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.
Here is the second part of our exclusive three-part discussion, in which Esparza and I largely analyze his roles and performances in plays, as well as a thorough discussion of the art of acting - and, additionally, a chat about roles he would like to play in the future, both near and far. Also, in Part IIB, a look at his Desi Arnaz show BABALU and his upcoming American Songbook shows. Plus, his first theatre experiences in New York, audition stories - good and bad - and much, much more.
You can read Part I here. Stay tuned for the concluding Part III, coming later this week!
Part IIA: The Greats & The Dane
PC: Speaking of hearts and heartbreakers: you were beyond heartbreaking as Ned Weeks in THE NORMAL HEART.
RE: Our production was directed by David Esbjornson and it was probably one of the best things I've ever done. I was really, really proud of that show. It was incredibly hard to do.
PC: What about sharing the stage with Joanna Gleason?
RE: Oh, yeah. Loved it. Just loved it. I mean, she's a hero of mine, so, to become friends with her and that cast - I mean, Richard Deakins played my brother and is just outrageous. He and I hit it off so well and he's such a great actor that I realized that the whole center of the show shifted to the relationship with the brother, at least for me. Then, Larry Kramer kept saying, "Well, yeah, that is where the heart of the piece is." It is one of the most significant things that I've ever done, both personally and professionally. (Pause.) But, God knows, it's a show that, when it is over, you are happy it's gone.
PC: I can imagine. Tough play.
RE: Because it is so painful to do, if you do it right, when it's over you just want to have an exorcism! (Laughs.)
PC: As a comparison, did you find you really had to amp yourself up to match Jeremy Piven in SPEED-THE-PLOW and play that aggressive, manic Mamet guy?
RE: No, Charley's a lot of fun. That character is just a lot of fun. With Ned, Ned was painful because he was dealing with so much: with sickness, with loss, with love, with self-respect, with his own anger and his inability to control himself. That's what's so interesting about Ned Weeks. In our revival - you know, what we worried about was whether the show would be dated or not. And, there we were back in the Anspacher [at The Public Theater], where they had originally done it, with the original set designer. Here we are, in this space, trying to sort of live up to the ghosts of what the show meant. In the middle of the AIDS crisis, it had a very particular meaning - which was, the writing was on the wall and they were doing this show every night. And, it had a kind of gallows humor to it then, from what I understand, and it had a certain kind of desperation to it - it was a central place that people would gather to hear their own anger expressed.
PC: How illuminating. And, now?
RE: But, now, we weren't at the height of the AIDS crisis - none of us lived through that period. So, here we are, trying to hold onto that anger and fear and still do the show every night. What was amazing about it, was that the audience that was coming to see it was the audience the play was about. Some of them had even lived through it. So, because they knew more than the characters onstage, it took on the weight of a tragedy.
PC: With the implicit dramatic content to back that up.
RE: That's the one key thing you have in a tragedy, that the audience knows more about the end than the characters. So, it wasn't dated at all and it played like a Greek tragedy - where you watch your hero doing all the right things and saying all the things you wish you could say, and, yet, every step he takes is a mistake. Every word he says - though you agree with him every step along the way - is destroying his goals. And, you know it, because you know it's not going to work out. So, it's a very, very powerful experience to feel an audience in New York sit up and join you. It felt like they were in the show with us - because it was about them.
PC: That must have been incredible.
RE: I've never had that experience, at that extent - not since then, certainly. The only thing that came close was TICK, TICK... BOOM.
PC: I prefer the score of TICK, TICK... BOOM to RENT, actually. What was it like to actually play Jonathan Larson?
RE: It's an unfinished piece in some ways. It was originally a one man piece.
PC: BOHO DAYS, at one point. How did you get involved with the first production since Larson's death in 1996?
RE: Yeah, this was a more finished piece. To me, that was the show that really put me on the map in New York. So, I'm very, very fond of it. It was a real game-changer for me, here. I remember being a little worried about taking it after ROCKY HORROR because, I thought, "Why would I leave a Broadway show to go off-Broadway?" and financial and professional considerations. But, that never seemed to make any difference because I could never get through the script without sobbing.
PC: A visceral reaction to the text...
RE: And doing the show was a real gift - and, especially, doing it in that space downtown.
PC: What does it mean to you?
RE: It's a show about what happens when you fail. And, it's a show about, you know, everybody is fine when they are being told, "Hey, you are really successful!"; or, "Hey, you are really great - come do this workshop!" - where everything you are doing works. This is what happens when nobody tells you that - it's when everybody tells you, "Why don't you give up?" And, you have to figure out - in his case, at age 30 - kind of who you want to be anyway, on your own terms. And, that relates beyond music and the particular story of that play.
PC: And the overwhelming audience reaction you eluded to earlier...?
RE: Oh, I mean, we would have doctors and lawyers and police officers and, just people you wouldn't even think would connect to the piece reacting so emotionally and thoroughly to it. And, then, after September 11th happened, it took on an even heavier weight because we were singing "Louder Than Words" and here we are talking about a disaster and a catastrophe that has to wake up a nation and when are we going to take action and own ourselves?
PC: How powerful. How real. How apropos.
RE: Yeah, and, you were singing these words and seeing all these kids in the audience sort of looking up at you. I remember singing "Why?", where he is describing why he does what he does and why he is making a commitment to do this with his life [write musicals] - I felt like I was singing it for all of us. You know, to say, like, "In spite of the fact that those towers went down; and, in spite of the fact that the country is going to war; and, maybe, even doing theatre seems a little silly right now - we are all here in this room and if this is what we do then we will recommit to it because we love it." So, it was a very moving and a very precious experience to me.
PC: What do you think of Broadway today versus, even, when Larson tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get produced back in the 90s?
RE: I guess the economics have become prohibitive.
RE: The real shame in what has happened with Broadway is that they don't want to take chances because it has become so expensive. But, if you don't take chances and fail, you will never have new work.
RE: You know, a lot of the great musicals that came about in the twentieth century were pieces that really might have pushed the envelope. They had come from composers that had already been allowed to fail - even on a large scale - and fail repeatedly. It's not like Rodgers & Hammerstein sprang out of the earth full-blown. Each of them had had their own experiences, separately, before they came together to do OKLAHAHOMA! Even in the process of creating all those shows, they made shows that didn't do as well and some that really pushed musicals forward. The greatest musical of all, in my opinion, is CAROUSEL.
PC: A great choice.
RE: Or, then, you've got the group that wrote WEST SIDE STORY.
PC: That's my personal favorite team of all time.
RE: We will never see the like of that again.
RE: It's because every one of those men was not only each a master in his field, but able to come from so much previous experience - I guess, except, maybe, for Steve. They were all just working at the top of their game and having so much experience - we don't have that opportunity now. That applies to actors, directors, choreographers, designers - we are not allowed to fail. We are not allowed to try and then make mistakes. At this level? Forget it.
PC: A sad state of affairs.
RE: The more that Broadway gears itself towards: a kind of repetition of what audiences already know; revival upon revival of shows that aren't really necessary to do; shows that say nothing to our time and place - that's when it becomes a theme park. I never felt that way about Broadway before.
PC: Me either.
RE: I don't think that's all that it is. I think the pendulum will swing back - Lord knows, there's a lot of new writing happening with plays that we are seeing. And, there's some interesting new stuff that comes up now and then. At first, it's hard for them to find an audience - like SPRING AWAKENING, at first. And, then, sometimes a chance is taken - like on BLOODY, BLOODY [ANDREW JACKSON] this season.
PC: What a great show.
RE: If works like that can't be nurtured, then we are dead in the water. But, at least, things like those keep coming back. The problem is, I don't think it's the same skill set to work onstage versus on film. I don't think that familiarity is necessarily going to create a better performance. I mean, just because someone that you watch every night in your living room on your television set is now onstage, it doesn't mean that person can carry that show. They may be very familiar to you, and they may be very, very famous, but it does not mean that person can carry a show eight times a week. If that's going to be the model for selling tickets from now on, we might as well just film it and show it on a screen.
PC: Did you find that you were up against big names at any point? Perhaps, on COMPANY?
RE: No, not on COMPANY. But, then again, I'm in a different world. I started here ten years ago and what happened was that I got opportunities then that would not happen for an actor starting out now. People were giving me leads and people were taking chances on me, because this model had not really kicked in yet.
PC: Can you define the new model?
RE: The jukebox musical hadn't really started and they weren't doing these shows entirely on the name of a movie star or TV actor - that isn't to say that there aren't some movie and TV actors who are glorious onstage. But, they were giving more precedence to the stage actors. So, I know that my friends who are coming out of school right now - they are not going to have the same opportunities that I had. The doors won't open as easily because [the producers] won't take a chance on new actors. They are always looking for a name to fill it, now. So, I didn't go up against names and movie stars when I was starting out here, and by the time I was going up against names I had a name of my own that had its own weight. It was just timing and luck how that happened, I'll tell you. If I tried to do the same thing now, I don't think I would be in the same position I am in.
PC: You are really the only big male Broadway star to emerge in the last ten years - with the resume to back it up. You're it.
RE: I am really lucky to have been able to do the work that I have done. Sometimes I blow it and sometimes I get it right. I have been really, really blessed to work with great, great people. Every time I do something, I come out the other side for the better.
PC: Such as?
RE: Well, the example of SUNDAY that you mentioned earlier: the best thing about that whole experience was working with Steve in the room every day, every week. And, learning not just how to perform this role, but how to perform this role through his guidance. And, all those little things that it means that nobody needs to know, but that we know when we put it up there. Figuring out ways to interpret his songs. Who has that opportunity anymore?
PC: Only you - and, deservedly so.
RE: Not many people have that kind of opportunity. I mean, to do CABARET with both John and Fred, with Fred still alive and Joe Masteroff in the theater - and, that was a replacement gig!
PC: Beyond belief.
RE: To do Pinter while Pinter is still alive; to do Mamet with Mamet; to do Sondheim with Sondheim on Broadway - this is all just really rare. And, plus, I've worked with some of the finest directors in the world over the last couple of years. I am really spoiled. John Doyle and Dan Sullivan? These guys are great. They are just great. And, a director like that has your back so completely that you can push forward in your performance and go further than you ever thought you would go because you know you don't have to worry about everything. They are there to catch you.
PC: Speaking again of Sondheim, I'd be remiss not to mention your sensational Hapgood in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at Encores! this year.
RE: It was fun. That was really fun.
PC: Was Arthur Laurents involved, as well? Did he see it?
RE: He was not involved, but he did see it.
PC: What did he say?
RE: He told us that he felt like he saw his show again - he saw his show again and it was very much his play. We really wanted to do a tribute to what the piece was - without trying to fix it or change it or do anything to it - just do it. Don't apologize for it - just enjoy it. And, people loved it.
PC: It was so wonderful.
RE: We had such a good time. And, every night I got to fall in love with Sutton [Foster] onstage and what could be better than that? I think she's one of the best leading ladies we have.
PC: And Donna Murphy told me how much she adored working with you, herself, a few months ago. She was so complimentary.
RE: Well, to me, Donna is theatre royalty. She is as good as good can get. She is on par with any of the great, great stage actors - Julie Andrews, Katharine Hepburn, Maggie Smith - that we have ever had. Her abilities are just extraordinary. And, we have a similar work ethic that I love: we drive ourselves a little crazy at being perfectionists and twisting it as far as we can. I just admire in her so much when you see that type of talent that never stops questioning itself. I always think, "Oh, I'm just neurotic," but, no - this is how we do it. To watch a master like that at work, you realize: this is how we do it. We just keep breaking it, tearing it apart and seeing what sticks. That's what the best people do, without any ego at all - that's what Donna has. There's a selflessness and a grace that leads to so much joy and life onstage. You would think the opposite would happen - that everything would appear planned - but, with her, all the planning disappears and you see this completely realized human being onstage for two hours that was completely different from the one she did at the matinee, which was also completely fabulous and unexpected. She's a total inspiration to me and I loved the challenge of having to hold the stage with her.
PC: No easy feat. Even for you?
RE: (Laughs.) Well, plus, with that material - we just knew we could have a good time with it and try to sort of get underneath it and let people kind of rediscover it. And, to see how much fun it could be for us and the audience - even if you didn't get every single reference. For me, I kind of love living in that early-60s world that the play has and I loved looking at the way the things in the show developed into things Steve did later. And, I was ripping off Peter Sellars and Mike Nichols and those guys - all the best. Steal from the best. (Laughs.)
PC: Speaking of Mike Nichols, you'd be such an amazing George in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRIGINIA WOOLF?
RE: I'd love to do that someday.
PC: What about some Shakespeare roles? You were magnificent in TWELFTH NIGHT at Shakespeare In The Park.
RE: I think I'd make a good Richard III. I was always crazy about LOVE'S LABOURS [LOST], but I think I might be getting a little old for it now. And, Iago [in OTHELLO] someday. My favorite Shakespeare is MACBETH - I read it in fifth grade and it's just the one I've always loved. I'd love to see MACBETH done as a real horror story with ghosts and just scare the sh*t out of the audience. And, I don't know if it can really be done that way anymore because Shakespeare has taken on this patent neo-classicism that we sort of can't get past sometimes, and that's a hard one to make people see as if they have never seen it before. But, if there was a way to get people to feel like they were in a haunted house watching that play it would be really fun. I'd love it.
PC: Maybe in a Grand Guignol style - or, even, a more modern Dario Argento-type style.
RE: Yeah, that would be so great! Get people screamin'!
PC: And Leontes in THE WINTER'S TALE?
RE: Someday... someday!
PC: What other Shakespeare roles? Edmund in KING LEAR?
RE: Of course, you know, every actor wants to play Hamlet. The thing is, I never loved the play and, then, by the time I started appreciating it - I mean, I've played variations on HAMLET in musical theatre in other things I've done. Repeatedly. Friends of mine joke and they call me "The Dane". (Laughs.)
PC: (Laughs.) Why do you think that is?
RE: I guess because I am moody and melancholy and passionate and changeable - all those many things he is [Hamlet]. Also, because, I guess, I am so passionate about the theatre.
PC: So, it's an apt blason populaire then?
RE: It's my nickname, for better or worse. It made me realize that so many parts that I played were variations on that theme of an intelligent, very complicated man caught in very dark and complicated situations. When I have done my best work, it seems to be some variation on that. Bobby and George totally fall into that space. So does Ned. So does Charley in SPEED-THE-PLOW. And, absolutely, Lenny in THE HOMECOMING. So, I feel like I keep playing Hamlet over and over again, just not in the actual play. (Laughs.)
Part IIB: Being (Alive)
PC: Tell me about working with Sidney Lumet on FIND ME GUILTY. Your scene on the stand at the end is just... beyond words.
RE: Yeah, it's a great, great scene - I mean, that's the big climax of the film. Just working with Sidney is like a master class. He's just... they don't make ‘em like him anymore. One of the things that Sidney does is he rehearses the actors for three weeks before we ever go to the set. So, you'll only do, maybe, one or two takes when you finally get there. He just trusts you so completely and casts so well. And, sometimes you are completely off-book. Part of the scene at the end, part of that is improved.
PC: I would have never guessed.
RE: It's just completely alive. Always. With him. He makes his day every day. It's a painless and joyful experience working with him. I learned a big lesson, which is: if it's good enough for Lumet, it's good enough for you.
PC: Totally! He's a master. One of the few.
RE: It takes all the criticism out of you, working with him. Just do not worry about it - trust him, trust him, trust him. He's got your back so completely that what's gonna show up onscreen is exactly the very best that you can do. (Pause.) He will never, ever, let you fall.
PC: How rewarding that must be, as an actor.
RE: You know, it's hard for an actor - especially me. I like to second-guess everything.
PC: Do you find it's hard letting yourself go?
RE: (Deep Breath.) If I trust the director, it's not a problem at all. (Pause.) But, trusting the director is not an easy step to take.
PC: Have you been in that sort of situation, where you have had to find the character on your own?
RE: Oh, yeah. It happens all the time.
RE: It's very rare that you have a director who can guide it so completely. That's why I know that I'm blessed when I say that I've had some extraordinary experiences with great people at the top of their game.
PC: That's surprising.
RE: It's very rare that a director will walk in and be someone you can give yourself over to completely. It's happened many, many times - I'm going all the way back to when I started working in the theatre in Miami when I was seventeen - where it doesn‘t work. So, from there to here, all these years later, I've had plenty of times where I just think, "Oh, well, I'll just take care of myself." Now, that's not an ideal way to work - sometimes it happens and it works OK and, sometimes, the show doesn't work at all. (Long Pause.) I don't want to get into naming names, but the good ones: they are rare; they are like rare gems. There's a reason that you keep going back to work with them again and again.
PC: Your first show was with Hal Prince, right - a recreation of his EVITA? Was he involved at all?
RE: Well, the way that those shows work, actually - Hal was in New York directing PARADE at the time - and they had like an old book - an old creaky book - from whenever the first production was done and they sort of pull it out and put everyone into the original staging. And, I had never done anything like that - I was coming from Steppenwolf, and pretty uppity about. You know, coming from Chicago and arriving only to say, "I am an ac-tor, this is not what we do!" (Laughs.) So, I fought them on this really badly and I was on the edge of quitting. I remember feeling really frustrated. I said one day, during rehearsals, I‘m like, (Angry.) "You want me to do what?" And, they said, "We want you to do this, because this is what they did originally." And, I said, "Well, you hired the wrong guy."
PC: That's hilarious! Hal wasn't there for that, though.
RE: Hal was not in the room. But, Judy Prince had been very, very passionate about me all through rehearsals. She had seen me do some stuff. Hal did come to a run-through, later. When I did my run, Hal pulled our associate director aside and said, "Let him do what he wants." You know, "Let it be what he wants it to be."
RE: He really offered tremendous guidance to me, then. That was the big difference between recreating and having someone who created it in the room with the authority to make changes. And, it was a lesson to me in humility because I was not prepared for that part at that time. I had to learn it on my feet. How to do a musical eight times a week, on a tour, with that much singing and give it everything you've got every night? It was a real challenge. (Pause.) It was an exercise in nightly humility and getting over fear and getting over arrogance and getting over all those things that pull us through when we are kind of raw and new actors. (Pause.) So, it was a big... brain-bust... of a show to me.
PC: And you were what, twenty-six, twenty-seven?
RE: Yeah, twenty-seven.
PC: Mandy Patinkin was about that age originally, I think.
RE: (Sighs.) Yeah, but he also has the voice of God! So, he's just... that's... I mean, I know I sing well, but I was certainly not on that level when I took that role. I could sing rock n roll - and, that's part of the reason I was hired. I was a theatre guy who could sing rock n roll and I only did plays up until that time - and they liked that. They took a huge chance on me. The musical director, Kevin Ferrell, and [original choreographer] Larry Fuller - they really put me through it. I think I did seven auditions for that show!
PC: No way!
RE: When they finally hired me it was after I had really been run through the maze. They really pushed me and pushed me and pushed me to earn it. So, I was playing it knowing that I had everyone's full support once I was there. But, it used to be that I would die on every hill. Every battle would be a battle worth fighting. But, over the years, sometimes I've learned it's better to keep your mouth shut. (Laughs.)
PC: Did that version have "The Lady's Got Potential"?
RE: No, we didn't have that.
PC: What was your favorite moment every night?
RE: I think my favorite thing to sing in that show was "And The Money Kept Rolling In". When that was cooking just right, it just stopped the show. It was a great song to sing.
PC: Your version was insane.
RE: (Laughs.) I took the end of it up the octave, which is just crazy. It's like screaming the high A over a high C and totally showing off. But, you know: you can't do that eight times a week! (Big Laugh.)
PC: So, did you blow out your voice?
RE: Mmmhmm. And, then I'd come back and do it again. But, I had to learn - I had to learn how to give that kind of an intense performance without losing the ability to give it eight times a week. It's about balance.
PC: Have you ever just completely lost your voice and just couldn't make any sound?
RE: Yeah, I have. I mean, it happens. Alice Ripley, actually, once said that, "It starts to feel like you are singing through a pillow."
PC: What a great description!
RE: You know, your voice is there - it's almost there - but it's just pushing against something and you can't get it out. You have to forgive yourself and just get better.
PC: So did that process prepare you to do a one-man-show, like at the American Songbook shows coming up?
RE: Well, I don't know! I don't have a show quite yet. So, we'll see where that ends up. Of course, we're putting together some music that I love and we're working on some ideas. (Pause.) I don't know what it's going to be.
PC: You have plenty of time, it's not until February.
RE: It's a total different thing, actually, to prepare a concert versus playing a character. And, I'm much more comfortable playing a character!
PC: So it's a bigger challenge.
RE: Yeah, that's the one thing about American Songbook: I'm thrilled that it's sold so well and people are excited to hear me do something on my own. It's been a long time coming because I haven't done it in all these years. And, yet, the scary part is that I just have to kind of be me up there. I'm not playing a part!
PC: No mask!
RE: I don't know that anything prepares you for that. The few concerts that I have done, where maybe I am singing for a half-hour or whatever - they're fun, because I'm just kind of a goofball and I just kind of play with the audience.
PC: This is the big time.
RE: Yeah, this is going to be a whole new thing for me. And, I'm also trying to play around with different music. We're going to do Cuban music and bossa novas and we're gonna do a lot of stuff I grew up listening to. As well as theatre music, of course.
PC: What about BABABLU, the Desi Arnaz concert show? Are you going to bring that to a bigger venue anytime soon?
RE: Well, that's was a thing that Lucie Arnaz approached me about doing. It was at the 92nd Street Y. I was supposed to sing all her father's music - they found all the original charts at the American Library of Congress and they had new charts that they wanted to do at the 92nd St. Y Lyrics & Lyricists Series. And, we were just like, "Oh, this will be fine. Let's put together this little concert." And, it was so successful and so much fun to do!
PC: How great. Such fun songs.
RE: Yeah, plus, to sing all these songs in Spanish - which is something I never get to do because no one ever sees me as Latin... enough. (Pause.) So, to go back to my roots and sing the stuff that I had heard growing up was... (Pause.) unbelievably moving. It was like touching base with a part of myself that I had forgotten existed. I mean, I, of course, associate it with my family and that's my life and that's who I am and that's "us" - but, that's a small fraction of anything that I've ever been able to use up here in New York. You feel a little bit like you live in two different cultures when you are first-generation. I mean, I grew up speaking Spanish.
PC: In Miami.
RE: Yeah, I thought of myself as an American kid in Miami. And, then, when I left Miami I felt like I was Cuban. You never quite know where you fit. You're not totally American and you're not totally Cuban. You don't know the memories that the family has of Cuba, but you have their memories imprinted on your mind as if they were you own. You aren't really raised like an American kid, because everyone speaks Spanish. And, you're living in Miami, which might as well be Havana.
PC: Indeed. It's like a different world compared to New York.
RE: Yeah. Then, you leave and you learn the ways and you have to sort of learn the ways of what it's really like to live in the United States. So, to get to use all those aspects of myself? It was unreal. It was thrilling.
PC: What a rewarding experience the whole BABALU experience is for you, then.
RE: Oh, totally. We ended up doing another version of it in Miami over the summer and it will probably end up being one of the highlights of my life.
PC: Oh, wow! What a moving experience.
RE: To get to have gone home and to have performed with an orchestra in Miami - to come to my home town and to sing those songs for a Cuban audience, with Lucy and Desi [Jr.] and Val [Desi‘s children]; to do these arrangements and do them there - it was like an outer-body experience.
PC: That transformative?
RE: It was like the world turned once and said, "OK. Here's an opportunity to say ‘Thank You' and appreciate where you come from." It was overwhelming. (Pause.) Overwhelming.
PC: It speaks to your soul.
RE: I don't think anything can ever quite equal that.
PC: So, there is a bright future for the show?
RE: Yeah, I want to continue to do it when there are places and times that we can. But, I don't think anything will ever match the total surprise that we had of doing it here and it turning out to be so great. And, then, all the incredibly rich rewards we all had, personally. I mean, they have family down there, too [the Arnaz family] - down in Miami.
PC: What about playing Desi Arnaz himself someday?
RE: Yeah, well... (Laughs.) that's not what is really BABALU at all. But, who knows? If they put a good script together...
PC: It could be done.
RE: He was an incredible, incredible entertainment pioneer.
PC: His is one of the great little-known American stories. Do you think that would work, the story of his life - and, then, later with Lucille Ball?
RE: Oh, I absolutely do. And, I think that is what is most important there, is that - and, one thing we just don't realize was - how gigantic she is, of course. There's fame and then there is legendary, iconic, world-history fame.
PC: Lucy is an icon.
RE: Desi Arnaz is appreciated and loved. But, then, there is Lucille Ball - who is on par with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
PC: I completely agree.
RE: It's funny, because we realized we were not doing a show that was incorporating Lucy at all - and the audience was not having it!
PC: Uh oh! What did you?
RE: We had to work it in. We had to incorporate ways to acknowledge her. I kept saying to them, "Your mom is so famous that if we don't acknowledge her, something feels wrong to audience." So, even though it was a tribute to Desi, we learned a big lesson, which is: the audience could not move on with that story unless Lucy fit in somewhere. (Pause.) You know, it's very much like mentioning World War II and England not mentioning Winston Churchill.
PC: Apt comparison.
RE: She is this huge, huge part of world history that you just have to deal with. It goes beyond entertainment. It goes beyond anything any of us have ever experienced. There are no stars like that anymore. (Pause.) The world is a totally different place now. That was the beginning. It can never happen again. It was just... it was something that happened at the very beginning of television and it can never happen again.
PC: Because of the media? The internet?
RE: We just know too much about their lives now.
PC: Have you seen any performances that really stayed with you and inspired you? What was your first?
RE: There have been many performances that have stayed with me over the years. On Broadway, the first show I saw was INTO THE WOODS.
PC: What a great first show! Ideal, really.
RE: Yeah! Totally. I coming up here [to New York] to go to college and I saw Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien, and they were just, really, unforgettable to me. And, the first play I saw was Joy Franz in BROADWAY BOUND.
PC: Neil Simon.
RE: She was a great actress.
PC: But, INTO THE WOODS was the moment.
RE: Yeah, that INTO THE WOODS - I remember just walking out of that theater like I was walking on air. I remember looking around the Broadway theaters and thinking, "Someday. Someday I am going to be here. Someday I am going to do this." Over the years, I have seen some performances that just kind of blew me away. I've also seen some productions that have stayed with me so completely that I just can't forget them. Productions like THE GRAPES OF WRATH and CITY OF ANGELS and, even, GRAND HOTEL. (Pause.) Maggie Smith in LETTUCE & LOVAGE. Eileen Atkins in INDISCRETIONS. Nothing like it - like watching these people work.
PC: Splendid choices, all.
RE: Michael Rupert in FALSETTOS.
PC: Oh, what about William Finn? Would you consider FALSETTOS? You'd be a killer Marvin.
RE: Yes. I love that piece.
PC: What about ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES and his other shows?
RE: I know some of the music. I've done some concerts for Bill where I've sung some pieces from his other shows and I just like his work. I like his intelligence and his sense of humor. You know, that era of the Playwrights Horizons sort of late-eighties writing, is so, so cool because that's when I was first learning about musicals; first hearing musicals. So, everything I was hearing was coming from that little theatre!
PC: So true! Me, too!
RE: Yeah, whether it be any of the shows we've been talking about - SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE or INTO THE WOODS or, later on, even, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, or the Bill Finn shows - there's something about that particular time at Playwrights that I really... (Chuckle.) associate... with American musical theatre in New York - more than the big Broadway shows.
PC: They are better quality.
RE: Yeah, it would be a dream to do one of his pieces. He's got some tremendous stuff. (Sighs.) That song "Sailing" from A NEW BRAIN is worth the price of admission.
PC: I'd kill to see you in that. That's a great role - thirteen songs!
RE: Oh, yeah. I loved it. It's a great piece. All of Bill's stuff - I just love it. You know, he's an iconoclast. He just, kind of, goes there - wherever his mind takes him. Then, he writes it down. He doesn't try to be anyone else or sound like anyone else.
PC: Speaking of mavericks: have you ever done a Michael John LaChiusa show?
RE: I haven't. I saw his WILD PARTY in New York, and I saw it three times.
PC: That's actually my favorite show of all time - no kidding.
RE: I've auditioned for his stuff in New York. I auditioned for that production and I didn't get it. It was one of those shows that I didn't get. But, it always stayed with me. I saw that show three times and I just could not get over it I loved it so much.
PC: Toni Collette was incredible in that show.
RE: Toni Collette was mind-blowingly great, but Tonya Pinkins - Jesus!
PC: What role did you audition for? Jackie?
RE: No, I auditioned for Black, actually. (Pause.) No comment. (Laughs.)
PC: No comment, either! (Laughs.) You would have been so much better!
RE: I remember that I didn't get it and I remember standing in front of the theater after having seen the show for the first time - and there was Michael John. I mean, he didn't know me - I had just auditioned for him, basically. So, he walked up to me and we talked. He said, "You're gonna be huge. I'm so sorry we weren't able to use you in this - I wish we could have." At the time, I was having a hard time because I was auditioning and auditioning and everybody was telling me how great I was - but I wasn't getting hired. So, to hear that from him and to see that all those months later he still remembered me and hoped to work with me someday: that meant a lot. It was one of those pats on the back that just kind of gave me that little bit of extra strength to get through that hard period time where nobody knows you and you are going in for auditions and people say you are good but they don't give you an opportunity.
PC: You've had that happen? What a shame.
RE: (Big Laugh.) Every actor has that happen!
PC: What's the audition story where you just went in there and nailed it?
RE: Audition story where I just went in and nailed it? (Sighs.) It was probably my first show at Steppenwolf - it was SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5. I went in and did this wild, sort of Dennis Hopper take on the role - and I wanted to work at that theatre more than life itself - and they offered it to me right there on the spot. That was pretty incredible for a first time.
PC: From the beginning, to the most recent: tell me about your recent TV roles. I just saw you on MEDIUM a few weeks ago.
RE: Oh, yeah. With TV... I mean we did PUSHING DAISIES all that time ago. There's a lot of stuff that's up in the air with all that right now. I've been doing a little bit more television stuff and auditioning for more film things, so we'll see what direction that stuff goes in - but, my heart is here. My heart is in New York and my heart is in the theatre. So, I always want to be able hold both things in place. But, I have some fantasy that I will be able to have the kind of career like Laura Linney has, where you do a little bit of everything.
PC: They just put up a behind-the-scenes video on YouTube of you in a new movie called GWB.
RE: Yeah, that's a new movie that we did at the beginning of the summer. It's an independent. We'll see what happens with that. Also, I was up at the Sundance Lab this summer with a different film project - that was a hell of a lot of fun. So, I think I'm going to start - little by little, I'm going to end up doing more. I really like it. It's a fun way to work and it's a very challenging way to work. So, I'm sure I'll be doing more.
PC: We can't wait!
RE: I'm such a theatre animal that whenever a good part calls to me on the stage, I kind of throw everything else away... (Chuckles.) just to run for the stage piece! (Laughs.)
PC: You can't deny your first love.
RE: There's just nothing like being able to do something in front of an audience every night.
PC: And, you bring a naturalism to musical theatre very few actors can achieve. That was intentional, I am sure - coming from Steppenwolf and straight plays.
RE: Yes. I wanted very much to do that. To me, the definition of good acting is acting that you don't notice. It's just someone who is being up there - listening the way we listen and behaving the way we behave. You know it when you see it. When you don't, you just say, "OK," and you make excuses for it. That feeling that you get when you see a show and wishing you could run up and join them - that's how I know a show is good. I feel the same way about a good performance. (Pause.) I always ask myself, in terms of a musical, "Even though I'm singing, even though this is a song: is this how a person behaves? Is this the way a human being behaves? Do I believe it? Do I believe this is what we do?" And, I think, a lot of times it's easy to disconnect the singing from the acting.
PC: Particularly with a powerhouse voice like yours.
RE: It becomes about taking the song out to the house, or to forget that you are still expressing something. It's easier when you are doing one of Sondheim's pieces, because each song is basically a play and each musical of his feels more like doing a play than it does doing a musical.
PC: Like ASSASSINS.
RE: Other shows - say, a show like TABOO - the same holds true if you apply the same principles to it. No matter how outrageous this guy is, if it's true and it's how someone behaves: it feels real. So, there's a little bit of the part of just trying to stay honest to human behavior. I think that there is a generation of people who are tying to do that. It's not just me.
PC: Totally. Who, in particular do you see that quality in?
RE: It's one of the things I see in Donna [Murphy]. It's one of the things I see in Norbert Leo Butz. It's one of the things I see in Alice in NEXT TO NORMAL.
PC: The most similar, I'd say.
RE: Yeah, there really is a group of us, who - and I am very proud to be a part of them - are trying to bring this kind of naturalism to musical theatre acting to break down the sense of divide between the two forms.
PC: You're doing it.
RE: And, then, there is the little extra something - I think you take that back to the film or the TV thing or the play you are doing - I call it "the Liza Minnelli thing".
PC: How absolutely perfect! Star!
RE: Yeah, yeah. It's where you just kind of take the stage. You make that theatrical gesture and you go for it. You go for the back wall and you give 'em your soul - not the whole performance, but somewhere in there. There is some gesture; some choice; some moment - that is as big as big can be and transcends any kind of naturalism and is totally theatrical and is imbued - like with her - with that crazy, superstar love of performing. We are often encouraged not to go there - but I just love that kind of performance! (Big Laugh.)
PC: So do I! And you give ‘em!
RE: You know. You know.
PC: You go there.
RE: You try to find just one or two moments where you can throw that kind of thing in. Nobody else needs to pick up on it - you just give it everything you've got. And, it's a tribute just to how... f*cking... great it is to be alive and how huge this whole experience can be - to be on a stage with an audience and you can take everybody in with you on it. It's just that little extra something where you have to show off just a little bit.
Coming up: Part III and LEAP OF FAITH news just in time for Christmas Eve! Stay tuned!
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos