebel Without a Song Raúl Esparza, a powerful musical presence on the New York stage, switches gears for Larry Kramer's landmark play, The Normal Heart
Ra
Ra Photo by Carol Rosegg

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And you want me to tell every gay man in New York to stop having sex?
Who said anything about just New York?
You want me to tell every gay man across the country
Across the world! That's the only way this disease will stop spreading.
Dr. Brookner, isn't that just a tiny bit unrealistic?
Mr. Weeks, if having sex can kill you, doesn't anybody with half a brain stop fucking?

This extraordinary exchange between patient and doctor — a clarion call if ever there was one — was first sounded 20 years ago last month, and its anniversary was marked in the same Public theatre (the Anspacher, actually, instead of the LuEsther at The Public) with The Worth Street Theater Company's new production of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's lone cry-in-the-wilderness that has gained such great volume in the interim. The world has changed, but not the message.

Brad Davis, who would die of AIDS ten years later, and Concetta Tomei were the first to utter these alarming words as Ned Weeks and Emma Brookner, two characters at the center of the gathering storm that was AIDS in its infancy during the summer of 1981. Now they are being spoken — with no less urgency — by Raúl Esparza and Joanna Gleason.

"It's tricky to stage this play again," Esparza admits. "It can't be about the politics of AIDS. It can't be about giving the audience information they don't have. It has to be new. It is very much of the early eighties, but I think, because it is, there are things in it that can be heard now that weren't heard before. It's no more of a period piece than An Enemy of the People. Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People is exactly the same play. There is a crisis going on that affects the community. It just happens to be in Norway in the 19th century. "I think The Normal Heart has evened out, gotten richer through the passage of time. The audience is going to know more than the characters, but, as actors, we have to forget all that we know. The play will succeed if we don't give it any sort of portentous importance. If it stays as simple and natural as possible, these will be people who don't really know what's going on. The audience knows, and they can feel all the resonance they want."

Larry Kramer, who is HIV positive, founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis during the time of this play and is still a flickering firebrand who helped Esparza illuminate the role. "He was somebody who went out and screamed in the streets," says the actor of the activist.

"A lot of people accused him of being a hysteric, a hypochondriac, a man who exploited death, kind of a Cassandra. Now they see him as some kind of an icon. He doesn't think of himself as somebody who did something special. And he really believes that. The writing was on the wall, and what was happening was clear, and it was common sense to behave the way he behaved. He was ahead of the curve. But he says, 'Absolutely not.' He wanted to find love in a community that seemed obsessed with only looking for love through sex. He could never have known a disease was going to kill everybody. In a way, the disease ended up making everybody stronger in the long run and a good deal more present than they had been before. But it took a long time to get there and a lot of deaths.

It slightly surprises Esparza that he has made his mark in New York in musicals. The Normal Heart is only his second play here. Last year he was fiercely effective in Jonathan Pryce's role of the angry young comic in Comedians. "This is where I started, doing plays. Frank Galati cast me in a nonsinging role in Cry, the Beloved Country, and from there on out in Chicago, I never did anything but plays. It was eight years of plays.

"I have a voice that is a real gift, and I know that, but it's not a voice that's well-trained. It is sort of a fluke that I've ended up doing so many musicals in New York. I came in, having done Evita, which really kicked my ass. It's one of the hardest plays you can do, and I learned so much on that tour about doing a show eight times a week. Che sings 14 songs. It's just brutal, and I didn't have the kind of training and extraordinary instrument that someone like Mandy [Patinkin] had when he took on that part. But I had to learn on my feet.

He hit the New York stage running, arriving as Riff Raff, the hunchbacked handyman in The Rocky Horror Show, and that set the tune of things to come. It won him a Theatre World Award, and he followed that with Obie-winning work as Rent composer Jonathan Larson, leafing through a musical of Larson leftovers, tick, tick . . . BOOM!

Then he succeeded (surpassed, some say) Alan Cumming as the bizarro Berlin nightclub emcee of Cabaret; recently, he did the English variant of that, London nightclub owner Philip Sallon, in Taboo. "I met the real guy. He thought I was a bit too camp, but, while he was saying that, he was wearing a white Vivienne Westwood pantsuit, and his entire head was covered in shaving cream. When I first met him, he was covered head to toe in multi-colored garbage bags, and he had a Vivienne Westwood shopping bag on his head as a turban. So I actually don't think I went far enough to embody what he is really like.

Right now, he's particularly pleased to be co-starring with another crossover from the musical world. "Joanna was in the first Broadway musical I saw, Into the Woods. To me, she is the epitome of good New York acting and has been for years. I'm thrilled that she agred to come and do this. Every time I look up and see her there, I get chills because I'm thinking, 'Oh, I understand that. It's musical-actors-aren't-necessarily-big-boomers.'"