BWW Exclusive InDepth InterView Part 1: Raul Esparza Talks ROCKY HORROR, TABOO & More

By: Dec. 17, 2010
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In this exclusive interview with BroadwayWorld, Raul Esparza takes a comprehensive look back at his spectacular rise to fame from this time ten years ago in THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW on Broadway, his first New York stage role, to now, with career-defining reviews for the out-of-town tryout of the new Alan Menken musical LEAP OF FAITH - as well as his sold-out American Songbook concerts early next year in New York. What does the future hold for Raul Esparza onscreen and onstage? Will it be Shakespeare or Sondheim or something completely new? Mamet or MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG? You may very well find your answer here.

What can't Raul Esparza do? The answer reveals itself every time he graces the stage, as is amply revealed almost immediately in any of his performances - which is absolutely everything imaginable, in any role he chooses to take on, from musicals to plays to television and film roles. As he has proven, in playing everything from Che in EVITA to Ned Weeks in THE NORMAL HEART to, most recently, Hapgood in the Encores! ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. He even did the original Riff Raff and writer of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW one better, by the humbled creator's own admission, in his Broadway debut in 2000 at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. So, on this, the tenth anniversary of his blazing Broadway birth, we have Raul Esparza - in his most indepth discussion to date - detailing his drive, passion and undying devotion to not only the betterment of his own performances and the shows he stars in, but also the all-to-uncertain future of the theatre today. He is on Broadway to stay, and while Hollywood may come calling - as has happened quite frequently, particularly recently in his guest starring roles on TV's LAW & ORDER and MEDIUM, as well as his performances in Sidney Lumet's FIND ME GUILTY and Wes Craven's MY SOUL TO TAKE - Broadway is his first and only true love, and recent roles in Pinter's THE HOMECOMING, Mamet's SPEED-THE-PLOW and Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT - as well as the upcoming Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical LEAP OF FAITH - further proves that point. This remarkably gifted and charismatic Broadway superstar is probably beloved most of all by Broadway babies for his incomparable portrayals of George, Bobby and Charley in the incredibly varied Sondheim musicals SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, COMPANY and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, respectively, with all three being definitive. Hapgood in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE last year, too. Case A, B, C and D that he can, indeed, do it all. Always.

Taking us on the journey from Miami to Chicago to New York to Los Angeles to Cuba and beyond, Raul Esparza reveals all and spares none in his idiosyncratically, fiercely intellectual and compelling manner, in a candid conversation always overflowing with illumination, intrigue and humor, as is Esparza's chosen mode of discourse in relating the art of acting and why he does what he does - and, does it so well.

* At 7 PM on December 20th, be sure to catch Raul Esparza as the host of the third annual NEW YORK CITY CHRISTMAS, at Joe's Pub, directed by Lynne Shankel, to benefit ASTEP (Actors Striving To End Poverty). Information available here!

* Also, be sure to pick up the must-own stocking stuffer and enchantingly unique holiday gift you are sure to find in the NEW YORK CITY CHRISTMAS album, featuring Esparza's breathtaking bilingual bossa nova take on "O Holy Night", on Sh-K-Boom Records. You can purchase the album on iTunes and find out more here.

* Lastly, see if you can score a ticket to Raul's upcoming American Songbook series of concerts at Lincoln Center in February following his smashing sold-out shows last season! More information is available here.

Now, without further ado, here is the first part of our two-hour conversation, with this section primarily focusing on Esparza's musical theatre roles.

Part I: Bobby, George, Charley & Other Taboo Riff-Raff

PC: How do you fit in the time to host a benefit with all that you are up to? You are the biggest star on Broadway!

RE: Thank you. You are too kind.

PC: Are you going to sing "O Holy Night" again? I love your version of it on the album.

RE: No, I'm not. We're going to do a new song. I had a little bit of time to do this - I just got back from Los Angeles, just got back into the city - so I had a little bit of time free and I thought it would be nice to do it.

PC: You've done this benefit before, of course. What are you doing this year besides emceeing?

RE: We're going to do a different song this time. I'm doing "In The Bleak Midwinter". It's an English carol.

PC: A beautiful one.

RE: Yeah. It's really pretty.

PC: How did you discover it?

RE: I think I first heard it in this movie, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, that Kenneth Branaugh did years and years ago. It was about an Acting Company putting on HAMLET in the middle of the winter and I heard this Christmas carol and I loved it. So, we're going to do a little arrangement of it.

PC: I loved the arrangements on the first album, especially your "O Holy Night".

RE: Oh, the first album? The recording we did?

PC: Yes, it's so wonderful.

RE: Oh, that's so nice of you. I'm glad we were able to do that.

PC: The lead producer, Ellen Krass, recently told me about how much your portrayal of Bobby played into the necessity to capture the recent John Doyle revival of COMPANY on DVD and, furthermore, to make it the first Broadway musical available on Blu Ray.

RE: That I didn't know! (Laughs.)

PC: What do you think of the Blu Ray of the show? It really makes you feel like you are there in the theatre.

RE: Well... I try not to watch it! (Laughs.)

PC: Why so?

RE: HD is just too unforgiving! (Laughs.)

PC: You sound and look great in it, though!

RE: Yes, I know. It's great. But, I mean, just take a picture of yourself and blow it up and watch it in HD on a widescreen television! Believe me, it's... (Clears Throat.) You usually just pick out every single flaw - that's how it works, as an actor. You can't help it. (Laughs.)

PC: What about 3D? I loved you in MY SOUL TO TAKE - although I wish you were in it beyond the first ten minutes!

RE: Oh, thanks. You're one of the few people who saw the film. (Laughs.)

PC: It was a fun horror movie, I thought.

RE: I liked doing it a lot. We did it some years ago, it was right after I finished THE HOMECOMING [2007]. And, actually, I was originally in the final third of the film, but Wes changed the scope of the ending. So, he eventually cut that section out. We worked on it for over a month, up in Connecticut.

PC: How was working with the 3D cameras?

RE: It wasn't 3D at the time that we filmed it...

PC: Oh, so it wasn't filmed in 3D.

RE: Yeah, he went back and made it into 3D after the fact.

PC: Do you enjoy horror films in general?

RE: I do. I like them very much. You know, a very good one is just fantastic. I particularly wanted to work with Wes because he is a master of the genre and I love those films when they work.

PC: Though they rarely do, regretfully.

RE: Yeah, right. He's just a good guy. He's just a really great guy to work with. I remember auditioning for it kind of on a lark, not thinking it would be anything I would ever get. But, it ended up being a lot of fun to do. We had a good time. It's a lot of hard work, though - eighteen hour days and you're filming at night, so your whole schedule becomes very whacky.

PC: What are your favorite horror movies?

RE: I'm crazy about THE HAUNTING, the original, with Julie Harris. Is it with Julie Harris? (Pause.) Yes, it's with Julie Harris.

PC: It is. Robert Wise directing.

RE: I also like, very much, THE SHINING. I think that Kubrick's version of that is tremendous. It scared the hell out of me.

PC: Would you ever consider playing Jack in a musical version? (Laughs.)

RE: Absolutely not! (Big Laugh.)

PC: No way - you don't think it could work?

RE: (Laughs.) No, it's not a musical. If that guy could sing he would have no reason to wander the halls and murder people.

PC: Speaking of horror, let's go back ten years to ROCKY HORROR. Tom Hewitt and Alice Ripley were recently telling me crazy stories about what went on during the run. What was the wildest thing that happened onstage that you remember?

RE: The wildest thing that I remember onstage was the day the cable jumped on the winch and Sebastian LaCause was tied into it, going up as Rocky - for the first time we revealed him [in the show] - and the cable jumped the winch and the winch released it and it fell five feet and he was strapped into it, knocking people over. So, we had to stop the whole performance.

PC: What did you do? How did you react?

RE: I think Dick Cavett did stand-up. I thought I was to blame because Joan Jett and I were the ones who were spinning this thing and we didn't know what had happened.

PC: Were you horrified?

RE: To see an actor fall from that height and not be able to do anything about it and have to have the house lights come up and stop the show with all of us just standing around onstage - that was nuts. But, we used to have such a good time on the show, aside from that particular memory.

PC: Like what?

RE: Jarrod Emick used to challenge me to come up with funny things to say on the monitor to Frank N Furter. You know, when Janet and Frank are onstage at one point, Tom and Alice would be doing their scene and I would interrupt.

PC: Right, on the TVs in the theatre.

RE: We would film it in the wings on a closed circuit television thing where you would see me appear and say, "The monster is loose somewhere in the building and the sonic transducer is working," or whatever I was supposed to say. But, over time, we got into this thing where I just wanted to make them laugh. So, everyone would crowd into the room and every night I would come up with another ad lib.

PC: What was one of them?

RE: Oh, jeez. That was so many years ago. (Pause.) I remember one of them was, (Riff Raff Voice.) "Master, I am taking the other Phantoms and going to Wal-Mart. We are out of oranges and AstroGlide."

PC: That's outrageous!

RE: I remember another was, "Master, the sonic transducer is working: we just blew up a cow." I just kept throwing things in!

PC: Give me one more!

RE: "Master, Blockbuster called and BARBARELLA and NOTTING HILL are overdue and the monster is loose in the building." The thing is, everything was laughing and having a good time, but, boy, did I get in trouble! (Laughs.) So much trouble!

PC: Richard O'Brien said in an interview I read that you did the role better than he - or anyone - ever has, even though he wrote the role for himself!

RE: Oh, that's an incredibly nice thing for Richard to say. I think he said that to me once, but I wondered if he was just being kind - although, I suppose he doesn't waste words if he doesn't mean something.

PC: Definitely not. How did you become involved with the show?

RE: It was a show that I wasn't sure I wanted to audition for because I had not done a musical in a serious run, where I was in Chicago, for years. Then, I did a tour of EVITA. So, here I was being seen for a musical after about eight years of not doing musicals. And, I didn't see myself as a musical theatre performer, at least not at the time. And, ROCKY HORROR and Riff Raff, that character - I didn't think I was suited to it. I didn't think I could play that extreme. I was kind of scared of it. And, because I was scared of it, I forced myself to go in for it. I just kind of went balls-to-the-wall in the auditions.

PC: In your own special way.

RE: Yeah, God bless them. I, literally, had just arrived in New York. And, not only was it my Broadway debut, but it was my first show in New York.

PC: What an unforgettable debut!

RE: They took a chance on someone they did not know - between Bernard Telsey, Jerry Mitchell and Chris Ashley - I mean, they just gave me a big chance. It was just a huge opportunity.

PC: And you followed it up with my favorite performance of yours to date, as the title character in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

RE: Oh, thank you.

PC: I just interviewed Eric Schaeffer and we discussed that production in-depth. What did that production mean to you and what did you think of the overall concept of the drop-cloth easels in the first act and the LED screens in the second?

RE: One of the smartest things Eric did with that production is he set it in a white space. We were in the studio, but he eliminated any sense of time or place in the second act. So, it was this white-on-white with the screens and with the stuff that was happening in the first act. So, one of the cool things that they did was that the costume designer referenced pieces from the first act and sort of split them up.

PC: What a wonderful concept. Could you elaborate?

RE: Everybody was wearing what looked like modern twentieth century clothing in the second act, but we were all actually wearing a collage of the clothes we were wearing the first act.

PC: Really? I never noticed that! Wow!

RE: It's a little detail that nobody would have noticed, but what it helped do was give it this sense of twentieth century timelessness. It's where little things like the nurse's turban became this kind of cool 1960s, 1970s headpiece for somebody. Or, my pants were a variation of something Jules wore - but, I was in grays and they were all in shades of white.

PC: So striking. Great costume choices.

RE: Yeah. Things like that: the bustle changed into something else; the corset became something else; my painter's smock was turned into somebody else's clothing. It just added a sense of connection, visually, to both periods, that I loved. Because, you know, it's always the hardest thing to do in that show: to earn that jump, to feel like you haven't completely left the world of the previous act.

PC: Did you find that was your biggest challenge as both Georges?

RE: My biggest challenge was... the whole thing! (Big Laugh.)

PC: (Laughs.) I can see that! It's the most difficult role in musical theatre - or, at least, one of them.

RE: I respected it as a masterpiece. My challenge was trying to live up to it. I knew when I was hired that I was probably good enough to get hired, but I didn't know if I was good enough to play it. I certainly didn't have the kind of training, vocally, that people who would take that role on usually have. So, it was a huge learning experience for me. And, I could not have been more blessed in that they gave me that opportunity, because there were a lot of big people auditioning there that summer. And, not only that, but to also give me Charley in MERRILY [WE ROLL ALONG].

PC: Another definitive portrayal. Truly.

RE: It was so incredible to experience the rep part of the summer and do both parts of the season - which is something not a lot of people got to do.

PC: And you were the only lead in two of the six shows.

RE: I think Emily Skinner was the only other principal player who got to do two.

PC: That was the first production I saw of MERRILY that worked!

RE: Aww, thank you so much for that. We loved doing it. I think the show has so much going for it. And, I hope that they do it. That's the one I want to see revived in New York - of all of Steve's work - because I think it's really under-appreciated.

PC: Only with you doing Charley again. Would you do it again?

RE: I'll do anything Steve asks. Anyplace.

PC: I interviewed Sondheim a few weeks ago and he spoke so favorably of TABOO and how much he loved that show and score, and Rosie O'Donnell recently told me how much she loved doing the show with you and what a star you are. Could you tell me about the TABOO experience, working with Rosie?

RE: Isn't that something? I mean, TABOO is such a phenomenal score. I was disappointed that the show did not work better once we were on our feet in front of an audience. It developed such a cult following and people were just going crazy about it.

PC: Rightfully so!

RE: I thought that when we finished the last rehearsal in the rehearsal hall that we might have a hit on our hands, because that score was just blowing everybody's minds in the hall.

PC: What a masterful score!

RE: It's a shame that things didn't work out, but it's part of what happens when you open cold in New York. Sometimes you make changes and you can't see the forest for the trees. You don't have time, in New York, to correct problems. So, that was disappointing. But, in the fact that the score was so appreciated and that people loved it so much - we were crazy about it. I really think it's one of the finest musical theatre scores I've ever had the chance to sing.

PC: And you've done many of the very best, as we just discussed, so you would know.

RE: It's all because George went out of his way to write a musical theatre score - it's not just a bunch of pop tunes.

PC: Not at all.

RE: As a matter of fact, the pop tunes that were in it - other than "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" - we added in two more Culture Club songs for New York, entirely at the last second. They were not really part of the show and he had not rewritten them.

PC: Right. "Karma Chameleon" and "Church of the Poisoned Mind".

RE: He was not keen on having those in there because that was not the show he was writing. But, songs like "Stranger In This World" and "Talk Amongst Yourselves" and that incredible quintet for five gay men in the second act - I had never heard of anything like that before!

PC: Beyond words; "Out Of Fashion".

RE: It's just an extraordinary piece of musical theatre writing - like "Petrified.

PC: "Petrified".

RE: "Petrified". (Pause.) You know, that's the song that stopped the show every night.

PC: Because of you. So fearless - you as Philip Salon.

RE: It's as much because of my performance as it is of what he had written.

PC: Astonishing.

RE: This idea that George [O'Dowd aka Boy George], this man who has made his career of putting on a mask... he was writing so clearly not just about his friends, some of those characters are real-life friends of George's - but, writing very clearly, also, about himself and the world that they live in when you take your mask off and who you really are when you look in the mirror. It's a very moving, beautiful thing to get to do. And, you should hear some of the songs that were cut!

PC: I'd love to! Tell me about them.

RE: So many good ones. I've often wanted them to go back and record a couple of the endings that we didn't get to do.

PC: "Pie In the Sky" maybe? That was in London.

RE: "Pie In the Sky" was one. I know they did "Bow Down, Mister", which is another Culture Club tune. I know they held on to "Pie In the Sky" for a bit. Then, there was another song that came in that was my favorite finale for the show, which was called "Fifteen Minutes". It was gorgeous. But, I think Rosie thought it was a little too similar to RENT in its feel. Then, we ended up with "Come On In From The Outside", which was fantastic and works very well.

PC: Tell me about Rosie.

RE: You know, she's a passionate woman. She had a tremendous vision in trying to not only bring the show in, but put her money where her mouth is, in terms of supporting Broadway. (Pause.) Brave beyond belief to take something like that on.

PC: And, put her money behind a score that good - that score is worth $10 million. She clearly knows quality.

RE: She knows exactly what she is doing. I think she was going through a hard time dealing with some things that were happening with her magazine and all that. It's very hard - I imagine - to hold onto everything that Rosie O'Donnell means and represents, coming off her TV show and dealing with the magazine and, also, producing a Broadway show at the same time. So, I think her focus had to be split more than she would have liked, but she is among the most generous people I've ever met. Her generosity is, truly, enormous.

PC: She told me that coming into that theatre and seeing you sing "Petrified" every night made it all worthwhile - you and the rest of the cast.

RE: Oh, that's an incredibly kind thing of her to say.

PC: Those kind of performances, like the one you gave, are rare. Especially now.

RE: She was very supportive of THE NORMAL HEART, which is the show that I did after TABOO. She came to see the show and she was a real friend to us out there as well. She's such a passionate woman and she is very supportive of talent. I'm thrilled for the opportunity. (Pause.) It was not an easy process - I will say that. It was a hard one. It's hard when something you love so much isn't working for an audience. It's a heartbreaker.