Several media outlets have now published their reviews of Chess at the Kennedy Center and, unsurprisingly, Raul gets high praise.
"Raúl Esparza, is back in musical-theatre-land and the gods rejoice. He brings a layered sensitivity to the tempestuous Trumper... “Pity the Child #3” is a heartbreaking and captivating portrait of a man on the brink. His rock tenor is unparalleled."
Esparza, scaling up into the peak of his register, rocks out blazingly...
Esparza [is] passionately driven in [his] approach to the character, delivering raw, unadulterated emotional expression in [his] various solos. [He] annihilates “Pity The Child #3”, his featured solo in the third act, where the world unwinds from within his soul.
Raul Esparza was born to play the brash, maverick of an American chess grandmaster Freddie Trumper. [He] conveys Freddie’s devil-may-care, f***-the-Russians attitude with ease; his supple rock-tenor singing style is also the prime vehicle for songs such as “Pity the Child” (which is now woven throughout his arc) and the sexy production number “One Night in Bangkok.
There are however a couple of issues that seem to be recurring. One is the balance of sound between the orchestra and performers – the higher tenor notes are sometimes drowned out by the instruments. This may just be a product of where and how the concert has been staged. We’re sure, if it transfers to Broadway, this will be an issue that is easy to iron out.
The other issue is with the story. This is a problem that has afflicted Chess since it’s very inception. The score is phenomenal, the casts have been amazing, but the story – a mixture of chess and politics set during the cold war - is viewed as boring by some and convoluted and complicated by others.
The new book by Danny Strong has addressed some of this. The expanded role of the Arbiter as a narrator, adding exposition does help to keep track of what is going on and explain some of the complexities. And sprinkled throughout are some sharp one-liners that have the audience laughing away.
Given that it hasn’t had been staged on Broadway in 30 years and the stellar cast who are signed on, it seems likely that Chess may have a Broadway transfer in it’s future. Should the cast wish to/are able to stay on that is - Ruthie Ann Miles is currently 6 months pregnant and others in the company may have commitments that can’t be re-arranged.
Whatever happens, we have our fingers crossed that Raul will find his way back onto the stage on Broadway somehow - a place he clearly adores and where he feels at home.
Did you see the show? Let us know what you thought in the comments.
In honor of Raúl leaving SVU, NBC have released a throwback deleted scene from season 18.
The long-awaited scene was originally supposed to air in the episode, 'Genes' (S18E13) but had to be deleted when the episodes were reshuffled as it shows Benson bringing Barba candy to celebrate his return from suspension - a suspension which hadn't yet occurred in the reshuffled timeline.
You can see more videos of Raúl in SVU our dedicated SVU Video Archive
This interview first appeared on Playbill.com on Feb 16, 2018
Raúl Esparza on Starring in ‘Rock Concert’ Chess at Kennedy Center
The Company and Law & Order: SVU star returns to the musical stage for the first time in six years for the new adaptation of the cult favorite, running through February 18.
Four-time Tony Award nominee (one for every acting category) Raúl Esparza (Company) hasn’t been on Broadway since Leap of Faith in 2012—but he’s kept busy in the interim, starring on Law & Order: SVU since 2012.
But now Esparza has left SVU and is currently in Washington, D.C., starring in a new, semi-staged adaptation of cult favorite Chess at the Kennedy Center, which began performances February 14. Written by Tim Rice and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the “BB” of ABBA), Chess is about—of all unlikely subjects—the game of chess and the Cold War. Even if you aren’t familiar with the show, you still probably know a few of its songs,be it “I Know Him So Well,” “Anthem,” or “One Night in Bangkok.”
Esparza takes on the role of American world chess champion Freddy Trumpet, battling it out with his second, Florence (Tony winner Karen Olivo), while his Russian opponent Anatoly Sergievsky (Ramin Karimloo) and Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (Ruthie Ann Miles) fall into a love triangle with Florence while Freddy barely notices. Danny Strong has freshly adapted the book and Michael Mayer directs. With performances scheduled through February 18, we checked in with Esparza about his return to the musical stage in a show that he has known since high school and that he first saw in its original production in London.
On becoming involved with the latest Chess revision.
“This came up last summer. We’ve done a couple of readings and I was asked to come in and take a look at it. At the first reading we worked on it for a while and it was pretty thrilling, and we did it again and Tim Rice came, and now we’re here. We have no expectations about [its future], we just started working on it.”
On working with Danny Strong.
“We all made suggestions, it’s been a very collaborative process. This cast is very smart. And even now when we put this concert together, we spent the last two weeks of rehearsal in New York with everybody in a group talking about what we sort of need and what’s unclear. But Danny’s essentially writing a book, and writing a book for a musical is one of the hardest things in this business. His enthusiasm has been really thrilling, and he’s been really open to making changes about where songs should go, what suits this particular actor, where this song should go, what helps for clarity. And we’ve all been able to contribute here and there. You’re working within a framework of a show that already exists in many versions. It’s such a great score that it can lend itself to a lot of movement, and I think people want very much for it to have a life that is rich and strong. It has a devoted following in terms of the score. But it’s a dangerous prospect, going around thinking you can fix musicals. You have to be very conscious of the time you’re in and how the world changes and I think musicals are of their time.”
On how a musical about the Cold War plays in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
“We are finding this one is resonating very, very powerfully here right now. Danny’s done a great thing. He’s really placed it in the Cold War politics, and he’s created a real Cold War history musical. That sounds dry, but it’s not! So the chess and the politics are mashed up together into this arms race that dominated the 1980s, but it’s kind of vibrating on another level relating to our political life right now. And that’s great, and you just let it play.”
On audience reaction to a cult favorite coming to life again.
“It’s been electric. It’s been extraordinary. We’re having a ball—it's like a rock concert and it’s such a first-rate cast. I’ve never worked with Ramin before, but he’s a massive talent. And Karen and I have never worked [together] onstage before. But what’s blown me away is what the ensemble has accomplished in two weeks. You do these staged concerts and they slowly morph into almost-productions, and there is some choreography that is just breathtaking. Having been away from musicals for six years, it’s been, in a corny way, very moving to watch so much excellence every day from this company of dancers and actors. Really moving to me to see people work right to the edge of their limits. We do a lot of great things on camera, but that sense of human achievement, pushing yourself towards excellence, only comes from what live performance requires. And this is a lot of fun to do. At the sitzprobe, everyone was head banging. There was a lot of crazy joy at the sitzprobe.”
On his favorite song to sing in Chess.
“It’d have to be ‘Pity the Child,’ for me. It’s really turned out to be a real, amazing monologue with real depth and emotion and pain to it. And it surprised the hell out of me. There’s one side of the score that’s about the fun of singing it, but the other side is living inside of it and there’s all this ache. And then I get to hear those guys do the beautiful lush, romantic ballads. Hearing Ruthie and Karen sing ‘I Know Him So Well’ is a highlight for me every night.”
Last night saw the opening performance of Chess at The Kennedy Center.
Written in 1984 by songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (ABBA) and lyricist Tim Rice, Chess is an epic rock opera about love and political intrigue set against the backdrop of the Cold War as two superpowers attempt to manipulate an international chess championship for political ends.
Raúl plays American chess champion Freddie Trumper; opposite Ramin Karimloo as rival Russian chess star Anatoly Sergievsky; Ruthie Ann Miles stars as Anatoly's wife, Svetlana Sergievsky; and Karen Olivo (who appeared alongside Raúl in an episode of SVU) plays Florence Vassy, a remarkable Hungarian refugee who becomes the center of the emotional triangle.
Photos ©Teresa Wood/Broadway.com
You can see more photos of Chess (including rehearsal images) in our dedicated gallery.
Chess will be performed Wednesday, February 14 through Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 8 p.m. with matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 17 and Sunday, February 18. Please check at the box office for last minute ticket availability.
This interview originally appeared in Metro Weekly on Feb 14, 2018
Raúl Esparza on bringing back “Chess” and Trump’s hostility to immigrants
Broadway star Raúl Esparza heads up an all new production of the fabled musical 'Chess' at the Kennedy Center
Raúl Esparza was in high school, on a trip to London, when he first saw Chess.
"It was the original production. I know Elaine Paige was in it and I believe
It’s no secret that the musical, which revolves around a chess competition set during the height of the Cold War, had its share of issues, particularly with a messy, troubled book (the original 1988 Broadway production closed after just 68 performances). Still, with its melodically vibrant score by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and lyrics by Tim Rice, Chess became the stuff of musical theater lore. Theater professionals have been trying to fix it ever since.
Maybe this time will be the charm, as it’s being revived for a seven-performance-only run as part of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage. It features an entirely new book by Danny Strong (Empire, The Butler), direction from Tony Award-winner Michael Meyer (Spring Awakening), and stars Tony-winners Karen Olivo (West Side Story) and Ruthie Ann Miles (The King and I), and Esparza, who, in the starring role of the American Grandmaster, inherits the evening’s showstopper “One Night in Bangkok.”
Esparza feels that performing the politically-charged musical in D.C. will resonate on a higher level.
"Given the climate of the world right now, D.C. is the epicenter of a
A child of Cuban immigrants and raised in Miami, Esparza takes a particularly bleak view of the current administration’s flagrantly hostile attitude toward immigrants. His tone increasingly agitated, he says:
I think it’s worse than loathsome. They’re missing fundamentally what the concept of America is. This is a country founded on the idea that we can become anybody we want to be, no matter where we come from, no matter what class we’re from, no matter what social station we’re from, no matter how much money we have.
Chess plays through Sunday, Feb 18 in the Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $69 to $199. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
NBC have released a deleted scene from Raul's final episode of SVU. The scene, entitled 'Who's a Clown?' shows Benson and Barba debating the merits of his defense attorney.
You can see more videos (including episode highlights and deleted scenes) on our dedicated SVU Season 19 Videos page.
This interview originally appeared in the Fairfax County Times on Feb, 9.
Broadway veteran plays key piece in Kennedy Center’s “Chess”
Raúl Esparza is known to Broadway lovers for playing diverse roles in “tick, tick... BOOM!,” “Taboo,” “Company” and “The Rocky Horror Show” and for his latest theatrical run, he’ll be appearing in the Kennedy Center’s take on the 1980s Cold War musical, “Chess,” playing an American chess champion named Freddie. Esparza said:
Chess’ is a very big show; giant orchestral sounds mixed with rock n’ roll, kind of following on the heels of what Andrew Llyod Webber and Tim Rice created with ‘Evita’ and ‘Superstar,’ but thinking in a very modern way about global politics. The score itself has some of the most beautiful music ever written for a musical. It’s a show a lot of people have a lot of fondness for and people get excited whenever I mention it.”
“Chess” debuted in 1984 as a concept album with music by the Swedish music group ABBA--Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice--and though popular on the London stage, it never left much of a mark on Broadway, playing only 68 performances.
The complex rock opera has been re-imagined with a new book by Emmy Award–winning writer Danny Strong and directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer, and will play a semi-staged concert at the Eisenhower Theater on Valentine’s Day through Feb. 18.
"It’s a new version of the story and we have a pretty sizable orchestra, and there is a first-rate set. There will definitely be some staging, dancing and projections to introduce the theatrical elements we can to a concert."
The pawns in the show form a love triangle: the loutish American chess star, the earnest Russian champion, and the assistant who is torn between them. Ramin Karimloo plays the Russian and Tony winner, Karen Olivo plays the woman caught between the two men and their moves. Ruthie Ann Miles, another Tony winner, also stars.
Mayer actually served as Esparza’s acting teacher in college, and he said it’s exciting to work with him again after all these years.
“It feels like coming full-circle. It’s been really exciting to give this show some life.”
Esparza’s association with “Chess” goes back to when he was 15 - he vividly recalls listening to the soundtrack for both this and “Evita” all summer long with his girlfriend at the time.
“I’m a Cuban kid from Miami and I had seen some musicals in the Bay Area, where I was living, but I had never been exposed to cast albums like this; I didn’t come from that kind of house. The two shows we saw were ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘A Little Night Music,’ and it’s funny that these four shows have been seminal touchstones for my life in the theater, because I’ve worked with variations of every artist who created these shows.”
He also has a recording of singing the “Chess” ballad “You and I” with that same girlfriend at a high school talent show in 1986. And Esparza has a cassette tape of the music, which he used for auditions when he was first starting out in the business.
“It’s one of my favorite musicals from the 80s. I saw it in London when I was in high school and I have vivid memories of the sets because it was the most beautiful creation of a mountainside that I ever saw on stage. I don’t remember a lot about the show, but I remember the album very clearly.”
Outside of the theater world, Esparza has played Rafael on “Law & Order, SVU” since 2012, appearing in 116 episodes of the series to date. That has kept him pretty busy and away from Broadway of late. That’s why he’s thankful that this concert staging at the Kennedy Center has come about.
“It’s hard to commit to long runs of theater when you’re doing television work. I haven’t done a musical in six seasons now, so it’s really a happy thing to be walking into a rehearsal hall and doing a show that I am so in love with. The teenager in me is still giddy.”
Sadly, Wednesday night saw the end of Raúl's stint on Law and Order: SVU. In the hours and days since, some of his co-stars and other members of the production team have taken to social media to express their thoughts and emotions...
It has truly been an honor writing for Raúl. The power, sensitivity and morality he brought to the character of Rafael Barba never failed to elevate our scripts. Raúl is family and we look forward to seeing his talent shine in new projects. As for Barba, SVU fans may see him again soon.
It was something that many fans had predicted and feared in equal measure over the past few weeks.
But it’s now confirmed.
Raúl has left his role on NBC drama, Law and Order: SVU.
Raúl played ADA Rafael Barba since series 14, first appearing in what was supposed to be a guest slot. However, his performance and chemistry with co-star Mariska Hargitay led to him become a recurring guest star and then series regular from series 15.
Raúl posted this tweeted once the episode had aired:
He had a fantastic send off – a emotionally charged, Barba-centric episode which provided Raúl with the opportunity to act his socks off and get his teeth into some meaty scenes.
Of course there is sadness; the character of Barba was well loved and having the chance to see Raúl perform in our homes every week was a joy. But, we are comforted by the fact that it was Raúl’s choice to leave. Having played Barba for six years, he felt “it was time to move on”. We thank him for the wonderful years we got to share with him on SVU and wish him all the best for his future projects. The first of which is the limited run of ‘Chess’ at the Kennedy Center which opens next week.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, the door has been left open for Barba to return and several cast members and members of the production team have suggested this may be a possibility, including Raúl himself in his EW interview which we have transcribed below:
Was it your decision to leave the series?
Why did you decide to leave now?
I’ve done six seasons, I felt like it was time to go. I had explored a lot of what I thought Barba was about. I just felt it was time to move on. I was also feeling like the role has changed over the years in a way that has been an interesting experience for me. Again, I’m a theater guy, so it’s like having a script in front of you that keeps changing every time you go to do it. The learning process of how roles grow over a period of time with a series has been kind of fascinating, and I just felt I had reached the end of what I wanted to explore where they were writing.
You were also close with former SVU showrunner Warren Leight, who exited a few seasons back. Was that a factor in your decision to leave?
Yeah, I think that’s pretty much understood. [Laughs]
Were you surprised by the way in which Barba exited the series?
Yeah, it wasn’t really a way that I figured that he would go out. But I do have to say that when we worked on the script, it was pretty extraordinary. I don’t watch myself, so I haven’t seen the episode, but putting it together was a really great experience. It’s one of those things that you just learn as you go, what a script really is, and it was a surprising one. I think that [current showrunner] Michael Chernuchin has done some really beautiful writing for Barba this season, in a way that’s like a really beautiful gift that got handed to me. Because I had decided to leave at the beginning of the season, before he came in, and then they hand me this beautiful gift with some really gorgeous writing from a new showrunner, who has really taken care of me this year. And this particular script was something very dear to him. As we began to do it I started to find that it was challenging, and emotional, and surprising, and not at all what I expected from having just read it on the page.
Were there alternate ways in which Barba could leave, like him dying?
I’ll say that the one thing we talked about is he absolutely doesn’t need to die, because it’s not like I’m leaving on bad terms. I think that Barba’s become a part of the SVU family, and I think there’s a life for him — I don’t know necessarily, but it’s possible that there’s a life for him as the series goes on. I’m glad they left that door open.
Would you be interested in returning to SVU in the future?
Absolutely, because I’m really rooting for the opportunity to make television history with the series. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that’s part of what we all hope for, that NBC manages in the end to get a record-breaking series on its hands with potential 21 years. Also, this doesn’t always happen when you work with people, but I became friends with Mariska [Hargitay] and she’s part of my life now. I don’t just miss the role, I miss her, so any opportunity to get back into a room with her is valuable to me. Part of the reason I became Barba, and that it turned into the show that it did for me, was the way I hit it off with her and that was surprising. What was supposed to be a guest starring spot that Warren had written for me morphed into something very rich and surprising, and I really am not blowing smoke when I say it’s entirely because of the space that was created between me and Mariska. It’s chemistry — it happens or doesn’t, and it happened.
It almost seemed like there was a potential for romance between Barba and Benson. Did you ever think the show would go that route?
No, I didn’t, honestly, because they are both workaholics. I was never really interested in exploring his private life as much in terms of feeling like he’s a man who has given up on relationships in order to succeed. His ambition has driven him. Maybe that’s making an excuse for what they do or don’t write on shows like Law & Order, but Benson’s life is a much more complicated situation. I always thought it would remove a layer of excitement and friction and sexiness between us if we ever went in that direction. I really thought that would just state the obvious instead of letting it just simmer, which one of the rules of good television is keep them wanting — never have successful relationships and keep them wanting the one that you really wish would happen.
Is there anything you wish you got to do with Barba that you didn’t get a chance to?
Honestly, no. If the show had been a different kind of show, it’d be fun to spin into the political world of what the DAs office is all about, but that’s not really what Law & Order: SVU is about. When they do the Barba spin-off, maybe we can go in that direction, right? [Laughs] I think New York politics in the mayor’s office and with the district attorney’s office is fascinating, but that would be a different world. That’s the only thing we glanced at, but never really got into it. Other than that, I feel like Barba turned out to be both a showman and someone who slowly reined in his ambition to become a truly top-notch prosecutor. His intelligence was ferocious, his turn-of-phrase, and the ways that Benson changed him were apparent to me season by season, and the ways that he changed her were also really alive for me. So that’s pretty rich stuff to get to play with.
What was it like having Sam Waterston and Philip Winchester come in for your final episode?
It was ridiculous. First of all, Philip is one of the coolest, nicest guys I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with and welcoming him to SVU-land was pretty wonderful. For years, long before I had anything to do with Law & Order, Sam Waterston’s performance as Jack McCoy is one of the great TV performances. I feel like it was a benchmark for me of excellence in what you could do in a procedural with material that didn’t reveal a great deal about a character except for what they did, and he revealed an entire life and an entire person for so many years. I think Sam’s a truly great actor, so he paid me an enormous compliment by coming in to see Barba off. It was a little bit of a passing of a baton, but also an opportunity for me to have what felt like a total career highlight. And I’m not making that up, it was thrilling that time I got to spend with him — for the admiration, for the role, and for him in it and just to have his presence there. Even though we are on the series, you still get a little bit starstruck when some of the main people from the first show, show up. You just do. It’s a little like, “Oh yeah, wow, because I’ve been watching you since I was whatever age.”
As you’re in the middle of rehearsals for Chess right now, was getting back into the world of Broadway a priority for you?
I mean, I miss it. There’s this amazing concert, we’re doing the musical Chess, which has not had a Broadway revival in 30 years, and so we’re looking at it and have been working on it. It’s just really a ferociously cool cast and we started reading it last summer, and we are going to do it at the Kennedy Center concert next week. So that’s what I’m doing and beyond that, I have no sense of what the Broadway world holds. It’s part of my career and of course I miss it, because I miss the relationship to the audience. I love being on stage, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that doing SVU and then doing Hannibal at the same time, and doing the kind of work that I’ve been doing for the last few years, hasn’t been a total amazing head rush. There is something to be missed of a live performance, but this is a whole new world that I am really thrilled to be a part of, and I don’t plan on leaving it. This season, I’m playing a professor on The Path for Hulu, and that was a fantastic arc to be part of and work with Michelle Monaghan, Aaron [Paul], and Hugh [Dancy], who I worked with on Hannibal. To go back and forth between that and SVU this year was thrilling, and also seeing the ways that television is being made, the differences between the ways that shows are made, and learning in every cast that I’m part of how the whole experience comes together. I still feel like a newbie at this.
I look back at some of my episodes when I first started: I’m not bad, I’m good, that’s great. But then I see stuff now and I’m like, holy sh—, I’ve learned so much about how to do this thing. The relationship with the camera, the camera can read your mind. There’s no audience in any theater that can do what a camera can do. Let’s not kid ourselves, on Broadway — well, maybe not right now, I mean with the way that social media has changed some of the things that happen on stage — but for the most part, you’re famous in a 10-block radius. What a television series does is put you in people’s homes all over the world. It just completely transforms how far your acting can go and who it reaches. I am most grateful for the opportunity of rounding out my career. It was a big theater career, and now I’ve been able to do these other projects. I mean, just last season — I was thinking about it before we started this interview — Bojack Horseman, Ferdinand, which I can’t believe they got nominated for an Oscar for that, and then the work on The Path and the work on SVU, and now working on a Broadway musical, it’s pretty thrilling.
Any dream shows you would want to appear on?
Right now, I’m kind of obsessing over The Crown. And who doesn’t want to be on Game of Thrones, honestly? But for years, my go-to was, “I just want to be a zombie on The Walking Dead.” [Laughs] Oh yeah, especially as soon as Danai [Gurira] joined, because Danai and I were in a film for Wes Craven many years ago, and as soon as she was on it, I was like, “Oh come on, I just wanna be there, just be like King Zombie, just one episode.” It’s hard to watch television when you’re making television. I’ve been catching up on some shows, and right now I’m currently obsessing about The Crown. I think it’s some of the best acting I’ve seen on TV. I’m like, “Huh, I wonder if there’s a role I can play there?”
With the opening of Chess just 9 days away, we have been treated to several preview videos from a press event, courtesy of Broadway.com and Playbill.
The videos show snippets of the songs, “The Deal", “Commie Newspapers” and “Endgame.”
The new staging will run February 14–18 at the Washington, D.C., theatre. Raúl will play American chess champion Freddie Trumper
Here you'll find all the up-to-date news about Raúl and his projects.