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From Universal to Oz to Brooklyn, an Interview with Eden Espinosa

As Brooklyn, the Musical released its original cast recording entitled "Brooklyn: Live!" we checked in with the show's belting star, Eden Espinosa.

For Eden, her journey to Brooklyn began in one of the least likely places – Universal Studios, California. "I was working at Universal in the 'Spiderman Rocks' show, and Dave Clemmons called me, and said he was working on a new project with Jeff Calhoun and John McDaniel for a workshop of Brooklyn. He told me a bit about it, and said he was seeing a lot of people in New York, and was going to fly out to LA to see a few people, and wanted them to see me. They sent me the material, I auditioned, and that was that!"

Her first reaction to the show's music was a positive one, both for the quality of the material, and how well it fit her voice. "My first reaction was 'wow' because I just felt like I could sing the way I Sing. I didn't have to make my voice more pop, or more legit. I kind of see my voice as naturally just right in the middle of musical theater and pop, so I felt like I could sing this the way I normally sing. I only actually heard 2 songs right off the bat, which were just the two that they wanted me to learn. One of them is no longer in the show, and was called 'Natalie' which was replaced by 'Once Upon a Time'. The other song was 'I Never Knew His Name'.'

After the show's casting in May of 2002, the show had its first workshop that September at the Signature Theater in New York, followed by an out of town tryout in Denver. A delay in the show's then planned immediate transfer to Broadway - was the twist of fate that brought Wicked into the star's life.

"My involvement with that show began when Stephanie J. Block called me, and said that she was cast in The Boy From Oz, and wasn't going to be doing Wicked anymore. She said that they were going to be looking for a standby and an understudy, and that I should have my agent call. Sure enough, they were, and I went in, then had my call back, and 20 minutes after my call back they offered me the job! Stephanie and I had been friends since California, we were both from there, and had both worked with Disney at different times. It's a very small community out there so I had seen her perform in a lot of musicals, and Stephanie worked a lot in LA so was well known out there by a lot of people."

Although she left Wicked for Brooklyn, it's still a show she sees the possibility to return to someday. "I would definitely love to do Wicked again someday, the role is amazing, and my time there was great. If they would have me, I'd go back if I wasn't doing anything else, definitely."

When Brooklyn was ready to make its bow on Broadway, there was no hesitation on Eden's part to make the jump from the land of Oz, to the land just under the bridge. "It wasn't out of obligation at all, but I felt like it doesn't come around a lot that you get to originate a role on Broadway, and so I felt like I needed to, and wanted to, take that chance and to take that risk. Even if it's not a huge hit, you're still going to be a first born, and on the original cast album, so it was something that was always in the cards for me. Wicked knew that, and was very accepting of that from the very beginning that I was going to be leaving for Brooklyn whenever it was ready to happen."

Being with a show since its earliest days helps to give a performer perspective on how the show evolved from the early days to what's eventually presented for a paying New York audience. "The show has and hasn't evolved at the same time. My arc hasn't really changed that much, with the exception of a couple of things. It's just become clearer I think. It changed quite a bit from the workshop to the Denver production. Obviously new cast members, new songs, new arranging of songs, and then from Denver to Broadway all have had their effect. We added 'Magic Man' which wasn't in the show until Broadway, and I think have done a good job adding in more clarification for Faith and Taylor, explaining what really happens and why they never got in touch again. Just little tweaks, and little clarifications like the scene with Brooklyn and Paradise was different before 'Raven' was added when we came to Broadway."

The addition there actually stemmed from a discussion that Ramona and Eden had with Jeff Calhoun. "We had a talk with Jeff, and said 'what do you think about Brooklyn and Paradise having a scene to themselves? What if it's not in front of everybody, and is kind of on the outskirts?' He thought about it, liked the idea and that's what he came up with.

That's another cool thing about getting to originate a show, I don't think it's like that in every situation, but our creative team was very open to ideas and contributions that the cast had so we all felt hands on, and like we had our parts in creating our characters. We were very lucky in that regard."

When asked to pick her favorite parts of performing the show 8 times a week, Eden immediately picks one of the show's tender moments, when the star plays her little girl self who's visited by her mother. "Seeing Brooklyn visited by her mother as an angel, and seeing how 'Once Upon a Time' gets written in the show, I just love that scene. It's funny because I don't even see Karen, I can't see her because she's behind me, but it's just really the feeling of it. The other part I love is being one of the backup singers for 'Superlover.' Just for Kevin, Karen and me to be silly backing up Ramona every night is always a treat."

The critics weren't too kind to Brooklyn when it opened which can sometimes present a challenge to a performer if they're not able to put it in perspective, which Eden was able to. "I did read the reviews, and I don't know if I will continue to do that throughout the rest of my career but this was the first opportunity I had other than regional theater in LA to read them. I guess it does bother me a little bit because it's something that you're doing every single night and that you're putting so much into, but it's someone's opinion and not everybody's going to feel the same way about a show. Not that our show is the greatest, and flawless, every show has flaws, but critics have not liked some of the biggest hits on Broadway right now. I just look at it as one person's opinion. It doesn't bring me down, and it doesn't affect my performance at all. Initially, it does kind of hurt a little bit, but you move on."

What has helped in moving on has been some very enthusiastic audiences, the noise of which is sometimes comparable to that of a rock concert. "Our audience response is unbelievable because they really, really get into it. Right off the bat, audiences don't really know what to expect but as soon as 'Heart Behind These Hands' starts, they kind of see what they're into, and once we start what we're into, it's inevitable that they're with us. It's crazy, because they cheer like they're at a rock concert sometimes. I think we're really starting to build our little audience, and sometimes we're really blown away by the noise coming back from them. That feels so good."

Having the audience take part in the story was deemed important enough that fans of the show were invited in and recorded live along with the vocals on the cast album. Cast members sang the show three times at the recording studio, with an audience in the studio for two out of the three, adding a live feel to the appropriately titled 'Brooklyn Live!' cast recording. "It was a really, really, interesting experience because I'd never recorded live in the studio like that before. Singing the show that many times in a row was a hard day, but definitely a fun one too. I think that the audience plays such a big part in our show that it was a great idea, and I don't think I could hear the score without it. I haven't brought myself to listen to it all through yet, but the stuff I have heard I couldn't imagine hearing without. I couldn't imagine it the other way like a normal cast album, so I'm glad that they recorded it the way they did."

Eden's musical influences come from a few generations of family members. "I always listened to oldies with my dad in the car, and we'd sing along to a lot of the old school blues, Motown, the Beatles, and everything like that. Then when I'd go to my grandmother's house, she'd have classical music on, or would take me to the ballet and opera. As I got older, Debbie Gibson was my idol when I was 10, she really cinched it for me as a pop singer, and I wanted to be a recording artist before I ever wanted to be in theater. I think I really started the whole belt thing when Mariah Carey came out, because I never heard anyone as young as she was sing like her. I'd just try to emulate everything that she did in my room until I got it right, so she had a great influence on me too when I was young."

These days, her music tastes remain just as varied. "I'm an Eva Cassidy freak, and a lot of people don't know who she is, and she passed away unfortunately, but she's one of the most amazing vocalists. I listen to her a lot, and I also listen to a lot of my friends' music that put out independent albums in LA. One example of that is Matt Caplan who was in Rent. I also like a lot of singer-songwriter music, John Mayer, Dave Matthews, that kind of stuff."

Speaking of singer-songwriters, that's a path that appears to lie in Eden's future. "I'd like to record, and I've had a strong notion that I didn't want to do that till I had something to say, my own style, and my own niche. I have written some of my own music when I was younger, and as I got older my head got in the way of myself and I got insecure and scared about it. I'm starting to feel more comfortable with things though, and telling myself that everything's not going to be totally great, and it's ok to collaborate with somebody so it's something I'd like to start trying out, perhaps sharing with someone that can guide me along a little bit more."

Just like nearly every actor in New York, Eden would love to try her hand at TV and film, but theater remains her first love. "I'm always going to want to do theater, and there's so many parts out there I'd love to play. Les Miserables is my dream show, period. At this time, and when I was younger, Eponine was of course my dream part. Maybe by the time it comes around again, I'll be appropriate for Fantine! Eva Peron is another one, and I'd love to do Evita at some point in my career because the role's so great, and so strong."

Both sound to us like good casting ideas for this young talent. In the meantime, Brooklyn, the Musical plays nightly at the Plymouth Theater. For details, visit Brooklyn Live! is now available, and to order, click here.

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