THE LEADING MEN: Esparza and Wong

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Esparza and Wong
 
Just Because It's June . . . . The column that delves deeply into the minds of the males of musicals talks to a current Tony nominee who made it to Broadway from the outskirts of Miami and a past Tony winner and current TV star headed to one of the great theatrical outposts of the East Coast: Raúl Esparza and B. D. Wong
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THE COMPANY WAY
Raúl Esparza can be as open in an interview as his Tony-nominated Bobby from Company is closed-off from truly being alive. He's candid enough to admit he is ego-driven and self-deprecating enough to laugh at himself for it. Admittedly over-intellectual at times, he credits his Company experience with helping him get "outside his head" for a change. I got him back in there long enough to talk about what motivates him and to look back at his earliest thoughts of Broadway.

Question: Congrats on the nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. You have to wear black throughout Company. Will you be wearing black to the Tonys as well?
Raúl Esparza: I suppose so. I'm trying to be Mr. Classic these days. I should come out in bright silver or something. Gold! I just bought a new suit this week. You gotta do the tuxedo. I try not to think about it. This is the best part of the whole thing. . . . These few weeks where you get to sort of sit and enjoy it. I really like that. There's still the possibility you might win, the possibility of all kinds of stuff — people still say, "Congratulations." Later on they say, "Oh well, maybe next year." [Laughs.] And [afterwards] you miss this [time]. But I'm really looking forward to the ceremony.

Q: Are you someone who has been more inspired by positive encouragement or people who've told you you weren't going to make it as a performer?
Esparza: I've had a little bit of both. My parents were real supportive, which was cool. . . . They've been great and quite encouraging. I also really responded to . . . the first time I didn't get something I wanted. I remember back in high school, I was a presidential scholar in the arts. Out of 6,000 students, they choose 20 to compete for the Presidential Scholarship in the Arts. I was told . . . that I would never be an actor, that I would never be accepted to any theatre schools, that I might be a director, but I just didn't have what it took. To this day I am still grumpy about it. But that was the first time I wasn't treated like the golden boy, even though I had won this wonderful thing, and it did influence me. I ended up going to theatre school because I was told I couldn't go to theatre school. I tend to be one of those people who cuts off his nose to spite his face that way. It's funny because this season at the Drama League Luncheon, Michael Mayer was given the Julia Hansen directing award, and Michael was my acting teacher in college, and we fought like cats and dogs, and I love him to death. I learned in spite of myself with him. He always said I was talented and I had what it takes, but he didn't think I was dedicated enough. And it's amazing to be standing in a position where we're colleagues now. That really blows me away. He was a teacher, and there was something about the fighting that made me want to prove him wrong.

Q: Was he right about your dedication at that time?
Esparza: About the discipline, I didn't really have it back in college when I was at NYU. I wanted to prove I could get in, but then I thought I could coast because I was talented. It's a strange thing about being a young actor. If you're not rebellious, and you don't have a bad attitude and skip classes, then you're probably not going to make it as an actor, but if you do all that crap, you're probably not going to amount to anything either. [Laughs.] So you gotta split the difference somehow. Hold on to the fighting, and yet learn something at the same time. A little bit of support is good, but sometimes it's good to get kicked in the guts a bit because it makes you want to prove people wrong.

Q: So the best way to motivate Raúl Esparza is to tell him he can't do something…
Esparza: I tend to make people think I suck first. And then I [have] something to prove. It is easier to remember when people say bad things about you than when they say good stuff. I don't read reviews, but somehow I have managed to hear little comments or in some sort of terrible, terrible act of self-destructiveness where I google my own name — we call it the "vanity google," where you manage to find the ten articles that talk about how lousy you are, and that's all that stays in your head. That seems to have more power than people saying, "Congratulations, you've been nominated for a Tony for Leading Actor in a Musical." [Laughs.] It sounds vaguely psychotic, and I don't mean that I do that every day, but I do recognize it has great self-destructive potential. That's the opposite side of standing there and feeling really damn lucky and grateful. Q: You tend to inspire strong reactions to your performances. Rarely do you read, "Raúl was okay in this." Why, do you suppose?
Esparza: That's a hard one, isn't it? I don't know. I like to make big choices. I like to kind of go for it, go for some extremes. What I love about theatre acting is that you can make gigantic choices. I like balancing being someone who is trying to find behavior that you recognize in life while at the same time doing that little extra something that knocks it over the edge into Liza Minnelli territory, where you're kind of reaching for the audience, where you're making a really big choice that's really idiosyncratic — sometimes I really blow it, and sometimes I manage to tap into something that even I didn't quite understand had some power to it. . . . I've heard critics that like me, and I've also heard critics who said I gave them a rash. Better that than a critic who walks away and goes, "So what?" Not that you do it for the critics. Just, they happen to write things and people read them.

Q: Is it more difficult making big physical choices in a stripped-down show like Company?
Esparza: A lot more difficult, and it's entirely because of [director] John Doyle and the way he works. He's really one of the best directors I've ever worked with. Sondheim asked me this question, he said, "How does he do it? How does he get these performances out of Michael Cerveris or Patti LuPone [in Sweeney Todd]? How did this happen?" I tried to describe, "Well, we repeat things a lot, we do scenes 40 to 50 different ways, and we never really plan anything, and he really makes you feel safe." And he said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's not it. Patti and Michael couldn't explain it either."

Q: Are you still unable to explain?
Esparza:My theory of the month right now is that [Doyle] makes you feel good as a person, and you come to a point where who you are, and what you have to offer is enough, and you really don't need to impress anybody. He gave me a note one time after "Marry Me a Little" where he said, "That was pretty good. It was 5% there, and the other 95% was thoroughly self-indulgent and self-pitying, so don't do that again." [Laughs.] He's not interested in somebody being onstage and trying to show off. It made me challenge him. I remember there was a day I said, "What do you want me to do? Stand here?" He said, "I don't know. Maybe. What would that do?" So I said, "Fine, I'm just going to stand here through the whole number of 'Company.' I won't move." And, wow, it really kind of worked! . . . I think that his great gift is he helps you get to that place where you go, "I'm enough. I can just be quiet, and I can say my lines, and it's going to be like a real person, and the audience will respond to that."

Q: And you are still discovering new things as the run continues?
Esparza: That's another thing about the way John works. We do the scene so many different ways, that even as an actor, there's going to be so many ways to play something, and he allows you to do that, but because we're doing Sondheim, it's material that you can never quite get to the bottom of. It's great, great writing, and it is challenging to find the right way to say something that'll convey the 30 different meanings he has written into a lyric. They're just incredible. I look at the lyrics and go, "Oh my God! How did he rhyme that?" or, "That's the perfect way to say that." There's the other little kid side of me that remembers looking at the big book, "Broadway Musicals" by, I think it was Martin Gottfried, a big picture book, and it had A Chorus Line on the cover. My parents gave it to me when I was 12. There was a chapter on Sondheim, and some of the lyrics quoted in it are from Company. The other night [the cast was] singing, and I was like, "Oh my God! They're singing about me!" Who would have ever told that kid that I'd be up there, and they'd be singing that song, and I'd be the guy they're singing about? I could see myself on the living room floor some Christmas morning going, "What is this book?" And nobody could have told me that I would be doing this. It makes this Tony nomination feel incredibly special. This is a childhood dream come true.

Q: Were you thinking about Tony nominations as a child?
Esparza: I never had any experience of New York theatre other than what I saw on the Tony broadcast, so it wasn't about winning an award but that I would be associated with the people I was reading about or seeing on TV. That's what the dream is. It's not really about the Tony. The nomination is a stamp: "You belong in this world." And I'm working with people that I watched on television and that I admired and whose plays I came to see, books I read, and it was very far away. I was in Miami in the suburbs and we were listening to our rock 'n' roll and our Cuban music, and all of us spoke Spanish, and were eating Cuban food. My school didn't have a theatre of any real consequence. We did little plays and things, but we did little Spanish plays, and it was fun, but we never did a musical, and we couldn't have been more removed from Broadway, and what came to town at the time seemed impossible — like little visiting circuses from outer-space. Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan or I remember Les Miz. I saw the national tour, and it was really good. I didn't think, "I'm going to be up there." I just thought, "These are like visitors from another planet, up in New York." I didn't see a show on Broadway until I was coming here for college, and it happened to be Into the Woods.

Q: How did the reality compare to how you had envisioned Broadway?
Esparza: It seemed slightly smaller than I imagined what Broadway was, but all those marquees along 44th Street, it was like a fantasy world. I thought it was a huge place, and it turned out to be a small series of blocks, and I thought, "What would it ever take for me to get here?" I remember thinking, "Someday I'll walk to work here." I didn't know how it would happen, and I used to go to classes at Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street, and I'd go to TKTS and get tickets to all the plays I could see. I saw a lot of great plays and musicals. That season was Grand Hotel and City of Angels. It was my first year at NYU. There were so many good things, and Playwrights Horizons was doing Assassins — we couldn't get tickets for that. But I remember walking down 42nd Street and the skyline of midtown, you know the way the sky goes kind of purple-y and the buildings make sort of a bright yellow and orange at night. I associate that sky and those buildings with Sondheim's music — the music I was hearing in class for the first time. People singing "Marry Me a Little" in class, or "Everyday a Little Death." I had never heard those songs before. And seeing that midtown sky and going to see a Broadway show . . . . I kept thinking someday I'd be up there, and what does it take to get there? It's a longer journey than just a physical journey of a few blocks, it's a big thing. In the meantime I went to Chicago or I lived in another city or I went through whatever I've gone through in my own life to be back at this, 18 years later.

Q: Prior to Company, you said your favorite roles were in tick, tick…BOOM! and The Normal Heart. Where does Company now fit in?
Esparza: I would say this is the best work I've ever done because I think I am a better actor through this process than I've been before, and I'm also learning to sing better than I've ever sung and taking it really seriously. I've applied myself to learning stuff. tick, tick…BOOM! and The Normal Heart were such immediate experiences that nothing is going to take the place of that. That's because they were plays for and about the people we were performing them for. Company is similar. It does fall in the same line, and when you're performing it for New Yorkers it's really thrilling. But personally, it is really challenging, and I feel like I am getting better, and that's really rewarding to me. Nothing's ever going to take the place of the experience of the Public Theater and Normal Heart, where it felt like the audience was joining in with the play, like I thought they were going to get up and start screaming at the Mayor's deputy or something. And in this case, when I hear people crying at the end or laughing — there's a moment of laughter after "Being Alive" that happens every night. It's a relief and it releases something in the audience where you hear everyone kind of happy for Bobby and happy for themselves. I think it's really hopeful, and I love telling that story. I keep having moments every night where I go, "I can't believe I'm doing this." So I would say that so far I feel like this is the top of something. Now, I don't know what the hell I'm going to do [next]! [Laughs.]

(Company plays the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.)

LAW & ORDER: WTF
I spoke to B. D. Wong via phone, as he was on his way in to work in L.A. filming scenes for "Law & Order: SVU" on which he plays forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Huang. Upon completing the current shooting episode, he will begin rehearsals in New Jersey for Herringbone, the one-of-a-kind, one-man, multi-character, vaudeville, murder musical that opens up this year's Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA. Williamstown is a long way from L.A., or New York for that matter, but it attracts first-rate folks like Wong because it's that mythic place that comes to vibrant life each year, where everyone is living and breathing theatre for the duration. Herringbone, with book by Tom Cone and direction by Festival artistic director Roger Rees, will run from June 14–24. The show represents a bit of unfinished business for Wong.

Question: Are you looking forward to being in Williamstown?
B.D. Wong: I was up there less than ten years ago doing a John Guare play called Chaucer in Rome and loved it. It is a great place to work, kind of a theatre-loving place, so it's really fun. Over the years it has developed its own audience as well as the ability to attract talented people. A win-win situation for the actors as well as the audience.

Q: You performed Herringbone before, 15 years ago at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. What brings you back to it?
Wong: I never got what I wanted out of that production. The itch wasn't fully scratched. I wasn't completely satisfied with my work in it and the production itself, and so I've always wanted to try and get it right. I've been working for quite a few years on getting someone interested in doing it, and the Festival was the perfect place for it.

Q: What will you do differently?
Wong: The play is so tricky that it really does require wall-to-wall discussions of acting as a foundation for all of it. You can't kind of just do it. You have to talk about every second of it and say, "Are the director and the actor on the same page as to what's really supposed to be happening, and how we can achieve that?" I didn't have the luxury of that discussion in the previous production. I have in this production a really great sense of that with the choreographer and the director, and it really is helping a great deal. It really needs to be fleshed out completely; it can't just happen. A lot of times you can do a rather standard play, and you can just do it because it's kind of right all up front. The characters are saying what they're saying; take it at face value. All you have to do is kind of polish it and don't bump into the furniture. This is not one of those don't-bump-into-the-furniture kind of plays.

Q: So you have long been a champion of the piece. What drew you to it originally?
Wong: Initially, the original performance of the play at Playwright's Horizons with David Rounds was not to be matched and completely mesmerizing, so as a very, very, young actor I was really inspired by that. It was incredible. Not that that could ever be re-created, but his mastery of the piece and his ability to mesmerize the audience was really intoxicating. That was one thing. The other thing was I have always liked multi-character work that crosses gender. That's kind of my thing. There are very few plays, very few roles that offer the opportunity to explore that — really interesting, different kinds of speech patterns, physicalities, and all of that. That's all here in this, and I found that really interesting and well-suited to me when I saw it many years ago.

Q: I have not been lucky enough to catch one of the incarnations of Herringbone, with Rounds, you, or Joel Grey… but I have to say it sounds incredibly unique and cool.
Wong: It is, of all things, cool. I think it is one of the coolest things ever. And, I really have always liked it because in many ways it is a very traditionally written musical. We have the two acts and 16 songs and a great, interesting plot, and the finale of the first act is very interesting, what's going to happen and all that. It is very traditional, and yet the whole thing is kind of subverted by the way it is performed. It's actually written kind of straight, like you could theoretically get 11 people to perform it. It wouldn't resonate the same way because the whole point is that one person does it, but the story would be told the same way, and so that's what's kind of odd and interesting about it. Q: The pressure on the actor in a show like this must be immense.
Wong: I can't deny it. I feel a constant pressure. There's no relying on anything but you once you're out there, and also the demand of it. There's no understudy. And, I don't want the audience working to try and understand it. I want to have to do that, and that creates a whole lot of pressure. There's no such thing as a role that doesn't create one kind of pressure or another, so that's part and parcel of taking the job on. I'm not complaining about it at all, but I do feel that pressure.

Q: How does the music fit in to the show?
Wong: I love the music. The one thing that attracts me to any piece is the intelligence of the composer and the lyricist to writing for character and writing something that is appropriate for any given moment in the piece, not just a kind of music-for-the-sake-of-music thing. There are a lot of talented composers who write very wonderful music, but how that music actually has anything to do with any given moment in a musical is not always aesthetically present. Skip Kennon [music] and Ellen Fitzhugh [lyrics]'s creative marriage on this project is a really good fit. They really always write appropriate to the moment and the driving of the plot, so the score is wonderful. It's a wonderful kind of unknown score.

Q:Will you continue to balance your successful TV career with stage and song opportunities?
Wong: It is always, always, always one of the harder things to do for me. I remain on "SVU" because it is an incredible opportunity. It affords me also the additional opportunity of doing just this very kind of thing. I am really grateful for the opportunity to do that because it's pretty rare I think, and I also choose to live in New York, and it's been really great that way. This particular gig worked out to be something that fit perfectly, and "SVU" is very generous to me about working these things out. That's part of my deal with them. . . . I'll probably take an episode or two off to do the actual run of the show and then come back to the show when I am done in Williamstown.

(For tickets to Herringbone or other Williamstown Theatre Festival productions, call (413) 597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org.)

HITHER AND YON
B.D. Wong won his Tony in 1988 for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role as Song Liling in M. Butterfly. A more arcane bit of trivia: I'm sure this will be commonplace in a matter of months, but Wong is the first person I've known to have an ringback in his phone. That is, when one calls him, instead of hearing rings, one hears the Emotions singing "Best of My Love." "I love it. It confuses people," he says . . . . Early June, the 4th to be exact, at 8:30 PM, cabaret sensation and two-time MAC Award winner Brandon Cutrell will be celebrating the release of his new self-titled CD with a performance at Feinstein's at Loews Regency. For ticket info call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsattheregency.com. . . . On June 17 Cutrell will be a part of David Gurland's pride-celebrating show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre featuring songs made famous by Judy Garland. Gurland's other guests include Rob Maitner and Brian Farley. Ray Fellman music directs. That's at 7 PM. Call (212) 695-6909 for reservations or learn more at www.westbankcafe.com or www.davidgurland.com. . . . Jordan Gelber — of Avenue Q fame — is among the cast of the new Doug Grissom play Elvis People opening at New World Stages June 21, with previews beginning June 6. For tickets visit Telecharge.com or call (212) 239-6200; for more information go to www.elvispeople.com…Also in June: The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards! June 10. Enjoy!

Tom Nondorf is an associate publications editor for Playbill. He can be reached by e-mail at tnondorf@playbill.com.

B. D. Wong
B. D. Wong
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