Eden Espinosa boasts one of the most exciting voices of her generation, one that has wowed audiences who saw her work in the title role of Brooklyn—The Musical and, more recently, in Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked. Espinosa was the original Broadway standby for Idina Menzel's Elphaba, later succeeding the Tony winner in the demanding role of the misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch. Espinosa will once again step into that green skin when the hit musical begins an open-ended engagement at Los Angeles' Pantages Theatre Feb. 10, 2007. Before that, however, the multitalented singing actress will be part of the starry cast of the 4th Annual World AIDS Day Concert presentation of Rags, which will be held Dec. 11 at the Nokia Theater. Espinosa will play the ill-fated Bella in the Schwartz-Charles Strouse-Joseph Stein musical, the role created on Broadway by Judy Kuhn. "Bella was a very difficult role to cast," Rags artistic producer Jamie McGonnigal told me earlier this week. "It needed a strong actress with a thrilling and versatile voice and on top of that, she needs a naïveté and charm that makes an audience want to mother her. Having seen Eden in Brooklyn and Wicked, I knew she was that very rare performer who could not only capture all these qualities, but embrace them and make the character her own. We are so blessed to have her as a part of this company of actors."
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Espinosa.
Question: Let's start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Eden Espinosa: I was born and raised in Orange County, California.
Q: When did you start singing/performing?
Espinosa: I started performing at a very young age — like three to five — I was already singing whatever I could mimic.
Q: Were there any performers at that age that you tried to emulate or that you admired?
Espinosa: Well, I was obsessed with the movie "Annie." Any movie musical that I watched when I was a kid — even the old movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — I was obsessed with.
Q: Did you ever get to play Annie anywhere?
Espinosa: I didn't. It’s funny, I was really into that [movie], but I was never in classes or musicals when I was that young. I took dance and music lessons — I played piano and violin — but I wasn’t really performing other than church musicals or church plays at that age.
Q: When did performing turn into more of a career?
Espinosa: My grandmother would take me to local dinner theatres or ballet, [but] I never really grasped the concept of doing theatre as a career until I was in high school [when] I really got introduced to New York and Broadway and the current musicals. That's when I really got to know them and start to want to be in New York.
Q: Did you perform in musicals in high school?
Espinosa: I did — I did musicals in high school.
Q: What shows?
Espinosa: I did Maria in West Side Story and Laurie in Oklahoma! [Laughs.] No one really knows my soprano side — they just think I’m a screamer! But I was a soprano first.
Q: So you do have that part of your voice…
Espinosa: Yeah, just nobody really knows about that yet — maybe they will one day.
Q: Was your family supportive once you decided this was what you wanted to do?
Espinosa: Yeah, they were always supportive. I started working at Disney and Universal when I was in high school, so that’s when I really started performing as work. They wanted me to go to college and then after I was done [I could perform], but once they started to see that there was no backup plan for me — that it wasn’t an option — then they knew I was gonna be okay.
Q: When you were singing at Disney, did you have the range that you have now?
Espinosa: It wasn’t as honed or finely tuned, but that’s honestly where I honed my craft. Instead of going to college and taking singing and drama classes and all that, I had Disney. That’s where I really found my own voice and my own style and song interpretation. I feel that's where I really found my own uniqueness.
Q: Didn’t Jeff Calhoun hear you sing there?
Espinosa: I was performing at Universal Studios, and I had made it down to the wire for a couple of jobs that Dave Clemmons had cast. So he knew me and he suggested me to Jeff. At the time, I was working at Universal, and they flew out to L.A. to hear me sing. They didn’t come to the show. I just had a separate audition for them — for John McDaniel and Jeff Calhoun.
Q: And that was for Brooklyn, right?
Espinosa: That was for the workshop of Brooklyn, yes.
Q: What was that whole experience like — going from the workshop to Broadway? You were involved with the show for a few years.
Espinosa: Yeah, I was involved with it from the beginning. Karen Olivo and I and Kevin Anderson had done the workshop. It was a complete labor of love from the beginning. Just the fact that I was going to be doing a workshop in New York with people that had done Broadway was out of this world for me! [Laughs.] It gave me my Equity card. It was an incredible learning experience for me from Day One to the day that the show closed. Things change once you're really on the road to Broadway — when you have the theatre and it’s been announced. It becomes more of a gamble for everybody, more of a risk. So we got to see the business side more . . . Things change, and I learned an enormous amount.
Q: How vocally demanding was that show?
Espinosa: It was vocally demanding. It wasn't as hard of a process as me learning Wicked was, just because Brooklyn was tailor fit to my range and my voice, and Wicked was tailor fit to Idina Menzel's range and voice. In that sense [my voice] was always there because it was in my sweet spot. [Laughs.] But that's not to say that it wasn't hard and it wasn't demanding. Also, our entire show was as long as Wicked's Act One. So, it was a lot shorter than the normal musical, but it was hard. [Laughs.]
Q: You were on TV a few times singing [Brooklyn's] "Once Upon a Time," and I always wondered what was going through your mind as you were coming to that song's extremely high note.
Espinosa: Yeah, that was scary because you don't get to do it again. I try not to have [the thought of the high note] in my mind once I'm in the song, and usually it will leave. I'll usually know if it's going to be there or if it's not. If it's not, I'll make the adjustment, so I won't make an ass out of myself! [Laughs.] I kind of know my instrument so well that usually I'll be able to tell if it's going to be a disaster.
Q: You didn't study voice, right?
Espinosa: Not really. I was in choirs all throughout high school, so I had that guidance, a choir director. I took a few lessons while I was in high school for about three months. And, then when I moved to New York, I studied with Joan Lader awhile while I was gearing up for Brooklyn.
Q: It seems like everyone studies with her.
Espinosa: Yeah, she's amazing. She really knows her stuff, technically, what's happening muscularly. She teaches you a lot.
Q: How did you get involved in Wicked originally?
Espinosa: Originally I was brought in — this was before they went to San Francisco — for Nessarose, and I obviously didn't get [the part]. I've been friends with Stephanie Block for years. We're both from Southern California. She was out here doing Wicked readings years ago. She called me up when she was cast in Boy From Oz. Wicked had come back from their San Francisco tryouts, and she said, "I'm not going to be continuing with Wicked, and they're going to be looking for a cover and a standby [for Elphaba]. You should call your agent and have her try to get you in." So we did, and I got an appointment. I didn't really know that much about the show, so Stephanie filled me in on the side, and she coached me on my audition, and I went in, and 20 minutes after my callback, they offered me the standby.
Q: What was it like being a standby?
Espinosa: I'm grateful. I actually liked the way it worked out that I got the experience as a standby before Brooklyn opened. I learned so much, just watching the process from the outside, from tech [rehearsals] on. I was part of the cast, but I was an outsider a little bit because I didn't do it every night. I didn't have to go to rehearsals with [the rest of the cast] and clean-ups and brush-ups. I got to witness the launch of Wicked from an outside perspective as well as the inside. But it was great — it was nerve-wracking, especially after [Idina Menzel won] the Tony. It's not personal, but [the audience is] not exactly happy to see you. You would feel the energy shift after "Wizard and I." I'd feel the "Okay, we're going to be all right. We're disappointed, but we're going to be okay." You definitely feel that they're there with their arms crossed [thinking], "Okay, we know you're not Idina, but you'd better be good." [Laughs.]
Q: Once you took over the role, how did things change?
Espinosa: It changed a lot. As a standby, you're required to maintain a certain amount of familiarity to the cast. You don't completely have creative and artistic freedom. You have to keep it in a certain parameter of what people are used to. When we were in rehearsals for when I [succeeded Idina in] January, the associate director had to keep telling me, "You don't have to do it that way anymore. You can do it your own way." [Laughs.] It was great. It was really freeing just to finally have the freedom to find my own Elphaba.
Q: How demanding is that role?
Espinosa: I've never worked so hard in my life. [Laughs.] I remember being the standby [when] I had the good fortune of going on for almost three weeks. I remember at one point, right before [Elphaba] pops out of the trap at the very end, hanging on that ladder and looking at Idina's dresser and saying, "Idina Menzel is the hardest-working woman in show business!" [Laughs.] Because the role is just so, so demanding. It's not so much the singing — even though she does sing like ten songs — [but] she's [also] onstage every single scene except for the beginning of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. She's always onstage, she's always singing, she has heightened emotions, and it's physically demanding as well. It's just non-stop.
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