"Heart still burns"
Larry Kramer’s classic AIDS play The Normal Heart, revived in New York 20 years to the day after its opening, still cuts deep. A talk with leading men Raúl Esparza and Billy Warlock.
By Michael Giltz
Is The Normal Heart—Larry Kramer’s drama ripped from the headlines (or, more accurately, ripped from what should have been the headlines)—dated? All great plays are universal, but is The Normal Heart now a period piece?
We’ll have to wait another 50 or 100 years before that question can be answered because the current revival at the Public Theater in New York City—opening on April 21, 20 years to the day and in the very same space where it debuted—makes abundantly clear that The Normal Heart is still painfully relevant.
The AIDS crisis growing ever more deadly? A complacent public and a downright antagonistic government? Gay marriage and a passionate debate over whether gay identity is wrapped up in sex or something more? Younger theatergoers might be forgiven for thinking Kramer wrote this play today, except for one thing: Its passion is still singular and rare.
When I read it, it made me very angry. It still has that visceral wallop,” says Raúl Esparza, who plays Kramer’s stand-in, Ned Weeks, and who has also shone in such Broadway shows as Taboo, Cabaret, and Tick, Tick…Boom! When we did the first reading in this space I couldn’t stop crying,” says Esparza. “It gives you chills. There are so many things the audience will pick up that the characters don’t realize. It is heavy with dramatic irony right now, every time you mention gay marriage. He keeps saying, ‘Why didn’t you fight for this?’ ”
For Billy Warlock—of Baywatch and General Hospital fame—the role of Ned’s lover, Felix, is a chance to fight for broader opportunities as an actor. “I’m a really simple guy,” says Warlock, who walked away from General Hospital without any roles locked in. Eighteen days later he read for this play, left for New York, got an apartment, and started to prepare for his New York theatrical debut.
“This play takes up every bit of focus I have,” Warlock says. “It really does. When I really stop and think about what we’re getting ready to do, it’s an overwhelming thing for a guy that’s used to film and TV. This is a whole other animal.” Warlock is perhaps an instinctual actor, while Esparza is a very verbal and intellectual one. (He’s so well-versed on gay issues that Esparza deserves to be an honorary homo, though he has been married to a woman since 1994.) But both he and Warlock describe Kramer as an intimidating presence.
“He’s intense,” laughs Warlock. “When he looks and talks to you…it’s weight. He’s the last guy I would ever want to piss off.”
“He’s a very difficult man,” says Esparza admiringly. “He pushes you. I’ve really fallen for him, I have to tell you. His integrity is extraordinary. I don’t think anybody could live that burningly honest all the time. I’ve been asked by great people that I admire, ‘How many men do you know that have changed the world?’ And he’s one of them.”
The Journal News - Stage Line
May 6, 2004
by Whitney Pastorek
A Broadway cynic might say that somewhere beyond the revolving door of movie stars slumming on summer breaks, there is currently an opening for a Real Live Theater Star.
Not someone who's a gimmick to bring in the out-of-town business (we're talking to you, P. Diddy!). Not someone who might be cute on the Tonys (we're not talking to you, Hugh Jackman, you keep up the good work). But a Star-On-The-Dressing-Room-Door star. Kevin Kline. Bernadette Peters.
Our cynic might yet be saved from a life of bitterness thanks to Raul Esparza. Credits: the Emcee in "Cabaret." Riff Raff in the "Rocky Horror" revival. Jonathan Larson in the late playwright's "Tick... Tick... BOOM!" At the Kennedy Center's Stephen Sondheim Celebration, he was "Sunday in the Park With" George, as well as Charley in "Merrily..." He was slated for the current revival of Sondheim's "Assassins" before it got rescheduled. He lived through "Taboo."
Esparza is on his way towards becoming a Big Name. It's so crazy, it just might work: a well-trained performer who isn't using theater as a stepping stone to a film career or a cushy sitcom deal, but wants to spend his life on the stage.
"I never said I wanted to be a movie star. I said I wanted to be an actor," Esparza says.
We are sitting in the Anspacher Theater at the Public, where Esparza is portraying Ned Weeks in "The Normal Heart." It's the 20th-anniversary revival of Larry Kramer's monumental play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. "Normal Heart" documents an especially closed-off time in America, when AIDS was still a "gay cancer" and wasn't deemed serious enough for the front page of The New York Times. Two decades later, it's a terrifying reminder of just how ugly the politics of prejudice can be.
Asked who his dream audience for this show would be, he growls: "I want the Republican National Convention to come and sit here and look at themselves and what they're doing to people who don't fit in."
Onstage, in front of a giant copy of the U.S. Constitution, a guy is mopping a shiny black floor that will be covered in milk, lettuce, bread and paper by the end of the night. Weeks is the center of that whirlwind, both engrossing and infuriating as he struggles to make people notice that AIDS is a crisis, and it's killing his friends. Esparza flows from cuddly to enraged, often within the course of a single scene — choices necessitated by the mercurial nature of Kramer, who wrote Ned as his own doppelganger.
"I'm not trying to 'do' Larry. Larry is far more frightening than I am in this play, and I can't figure it out. If I could, I would do it on stage," Esparza says with a laugh. "David (Esbjornson, the director) said by virtue of my personality as an actor, audiences feel very comfortable with me, but in this play, my job is also to make them slightly on edge."
The director's right: There is a trustworthiness in Esparza that bleeds through even when Ned is at his worst, and it's a relief for an audience who now knows that Ned/Larry was right about everything. We feel, somehow, in good hands.
Esparza is also important to this particular production of "Normal Heart," which is occasionally so bombastic that it seems moments away from ascending into a massive yell-fest. Inherently likeable despite Ned's lack of self-control, Esparza serves as ballast to keep the whole thing from spinning away, leaving the audience behind in a pile of depressing statistics.
"I didn't want the part to be just a guy who was a screamer. And Larry can be as gentle and cute as anybody I've seen. There's a sort of goofy, fluttery quality about him that I found so charming, and I liked the ability to use that."
But in the midst of the real-life drama that was and is "Normal Heart," Esparza never lets us forget that he's acting.
"I like the size of being theatrical," he says. "I'm not interested in naturalism like we watch on TV every day. Who cares? I can watch the traffic go by. The theater should be condensed so you're seeing just the most heightened, exciting moments."
When Esparza employs one of his many character tics as Ned — fiddling with his watch, or nervously brushing back his hair — it's easy to be pulled out of the scene by the mannerisms. But at the same time, it's oddly exhilarating to see someone playing a part that is crafted and inhabited down to the last twitch. "I like idiosyncrasies. Oh, but, nobody behaves like that in life, you say?" Esparza asks. "It's not life. It's theater."
Esparza's resume shows that the trustworthiness and idiosyncrasies have been with him all along, as he often plays narrators and playwrights and artists who anchor the shows they're in. As George, he took Mandy Patinkin's signature role and dialed down the crazy without losing any of the intensity. (Find a videotape of the performance and notice his "Look, I made a hat!" aside to the dog at the end of "Finishing the Hat," a tiny beat that speaks volumes about joy, loneliness and art.) In "Cabaret," reviewers applauded the way he humanized the Emcee's snakelike charms, and in "Taboo," the doomed Boy George musical, they noticed that he was shining in the midst of the train wreck (the Times called him "radioactive").
Note pattern: all of these shows, or the worlds they inhabit, are at least 20 years old.
"I seem to be stuck in the '80s!" Esparza exclaims. "You know what's a little depressing? I think that says something about New York theater. Nobody is willing to be brave and go out there and write about their generation right now — probably because their generation can't afford to buy tickets."
And while he goes on to discuss people like Kenneth Lonergan and Michael John LaChiusa as artists with the capacity to change that, he acknowledges, "The problem for all these guys is that it's such a struggle to go from project to project. You're not allowed to make mistakes because it costs so much, so they have to get everything right the first time, or they won't be given another chance.
"'The Normal Heart' was not well received, but Joe Papp ran it for a year, because he said he was going to," Esparza says. "Who are the producers who do that now? They attacked the hell out of Rosie (O'Donnell, for "Taboo"), but she put her own money in the play. Most producers do not pour millions of their own dollars into a show and run around the country crowing about Broadway."
And as an actor alongside the P. Diddys of the world, Esparza feels the pressure of commercialism, too.
"You start to feel like if you don't have a career that goes somewhere beyond the stage, no one is going to consider you a commercial asset," he says. "It's amazing that I've been able to build a career here where people want me to work with them regularly. But the thing is, I don't know how long I'll be able to stay at this level, playing these kinds of roles, if I don't have some TV show I can also sell to the general audience. Broadway doesn't make stars anymore." Maybe, it just did.
Every Day in the Theater With Raúl
Sondheim Festival Is No Walk In the Park for Twice-Cast Esparza
July 7, 2002
By Ann Gerhart
When Raul Esparza was a teenage tourist from Miami wandering through the Kennedy Center, a stern usher refused to let him peek inside the dark Opera House. He begged, using charisma that must have been extensive even then, but the usher remained unmoved.
"I turned to my mother," he says, "and I said, 'One day, I'm gonna work here.' "
Now he is 31. He is an emerging Broadway star. But because he still carries that kid from Miami inside him, he burst into tears as he walked through the Kennedy Center on his way to his first rehearsal this spring.
He gives the story dramatic polish, but sees it from the other side of the stage door, too: "Now, I wouldn't want them to let anybody in the theater if I were rehearsing," Esparza says, laughing. His work at the Kennedy Center is exhilarating -- and exhausting -- and there's no place for stage-struck kids who want to bumble into rehearsals.
On leave of absence from Broadway's "Cabaret," Esparza is the only actor to star in two musicals during this summer's Stephen Sondheim extravaganza. For much of the past month, he has spent his days rehearsing for "Merrily We Roll Along," which opens Friday. His nights have been spent onstage in "Sunday in the Park With George" as the emotionally frozen painter Georges Seurat and also as the impressionist's great-grandson, a less tormented 20th-century artist. "Sunday" closed June 28; "Merrily" opens Friday.
"It's exciting as hell," he says. "It's also incredibly difficult." Three complicated characters have lived in his head and his limbs, each fighting for his own snatches of songs and lines and stagings. Arriving for an interview at the end of an eight-hour rehearsal, Esparza collapses onto a bench and curls his slight and pliable body into a fetal position. For a moment. Then he springs up and smiles. This is repertory at the highest level, and he considers it "a blessing."
In the past 18 months, the excellent parts and critical acclaim have been raining down. The role of Che Guevara in the touring production of "Evita" propelled him to move from Chicago to New York, where he landed the role of Riff Raff in the Broadway musical version of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Off-Broadway, he marqueed in the autobiographical Jonathan Larson show "Tick, Tick . . . Boom," before moving to play the unsettling, sneering Emcee in "Cabaret," opposite Brooke Shields, Gina Gershon and Molly Ringwald.
"There is this raw energy that he possesses," says Eric Schaeffer, the festival's artistic director, who cast and directed Esparza in "Sunday." For his audition, Esparza sang "Finishing the Hat," a vehicle for the artist to display his manic creative powers and also his emotional sadness, "and he absolutely got me teary-eyed," says Schaeffer. "He has this determination and intensity. He is great about finding and searching for the detail."
Hal Prince, who produced the original version of "Evita" in 1978, saw Esparza in the national tour: "He has real star quality and huge energy. He's smart and quick and funny."
Esparza watches his burgeoning fame warily. Some reviews cited his Seurat as evidence of "a blazing new talent," while others faulted him as cold and robotic. Esparza tries to learn something from the complaints and remain aloof from the praise. "I see the reviews and the awards, and I say, 'Okay, that's nice. That's really, really great. We'll see.' I remember that I'm just a kid from a suburb of Miami who has had some nice opportunities," he says. "If you start to buy all that about yourself, it's horrible."
Born in Wilmington, Del., Esparza moved to Miami with his family when he was 3. Both of his parents had fled Castro's Cuba. His father's father, a government official, defected to the CIA in 1966. His maternal grandparents put his mother on a plane when she was 14.
"They said, 'Good luck. Go find your brother,' and she didn't see her parents again until she was 21," Esparza says. "I have tried to imagine that scene more times than I could possibly describe to you. I feel so much that my parents' stories about leaving Cuba and finding a life here became my stories." It is something he often talks about with his wife, Michele, who is also Cuban American.
"This world that we never lived in or have ever seen, we do not know it," says Esparza, "and yet we feel like this is our power and our culture and our home. We long for it. It's a weird thing." His preferred sustenance is Cuban food, and the music he loves best is the Cuban songs he learned from his grandmother and his parents.
He became "obsessed" with acting after an elementary school play, then dedicated himself to theater during his years at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami. (Castro attended the school before it moved to Florida, but "he's not listed as alumni," says Esparza, "for some reason.") But he also played soccer and ran student government and did charity work and generally performed as the dutifully overachieving only child in a defiantly overachieving culture.
When he graduated from New York University with a double major in theater and English and a minor in psychology, he thought he might become a lawyer or a politician, "something where I could use my Spanish and feel connected to the world." It was the kind of thinking the Jesuits had instilled in him. But Michele and his parents encouraged him to try the theater. "They were very supportive," he says. "They said, 'Life is too short, so why don't you do something you love? You fail, well, you can fail at anything.' "
His optimism was sorely tested. While Miami was a hot spot for movie production, Esparza got little work in the industry because, with his blond eyebrows and green eyes, he "didn't look Latin enough," a casting convention that irritates him enormously.
Then he turned down a part to get married and have a honeymoon, "and then I didn't work for a whole year," he says. "I worked temp jobs. We moved a lot. And then I remember standing in front of my wife's office -- she was working as a paralegal in Chicago -- and I was thinking, maybe it is time to do something else. It was 1996. There was still this sense that being in the theater is a little absurd. My family was so very conservative Cuban, and they are all engineers -- father, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather -- and I thought maybe I should do something more stable. And then the next day, I got hired for one show, and each Wednesday for four weeks in a row, I got offered another part, at, literally, the lowest point in my life."
He did straight plays steadily at Chicago's Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens and Goodman theaters. "Evita" was his first musical, and, ironically, it launched him on a trajectory that took him away from regional theater.
When he was cast as Che Guevara in the 20th-anniversary national tour, his decidedly anti-communist mother said, "Over my dead body!" His exile grandfather, who had supported the revolution and joined the Castro government before becoming disillusioned, was even more pungent. "I knew that son of a bitch," he told his grandson, "and he didn't sing and dance!"
But the song-and-dance Che worked for Esparza. The role led to his audition for "Rocky Horror," which he followed by creating Jonathan in "Tick, Tick . . . Boom!" That role won him an Obie award and a Drama Desk nomination. From there, he was to move on to a revival of Sondheim's "Assassins," until the show, with its lyrics about flying a plane into the White House, was scrubbed after Sept. 11. So he wound up in "Cabaret," to which he will return in the fall.
His expanding professional success has come with personal cost, and he has struggled to balance his work with his needs to have a home and a family. The road has wreaked havoc with his marriage. "It's very, very hard. The theater has done quite a lot of damage to our relationship," Esparza says, "and I suppose that is all I should say." But because he is such an emotionally searching person, he continues: "You really begin to have doubts about yourself and where you fit in the world and where your relationship fits in the world. The priest who married me said, 'Your values are very different from the values of the community you work in.' I seem to have a sense of being grounded and having a place to come home to. And often, you have to be by yourself. Life is nothing but the show, and you can become strangers to each other without realizing it."
The face is beautiful, but it is not perfect, and so he can make it infinitely malleable. Esparza has a high forehead and distinguished nose and huge green eyes that can bulge with manic intensity or reflect inner wounds or transmit a tenderness that makes someone watching want to be involved with him. He is eloquent and passionate, a relentless researcher of his roles and nearly naked emotionally.
He plays his characters by feeling them. "Both plays have had interesting reverberations in my life," Esparza says. "I see my life through the prism of the show I am putting on. I know the feelings of these characters," of the aching distance between Seurat and his mistress, Dot, "of having the conversation with the person you love more than life itself that you do not belong in this relationship. I know the feeling of being so sad and lonely that you end up working yourself into a stupor."
During "Sunday," Esparza was steeped in 19th-century France and let the impressionist paintings in the National Gallery of Art saturate his sensibilities. To prepare for "Merrily We Roll Along," set in the Broadway of the '60s, he has been reading about the Kennedy administration and prowling through the National Museum of American History, soaking up a sense of the nation then. "It's a great excuse to learn a lot, the theater is," he says.
Unlike "Sunday's" repressed George, "Merrily's" Charley Kringas is an ebullient lyricist. First produced in 1981, the musical closed after only 16 performances and rotten reviews. It has a dramatic problem: Sondheim's exploration of the nature of love and friendship among two songwriters and their female critic friend begins in their jaded present and moves backward to their hopeful and idealistic beginnings. They are introduced as unsympathetic at best, beastly at worst.
"I understand it begins in a place that drips acid," says Esparza, and he leans forwardly earnestly. "And I know it's hard to ask the audience to care about people who they have just met and who are behaving so badly. But this story has another message, which is not 'How did they get here?' The story goes backward so that it has a happy ending, not for the characters but for the audience.
"What Stephen is saying is, love and friendship go on beyond you. The choices you make today will affect you 20 years from now. The compromises you make now will change you. So be very careful. And the show says, 'Make the good choices.' It's a little morality play."
And for a minute he seems to be talking to himself.
A Series of High-Profile Roles Has Made South Florida's Raúl Esparza a Hit on the New York Stage
March 17, 2002
by Christine Dolen
NEW YORK - Raúl Esparza learned to sing when he was a little boy in Miami, sitting on his grandmother's lap as she taught him all the old songs from Cuba.
Now he's all grown up, starring in Cabaret and holding the theater world in the palm of his hand. Who could have known, all those years ago, that the music of a homeland he has never seen would stoke the creative fire that has taken him all the way to Broadway stardom?
''It feels incredibly fast,'' says Esparza, 31, whose performance as the Emcee in Cabaret has put its own dark spin on a role made famous by Joel Grey and Alan Cumming.
'I haven't been [in New York] very long, so it's a blessing. But there's also a kind of numbness. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Good things happen, and I go, `That's nice.' ''
Among those good things: his rousing turn as Riff Raff in the wild Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show; the lead in the Off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick...Boom!; doing Cabaret opposite Brooke Shields, then Gina Gershon, and now Molly Ringwald; and cocktails with Stephen Sondheim to discuss his starring role in Sondheim's Sunday at the Park With George this summer at the Kennedy Center.
Numb? Maybe. But Esparza is also aware of how fortunate he is.
''Every day on the way to the theater, I walk through Shubert Alley [near Times Square] to remind myself of where I am,'' he says. ``Some people work their whole lives and don't make it to Broadway.''
Esparza has, mainly through years of hard work honing a talent that has now won him a place at the center of America's theater universe. And those who know about such things are sure he's the real deal.
''Once or twice a year, Broadway [gets] a new home-grown star, who for their fame is not depending on television or film, but on the theater,'' says Sam Mendes, director of Cabaret and the film American Beauty. ``Raúl is the genuine article, and his performance as the Emcee gives full vent to a talent we will see a lot more of in the future.''
Todd Haimes of New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, who cast Esparza as a replacement Emcee in Cabaret, is even more effusive.
''I think Raúl is one of the most extraordinary young talents I've ever seen,'' he says. ``He's got a great voice, and he's a great actor. It's hard to define star quality, but you know it when you see it. Raúl is going to be a big star.''
A LONG ROAD
But like any ''overnight'' success, he's been working toward this moment for years.
Esparza's talent first surfaced at Miami's Belén Jesuit Preparatory School, where he staged play after play -- in English and Spanish -- and funneled the profits to charity. He made his professional debut 13 years ago, just out of high school, in the world premiere of Luis Santeiro's Mixed Blessings at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse.
The only child of Cuban exiles, Esparza was born in Wilmington, Del., where his mother María Elena met his father Raúl on a blind date. His mother, now a Miami travel agent, concedes her son got lots of attention but says it didn't ruin him.
''When you have an only child, you devote yourself to that child to the extent that it makes you ache,'' she says. ``He was very pampered, but he has given us back the same love. Because he has been brought up with love and not a lot of grief, he's always had a tender nature. There's not a mean streak in him.''
Beatriz Jiménez, his Spanish teacher and mentor at Belén, remembers Esparza's creativity and drive.
''I met Raúl when he was in the seventh grade, about 12 years old, and even at that age, you already knew,'' Jiménez says. ``I've taught for 30 years, and he is the most outstanding person and student I've met. He emanates an energy, a love of learning. He can direct, write, sing, act. He's wonderfully fluent in both Spanish and English, and he has a tremendous understanding of both cultures. We didn't have a performing arts program at Belén, but he helped create one.''
Esparza founded a club called ALPHA -- the letters signify acting, literature, photography, history and art -- and under its auspices did numerous plays. His leadership won him the 1988 Silver Knight Award in drama, and he and a fellow student took national honors in the Catholic Forensic League competition for their scene from the play Amadeus.
He didn't do as well with the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts competition, where one judge suggested he didn't have a future as an actor.
''When Raúl told me he'd decided to go into acting, I told him it was a tough road,'' Jiménez recalls. ``How do you know how to keep going or when to quit? You have to listen to yourself.''
Esparza did that, beginning at Florida International University, then earning his degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1991. From there he moved to Chicago, where he built a reputation at the city's top-tier theaters, acting in such high-visibility productions as Slaughterhouse-Five at Steppenwolf and Cry, the Beloved Country at the Goodman.
Things were going so well, in fact, Esparza and his wife Michele, his high school sweetheart, imagined building a life in Chicago -- despite the fact that Esparza found his ethnicity perceived differently there.
''As soon as I left Miami, I realized what being in a Hispanic minority is,'' he says. ``In Miami, being Cuban is the center of your power. The parts that movie and TV people want to see me for are Latin things. Then I get there and they don't think I'm Latin enough.''
Yet it was a major Hispanic role in theater that eventually led him to move to New York -- and to Broadway. He won the role of Che Guevara in a major touring revival of Evita, and though his decision to play the revolutionary didn't thrill his exile family (his paternal grandfather had known Guevara in Cuba), the raves he won as he traveled the country in 1998-99 did. The show didn't play South Florida, so his family and his former teacher traveled to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to see him.
''That was a difficult role for him, especially coming from a Cuban exile background,'' Jiménez says. ``He did so much research, and he created a very three-dimensional Che. He was conniving, fiery, passionate, intense, very dark.''
And convincing. Says Esparza's mother María Elena: 'We took my mother-in-law and father-in-law to Atlanta to see him. My mother-in-law said, `I want Che out of there. I want my grandson back.' ''
Harold Prince, the original director of Evita, saw Esparza's portrayal at a run-through and a performance and agrees that he's destined for big things.
''He has real star quality and huge energy. He's smart and quick and funny,'' observes Prince. ``Then I saw him in Tick, Tick...Boom! and didn't realize at first he was the same boy. He's got star personality.''
Che led Esparza to an audition for Rocky Horror, which got him the Riff Raff role and put him on New York's fast track. He left that show to create the part of Jonathan in Tick, Tick ...Boom!, and his next show was to have been a major Roundabout revival of Sondheim's 1991 musical Assassins.
Then came Sept. 11.
''I had a feeling similar to the one I had after Hurricane Andrew, when just seeing Bryan Norcross on TV would make me break into tears,'' Esparza recalls. ``I didn't want to do the show. I could smell the burning. It felt pointless.
``The stage manager and I worked every day volunteering. But I met people from all walks of life who said Tick, Tick ... Boom! -- which is about continuing after you realize it's not going to be easy, and that what you choose to be in life is up to you -- had inspired them.''
After the disaster, Assassins (which contains lyrics about a character wanting to fly a plane into the White House) was scrubbed. So the Roundabout's Haimes shuttled Esparza into Cabaret, where he has become the show's most dynamic Emcee since the Tony-winning Cumming, giving a performance that is one part Marlene Dietrich, another part unhinged victim of evil.
He'll leave Cabaret at the end of April and go into rehearsals for Sunday in the Park With George, part of the Kennedy Center's $10 million, six-show, summer-long Sondheim Celebration (he's also cast in the festival's production of Merrily We Roll Along).
Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the festival, cast Esparza in Sunday in the Park in the dual roles of artist Georges Seurat and a contemporary artist named George, roles originated on Broadway in 1984 by Mandy Patinkin. It's a huge part, but one Schaeffer says he knew right away that Esparza could handle.
''Georges has to have an intensity, but deep within he has a troubled soul,'' Schaeffer says. ``Raúl sang Finishing the Hat, and he got the creative drive of the artist and the sadness within it. The contemporary George is the trickiest, and once again he captured the spirit, the frustration, the soul-searching.
'It doesn't happen that often in an audition that you say, `That's the person.' That you get chills by the end.''
Offstage, Esparza's life has been rougher since his move to New York. His wife decided to move back to Miami and her extended family rather than relocating to New York.
Yet though they are separated, Esparza says, ``We speak every day. She's the light of my life. We grew up together. Lived side by side. We're going through a process of getting to know each other again.
``Every good and bad thing that happens, I want to share with her.''
Another loss has been more permanent. While he was playing Riff Raff in Rocky Horror, his parents brought his maternal grandmother, America García-Pell, to see her grandson on Broadway. It was her 93rd birthday, Dec. 22, 2000. A few days later, the extended family gathered in Wilmington, Esparza's birthplace, to celebrate Christmas.
''I fell asleep on her lap, as she was stroking my head,'' Esparza says. 'When I woke up, she said, `You haven't done that since you were a child. I could die tomorrow a happy woman.' ''
The next day, García-Pell had a stroke. She passed away Jan. 18, but Esparza spent many of those last days by her side, leaning in close to her ear, softly singing her favorite Cuban songs. And now every time he steps onstage, a part of her is with him.
''After my grandfather died, she would put drops of his Guerlain cologne in a handkerchief and carry it with her,'' Esparza says. ``Now I wear it onstage in Cabaret.''
Christine Dolen is The Herald's theater critic.
© 2002: Miami Herald
New York Times
Artists Talk About Performing in a Time of Tragedy
September 20, 2001
by Peter Marks
RAÚL ESPARZA, actor, "Tick, Tick . . . Boom," an Off Broadway musical by Jonathan Larson, composer of "Rent." Mr. Esparza spent much of last week helping with the rescue effort, taking down the histories of victims from family members and acting as translator for rescue workers. The show, at the Jane Street Theater in the West Village, resumed on Friday.
I was very careful onstage and thinking, Do this slowly — even though there were like 10 people in the audience. I can't even talk about it without getting emotional. A song we have been singing for months suddenly had an entire new meaning, called "Louder Than Words." You sing, "Why does it take an accident before the truth gets through to us?" Then at another point, "What does it take to wake up a generation, how can you make someone take off and fly?/If we don't wake up and shake up this nation/We'll eat the dust of the world, wondering why."
On Sunday I was exhausted, working till 8 in the morning back at Chelsea Piers, doing translating for some Mexican rescue workers. It felt like war. So when I did the show again, I was overemotional. I was frustrated at having to be there again. I looked out at the audience, at people who had come to see the show again, and they had tears in the eyes. Something about them looking at me really moved me. I couldn't control how sad it made me.
Raúl Esparza Interview
June 12, 2001
by David Spencer
Thirty-year-old Raúl Esparza begins every performance of tick, tick...BOOM! the same way that the late composer Jonathan Larson once did: sitting at a piano, singing "30/90," a rock riff on the travails of turning 30 in the year 1990. Although the show, a three-person adaptation of a one-man songologue, never puts itself in historical perspective, the audience certainly does. Larson's work, which explores the same themes as his international sensation Rent, is most poignant in what it doesn't say--that Larson didn't live to see audiences flock to see his work. Playing a-character-that-isn't-Larson-but-really-is, Esparza is a marvel--baring a soul that audiences may have missed in his high-camp performance as Riff Raff last season in The Rocky Horror Show (which earned him a Theatre World Award). Cuban-born and Chicago-trained, Esparza has also been seen as Che in the most recent national tour of Evita and in the Windy City at the Steppenwolf (in Slaughterhouse 5 and Fur), the Goodman (Cry, the Beloved Country and Richard II) and Victory Gardens (Washington Sarajevo Talks).
What was your connection to Rent prior to getting tick, tick… BOOM!? Were you a Rent-head?
Well, I saw the show years ago. I really loved it. It was incredibly moving and it really reminded me of my years going to school at NYU and living in the East Village. I felt like someone had read a journal of my own life.
You went from the Rocky Horror cult crowds to a show that is attracting the Rent fan base…
It’s true. And those groups cross over--these wonderful younger audiences that sort of hooked into the idea that theater could speak to them. It’s amazing how Rent speaks to kids and it’s amazing how tick, tick…BOOM! is starting to speak to kids. A few nights ago, this one guy, who must have been about 16, said to me, “This show is about doing what you know you should do, no matter what people tell you.” I thought, yeah. What a great lesson.
How much did you know about Jonathan Larson before you got the part?
Not very much at all. I did quite a lot of reading. But I have to strike a balance. I’m playing a composer named Jonathan, but this isn’t a biography. It’s fictionalized, a version of real events. But I watched footage of him. There’s video of his performance of tick, tick…BOOM! and also of his last day working at the Moondance Diner [where Larson waited tables]. I’ve also spoken to a lot of his friends. I’ve tried to incorporate some of his gestures. He shrugged his arms out a lot, had a big, goofy grin. He really seemed to gauge people. In the diner video, he looked at people out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t really react. I tried to incorporate some of that. The script is so saturated in his spirit. I find myself grinning through most of the show. Even though times were tough, Jonathan was aware of how exciting his life was. He was so generous—he would have “peasant feasts” with his friends. They would invite 50 or so people over to his small apartment for Christmas or something. They would invite people from the neighborhood even. That’s the sign of a generous human being, who had nothing to give but wanted to give. He would sell his books at the Strand to be able to afford a movie. His father says that they had no idea how poor he was.
You were so disguised as Riff Raff—I didn’t recognize you after the show. Is it nice to show your face this time around?
A lot of people had no idea who I was. Playing Riff Raff was so freeing. It was like putting on a mask and having the chance to do whatever I wanted. This show is different. There’s a lot of me in it. A lot of my own experiences. It can be very moving for me.
Do you feel naked?
That’s exactly how I feel. Now when I leave the theater, everyone knows who I am. And sometimes I prefer it the other way. I’m more interested in what an actor does than who he is. I admire actors who disappear into parts. Like DeNiro and Pacino in some of their earlier works. Or Willem Dafoe. The skill is to remove yourself. As actors, we get to live different lives.
How did you go from NYU to Chicago?
I had this teacher named David Bucknam, who was a wonder kid—an amazing talent. Like Jonathan, he was a composer working at New York Theater Workshop and he taught at Playwrights Horizons. At the age of 21, he wrote an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Anyway, we became great friends and he was visiting a friend of ours at the Goodman. He got me an audition, I got hired and wound up staying there for eight years. I’ve been thinking about David a lot recently. He was extremely successful at a young age, but turning 30 scared him--he killed himself at 32. He thought, “If you’re not young, nobody will take you seriously.” A bunch of us performers that he’d worked with did a memorial for him at the Public. It was amazing to see the body of work of someone so young and stopped believing in himself. He set a date on his life. That ticking that Jonathan talks about in the show… I’ve seen it first hand.
What about you? You’re 30 now. Was it hard?
It really wasn’t. I remember looking at myself and saying, “Okay, you’re not a kid anymore. Starting acting like a grown-up.” But I remember high school like it was yesterday. It’s funny—in my senior year of high school, I was a National Foundation of the Arts scholar. But in the final competition, I was told that I wasn’t an actor and that I’d never get accepted to theater schools cause I wasn’t very good at all. My parents told me: “You know what? Ignore it! Just try.” I wound up at NYU on a dare. I gotta be honest, though. School was not great for me. I didn’t like studying. You can’t be a great actor unless you know about other things. Studying theater is so private and insular. I learned so much more when I was working in Chicago.
Considering your Chicago credits--Slaughterhouse 5, Richard II, What the Butler Saw--it’s funny that you’re now the rock musical guy.
It’s bizarre. I hadn’t done a single musical in Chicago for eight years. It’s very weird. I don’t know how it happened.
But you have an incredible singing voice. Were you always aware of it?
Growing up, my school didn’t really have any sort of arts program. But I would play guitar and sing Spanish songs for my grandmother. I knew that I could sing and that people responded, but I didn’t really listen to musicals growing up. I was sixteen when I first heard a musical.
What was it?
How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. We were doing it in my high school. I thought, “This is interesting.” I listened to a lot of Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, The Police and U2. That’s what I thought singing was. It’s the way my voice is now. I don’t think that anyone is going to cast me in an old-fashioned musical now. I don’t have that clear sound.
Do you like listening to yourself? Have you heard the Rocky Horror cast recording?
I’m really proud of that. I can’t believe it’s me. But I’m afraid that a lot of people will listen to it and try to sing like that—I hope they don’t hurt themselves! I’m not sure how I do it. Even I’m like, “Wow. How does that guy do that?”
Any dream roles?
When I got the Evita tour, I had to turn down an offer to do Hamlet in Detroit. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance again. I’d love to do it. Every actor says that. Pretty cheesy, huh? [He laughs.] Maybe one day I’ll play Tartuffe. Or Iago. Those are fun parts. Oh, I know--I’d love to play the Stage Manager in Our Town when I’m 60. That’s my favorite American play. I used to quote it in high school.
Emily says to the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” and he says, “No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.” I recently found out that Jonathan used to quote that same passage all the time. It’s exactly what he’s saying in Rent and tick, tick…BOOM!--live your life now, try to realize what’s happening around you now. I thought it was perfect that Jonathan knew that quote.
It’s like you were meant to do this show.
It’s such a fit--it’s a little eerie.
© 2001: Broadway.com
Who are you closest with in real life out of all your fellow performers?
I'm not very sociable at work, but I get along with everyone even though I mostly keep to myself. I suppose Daphne is my touchstone, as is Kristen. I also couldn't have done this without Lea's support. We're a very tight cast so everybody really counts to me.
You are an amazing performer, how do you get into the part so well?
It's like putting on a mask. Riff doesn't look like me so I can do anything he wants.
Are you aware that you are so awesome and rather funny?
No and thank you.
What's the best thing you've been given by a fan?
A rose bush when one of my closest relatives died. It grew and lived and reminded me of everyone's support for my loss.
What was the funniest thing to happen on stage?
Kristen's bra popping off during the whole "touch me" scene.
Are you single?
If you could play any part in any Broadway show which one would it be?
The MC in CABARET.
Is that really all you in that costume or do you use a stocking stuffer?
It's all me. Um. Thanks. Um. I guess.
What is your favorite audience participation shout out?
"Frank, where's the worst place to get come" ......................"in my eyes." During "I'm Coming Home."
Did you come up with the fabulous make-up?
Some of it - the eye, the bruised mouth - Milagros, our make-up goddess, designed it with me. Jon Jordan designed the crazy hair.
How do you recover your voice after such intensely taxing vocals, especially on 2 performance days?
I sleep. I drink A LOT of water. I live like a monk. It's not easy, but it works.
If you were to ask Miss Cleo (that TV psychic lady) one question, what would it be? And what would you expect the answer to be?
"Is everything going to work out OK?" "Maybe."
What do you like to do on your days off from the show?
Vegetate. Play Nintendo. Read a book or five. Go to see other plays or a movie.
Where were you born?
Wilmington, DE, but my whole family is Cuban and I grew up in Miami.
What made you want to get into this business?
It chose me. I've just always acted, even as a little kid. I don't know why. I don't know where it comes from. I figured I might as well try, even if I failed, at least I'd know I tried.
What is your most favorite theatre memory?
During the closing scene of ARCADIA with two of my closest friends at a theatre in the Midwest. That play is pure magic.
If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What is your favorite Rocky moment?
When the seats flip during "Frankenstein Place."
Do you have a pet? What is it's (sic) name?
What's your favorite curse word?
"Come-mioda" ("shit-eater") in Spanish. In English, I guess it's "cocksucker."
If you could have a different job what would it be?
I would be a history teacher at a high school.
What is the thing that you are most proud of?
When did you lose your Rocky virginity?
I was sixteen in Miami. I hated the movie. It scared the shit out of me.
If you could play any role in Rocky except your own, who would it be?
Why, Frank, of course. Or Eddie, because "Hot Patootie" is the best song in the show.
What is the strangest thing you've been asked to autograph?
A picture of me that has nothing to do with the show. Also someone's clothes while they were wearing them.
What is your pre-show ritual?
I warm-up. I used to stretch but I bagged that. Make-up, make-up and more make-up. Listen to Marilyn Manson ( you know
for inspiration), more make-up. Watch Daphne kick ass in "Science Fiction" with Joan Jett.
Who would you most like to come see you in Rocky? (Dead or alive)
If your third grade teacher saw you in Rocky, what would he/she say?
"I knew it."
What's your favorite post-show food?
Grilled cheese sandwiches.
What made you decide to give up your powerful performance of Riff Raff so soon for an off-Broadway show?
The off-Broadway show offers me a great opportunity to play a lead and create a role and sing Jonathan Larson's music. I did
the best I could do with Riff Raff and now it's time to try something else.
Don't you think Mandy Patinkin should come and play Riff Raff when you (sniff) leave?
Mandy would be scarier than I am.
When will 'Tick, Tick, Boom' be happening? We will miss you terribly, Raul!
June 14th - It's "tick, tick...BOOM!"
© 2001: www.rockyhorrorlive.com