DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked and Rags Star Eden Espinosa, Plus a "Dreamgirls" Preview

By Andrew Gans
December 1, 2006

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

EDEN ESPINOSA
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.

Q: What are some of the rewards of playing the role?
Espinosa: So many. As tired as I was all the time, I didn't care. . . . Doing eight shows a week, [there are some days when you think], "Honestly, I don't feel like doing it today," but the difference [with this part is] even though I had those days, the second I ran out on that stage, it was so fast and so fun and so easy to get lost in it. I just think [book writer] Winnie [Holzman] did a great job of writing this role. You take such an amazing journey, and it's a blessing to be in a hit. It really is. [The audience is] never disappointed. They're so gracious, and you have a packed house every single night, and that is not the norm. So I really tried to relish that every night.

Q: Why do you think the show has remained such a hit?
Espinosa: I think it's just human. I really give the credit to Winnie and [composer] Stephen [Schwartz]. I think the songs, the melodies, the book — it's just so human. Everyone can find something in it to relate to: a relationship with somebody or being treated like an outcast or being misunderstood. I think they did a good job of these larger-than-life [characters] — a green girl, a flying monkey. Even the flying monkey is made really human. I really love that about the show.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Elphaba?
Espinosa: There are so many. I have a different favorite every day. "I'm Not That Girl" I really enjoy. It has the softer, vulnerable side, the more human side. She kind of lets [the audience] in for a little bit. And I love "Popular." It's not even my number, but doing that number with Megan Hilty [is great]. Beside [Kristin] Chenoweth, it doesn't get much better than that. I really like being in that number and reacting to the Glinda, whoever she may be. It's just fun for me.

Q: I know you had been offered the role of Fantine in the Les Miz revival. Was it difficult to choose the L.A. company of Wicked over that?
Espinosa: Actually, the offer for the L.A. company of Wicked came in later, so it wasn't a deciding [factor] between the two jobs. I knew it was a possibility, but it wasn't [definite]. Les Miz is my dream show — it still is to this day. To be offered Fantine, a role that I wasn't even originally going in for — I was going in for Eponine and Cosette. Then, at that moment [I was asked], "Do you know 'I Dreamed a Dream'? We want to hear your Fantine." I cried when they called me and told me I got it.

Q: Why didn't you end up doing the role?
Espinosa: It just didn't work out. It was a hard [decision], but I just feel you learn more about yourself every day, and I figure I'm 28. Most people who play Fantine are older, and I'll have another chance to do it hopefully. It's an amazing role, and I really hope one day I get to sink my teeth into those 45 minutes. [Laughs.]

Q: Are you looking forward to being in L.A. performing in Wicked?
Espinosa: I am. I really am. . . . They're going to implement the changes made for [the] London [production of Wicked] in the L.A. company. It's going to be great re-creating it and working with Megan and just being home in Southern California with an amazing job.

Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
Espinosa: Six to nine months.

Q: Would you like to try to segue into TV and film work?
Espinosa: I would at some point. I'm just now starting to. Thank God, I've been working consistently and haven't been available for things, but I just booked my first "Law & Order," so that was exciting for me.

Q: Did you enjoy that process?
Espinosa: I was glad that I got to do the regular "Law & Order" because I know Jesse [Martin] from recordings and benefits. To do a scene with him on my first TV job was comforting. It probably wasn't as nerve-wracking as it normally would have been had I not known Jesse.

Q: You're also going to be part of the Rags concert.
Espinosa: Yeah, we start rehearsals on Monday [Nov. 27].

Q: Tell me about Bella, the character you'll be playing.
Espinosa: I just know a little about the story [at this point]. I'm not familiar with Rags other than it was Judy Kuhn's show and people loved it and it lasted a lot shorter than it should have. But I'm excited to dive into that and be a part of it.

[Rags — with Espinosa, Carolee Carmello, Michael Rupert, Lewis Cleale, Gregg Edelman and Lainie Kazan — will be presented at the Nokia Theatre, 1515 Broadway at 44th Street, Dec. 11 at 7 PM. Tickets are available by calling (212) 307-7171 or by www.ticketmaster.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Theatre industry folk were treated to a sneak preview of Dreamworks/Paramount Pictures' "Dreamgirls" this past Wednesday night at the Loews Theatre on West 34th Street. Among the bold-faced names in the audience — who all received the gorgeous full-color "Dreamgirls" program — were Liza Minnelli, Julia Murney and Christine Pedi, designer Tony Walton, directors Richard Jay-Alexander, Tommy Tune and Jeff Calhoun, "Theater Talk" co-host Susan Haskins as well as "Dreamgirls" writer/director Bill Condon, composer Henry Krieger and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Prior to the screening of the terrific film — which garnered enthusiastic applause throughout, especially at the sight of theatre veterans Ken Page and Loretta Devine — Condon offered a few introductory remarks. The Oscar-nominated "Chicago" screenwriter joked that after a few recent West Coast screenings, he was happy that he needn't inform the crowd that "Dreamgirls" is based on a Broadway musical of the same name. He also said that when composer Krieger initially called to sing one of the film's new songs, "Love You I Do," he was completely awestruck and asked how Krieger was able to write such a powerful song for Effie so many years later. The Tony-winning composer responded, "I am Effie!" Since the film hasn't officially opened, I don't want to write too much, but I will say that this "Dreamgirls" overflows with music, emotion and talent. And, the huge-voiced Jennifer Hudson should get ready to enjoy the fame and adulation that was denied her on "American Idol." It's also the first movie musical since "Grease" was released when I was a kid that I've wanted to watch again immediately after it ended.

"Live From Lincoln Center," which recently broadcast Audra McDonald's American Songbook concert, will televise the four-time Tony Award winner's upcoming New Year's Eve concert. McDonald is scheduled to perform at the New York Philharmonic's annual New Year's Eve gala concert on Dec. 31. PBS stations will broadcast the event live at 8 PM ET; check local listings. Tony Award winner Ted Sperling will conduct the New York Philharmonic orchestra. The evening, titled "Audra McDonald Sings the Movies for New Year's Eve," will feature tunes from such films as "The Wizard of Oz," "A Star Is Born," "Cabin in the Sky," "A Little Night Music," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "My Fair Lady."

Sherie Rene Scott, most recently seen on Broadway in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, will launch a new concert series presented by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. The In Concert series will kick off Dec. 4 with Scott's 7 PM performance. The new series — produced by Jayson Raitt and Daniel Whitman — will continue Jan. 29, 2007, at 7 PM with a triple bill: Douglas Sills, Todd Murray and Sally Wilfert. Former March of the Falsettos co-stars, Michael Rupert and Alison Fraser, will take to the Center stage March 19, also at 7 PM. The Center is located in Manhattan at 208 West 13th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Tickets, priced $20, $35, $75 and $150, are available by calling (212) 620-7310 or by visiting www.gaycenter.org.

And, finally, Tony Award winner Betty Buckley will perform in concert Dec. 2 at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. Buckley will be accompanied by her sextet at the 8 PM concert. The celebrated singing actress will perform songs from the Broadway stage, tunes from contemporary composers and holiday fare. Following the performance, the former Sunset Boulevard star will fly to Washington, DC, to be part of the annual Kennedy Center Honors Dec. 3. Buckley and Sarah Brightman will serenade honoree Andrew LLoyd Webber with the Cats anthem "Memory." Buckley will return to New York mid-December to perform an evening of William Finn's Elegies at Joe's Pub. The 9:30 PM evening will also feature the talents of Christian Borle, Michael Rupert, Darius de Haas and Sally Wilfert. And, Buckley will also be part of Lincoln Center's ninth annual American Songbook series, performing Feb. 10, 2007, at the Allen Room, located in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Broadway and 60th Street. (The State Theatre is located at 15 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ. Tickets, priced $45-$70, are available by calling (732) 246-SHOW or by visiting www.statetheatrenj.org.)

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.