This interview originally appeared on TDF.org on Nov 15, 2018
Raúl Esparza Returns to His Stage Roots
The lauded actor leads Classic Stage Company's revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Raúl Esparza's vibrant and diverse characterizations have earned him four Tony nominations in both musicals (Company, Taboo) and dramas (Speed-the-Plow, The Homecoming), while his Off-Broadway work runs the gamut from Jonathan Larson to Shakespeare. A six-year stint playing assistant district attorney Rafael Barba on TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit kept him off the boards, but now he's back as the title character in Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Classic Stage Company. A ruthless, Richard III-style, '30s Chicago gangster obsessed with controlling the cauliflower trade, Ui is the dramatist's stand-in for Hitler in this satirical allegory about Nazi Germany -- though audiences will inevitably think about contemporary world leaders, too. (It's no coincidence that during the last presidential election, there were three revivals of the play running simultaneously in NYC!) Esparza chatted with TDF Stages about reuniting with his Company director John Doyle, how his musical theatre background came in handy with Brecht and why he's definitely not playing Trump.
Frank Rizzo: After the show, I overheard you telling some students about how you first encountered Brecht's plays when you were at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
Raúl Esparza: Brecht was one of those theoretical writers we were exposed to, but he didn't really appeal to me. My response at the time was, 'Oh, this is very cold theatre, very clever theatre.' I wanted to be an actor that swept you away, and I thought Brecht was often swallowed by the theory and the concepts that he introduced at the cost of audience engagement. Also, I was coming from a very specific political background, my family being Cuban immigrants. Growing up in Miami, there was nothing worse than communism, so the concepts of socialism and communism to me felt a little Pollyanna. Since then I've drunk the Kool-Aid, and I can't get over how many layers this play works on and how many colors it can encompass.
Rizzo: You haven't been on a New York stage in three years. Why did you decide to return in this role?
Esparza: Because it has something to say that, unfortunately, always seems to resonate in the world. Secondly, it was to work with John again. The play itself was maybe the third consideration.
Rizzo: How did you find your way into the role, given your earlier feelings about Brecht?
Esparza: That's tied up in the way John works. He lets you figure things out in the rehearsal room. He eases our way by doing scenes over and over and over again. It's almost rote repetition. You're not making decisions, you're not trying to achieve a result. You're just saying the lines again and again and again and that leads to a slow discovery of unexpected things. With John it's a process of eliminating, keeping what is most useful. You start really big and then find yourself pulling it in more and more and more until you find the one version that has the echoes of the other stuff you've played with.
John and I also looked at Francis Bacon's paintings, those tripped-out, screaming faces. There's something so essential about those images, and horrifying at the same time. What John is aiming for is, how do we find that? What is the gesture, what is that one thing that will make an audience go [Esparza lets out a strangled yell]? It doesn't sound like the most fun night in the theatre, but I think it's kind of thrilling.
Rizzo: Did you turn to any particular political figures for inspiration?
Esparza: I didn't go home and watch footage of Hitler or Trump or read about the Nazis. Sure, there's a way you can go with this play where it's all Trump Trump Trump Trump. But that seemed to me to be the wrong approach to take because it insults the audience's intelligence. People who are coming to this play know what they're in for. I don't think you casually go to see Brecht at CSC. What the play does assume is that the audience is very smart and will pick up the parallels without the cast having to hammer that in. Actually, the most useful thing I did to prepare for this was watch '30s gangster films, namely Public Enemy and Scarface, films Brecht would have seen and that he was riffing on. I can bring in lots of things and John will edit them and I trust him. Creating the big, bold Brechtian strokes is not my issue. It's the play's issue and it's John's. His goal is to present Brecht's vision as simply and as clearly as possible.
Rizzo: What has surprised you about the role?
Esparza: He's turned out to be a very different character than I thought. There's a vulnerability to him that fascinates me and that I didn't expect. The image that comes into my mind instead of Hitler is that of a stray dog that has been hit so much that he will love anyone who gives him kindness. But it becomes perverse and veers into a terrible place because he's fundamentally damaged and ferociously rabid.
Rizzo: Doyle's set design is minimalist yet powerful.
Esparza: John knew he wanted to have something that seemed like a detention center, like things we were seeing in the news where these [undocumented immigrant] families were being kept. He knew he wanted that wall, that fence that acts as a cage that separates the actors from the space and vice versa.
Rizzo: Do you think your experience in musicals came in handy when tackling Brecht?
Esparza: I think musical theatre performers have a leg up on the verse. We're not afraid of heightened language, how to speak on the line, how to breathe with the line. We know how to let rhythm take care of us and we can use one big breath to get one big idea across. Some of the most exciting people doing classical theatre tend to be people who can do musicals.
Rizzo: Many of your roles are in works that might be considered Brechtian in terms of their presentational style: Bobby in Company, Che in Evita, the Emcee in Cabaret.
Esparza: Company was a very Brechtian production. Hal [Prince], Steve [Sondheim] and George [Furth] created something very strange for a musical, something iconoclastic. The characters don't address the audience but the play is constantly breaking and commenting on itself. Evita was über Brecht and so was Hal's staging with light curtains, negative images, coffins, banners and the audience fully seeing the machinery of theatre.
Rizzo: You've also done Mamet. Does that help with Brecht? Though Mamet's characters are naturalistic there's something heightened about them, too.
Esparza: It's an interesting comparison. I did think a lot about Speed-the-Plow for this. David's writing is bravura, it's like jazz and you're riffing with the other actors and it's about speed and the rush of language. And here there's a very similar pacing and a ferocious level of language.
Rizzo: But in the end, it's about the ideas of the play, no?
Esparza: I think Brecht wants to make an audience think deeply -- and be a little disturbed.
This interview originally appeared on TheaterMania on July 25, 2018
Raúl Esparza, Adam Gwon, and Lisa Peterson Ride The Waves
With a score by David Bucknam, this musical, based on a Virginia Woolf novel, resurfaces decades after it premiered.
Twenty-eight years ago, two young writers named David Bucknam and Lisa Peterson premiered The Waves, a musical inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel of the same title, at New York Theatre Workshop. It was a brief, warmly received run of 37 performances, and Bucknam earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for his work. He eventually got into teaching; Peterson went on to direct.
Bucknam took his own life at the age of 32 in 1998 under circumstances that Peterson still doesn't fully comprehend. But he left behind a legion of fans, friends, and students, two of whom are the composer-lyricist Adam Gwon, Bucknam's student at NYU, and the actor Raúl Esparza, his student at Playwrights Horizons. All three felt a certain amount of unfinished business, particularly when it came to The Waves, a musical that, for a time, only existed in memory, cassette tapes, and handwritten sheet music.
Now, this trio has revisited The Waves to give it the second life they knew it richly deserved. Currently running at New York Stage and Film and Vassar's Powerhouse Theater, it's being developed with Peterson directing, Gwon composing original music, and Esparza starring and providing creative consultation. It's a passion project for all involved.
Tell me the origin story of The Waves, both the original production and this one.
Lisa Peterson: I had read The Waves and thought it felt like a play. I did a 45-minute nonmusical adaptation of it as an intern at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York. I met David Bucknam and I cast him in that first version as Bernard, the part Raúl is playing now. David and I became best friends, and he said he wanted to make a musical out of it. At the time, I said it was a bad idea. I was being very strict with us. Everything the characters said had to be in Virginia Woolf's language.
He did it anyway, and Robert Moss, who was running the Hangar, heard a concert David gave and programmed it. That must have been 1984 or 1985. Jim Nicola, a friend of Robert Moss, had just taken over New York Theatre Workshop, and he said it and said, "let's do it in New York." It went very well and was received very enthusiastically by critics, but we never made a recording of it, and David and I kind of moved on from there.
I started directing a lot, and David started teaching a lot, and then he got mysteriously ill. To this day, I don't really know what happened, but it did affect him psychologically. He took his own life in 1998. After that, Jim Nicola and Raúl and I started talking occasionally about bringing it back to life. We did a reading in 2000 at New York Theatre Workshop and nothing came of that.
Raúl Esparza: I wasn't part of the 2000 reading, but we always came up with the same idea: How are we supposed to do it without David? I had never seen the piece, but I heard a lot of music from it and had tapes that David made through the years of various readings.
Last summer, there was a big event honoring André Bishop at Lincoln Center. Afterwards, at the dinner, Bob Moss sat next to me and said, "Bring back The Waves." I called Lisa. We said we have to treat it as though it's a new musical. It is opening up a can of worms to work on a musical when the composer's not around. And we're not interested in "reviving" it.
Lisa: It felt like it needed to be matured. Sidebar: Before Raúl and I started talking about it, Adam Gwon had asked me to direct a workshop of his musical String. That's when I learned about the David connection for you.
Adam Gwon: I was studying performance at [NYU's] Tisch [School of the Arts]. David was one of those magical teachers. I had never heard any of his music. We all knew he was a composer, but he was our musical-theater-acting teacher. At the end of that year, there was a memorial service for him that was a concert of his music. Raúl sang in it. They did two songs from The Waves. I was so inspired hearing his work that I started writing that summer. When Lisa invited me on board to bring it back, I jumped at it.
What is it like to come back to this piece and be confronted by the ghosts of your past, sort of like in the story itself?
Lisa: When a song that's great that he wrote comes back to life in front of you, I can feel David in the room. I get flooded with emotions sometimes. But then, on the other hand, I feel like Adam is weaving using the thread that David spun. It's incredible to me to watch it both come back to life and have the ability to change it.
Adam: There is a strange sense, in both a joyful and macabre way, of communing with the dead working on this piece. Exhuming this old music literally from basements and boxes, and trying to refasten it into something that is new and breathing, has been really thrilling, even if it's sort of eerie sometimes.
One of the exciting things we discovered is the timelessness, not only of the Virginia Woolf stuff, but of the music that David wrote. It does have the power to move people and connect to people today, and needs to be heard. We approached this from the beginning as one big experiment, and the takeaway is that it does speak to people.
Raúl: You can actually hear the audience crying from the stage. I haven't done a lot of shows where that happens, where something really true is being put in front of an audience and they recognize themselves.
What I think is most extraordinary about it is the way that the Virginia Woolf material resonates everywhere. She had a way of naming things that seem unnamable, the things that you didn't think could be articulated about life, whether it's girls at a dance figuring out who they're going to be after they graduate from school, or a man coming to terms with the fact that he's not going to be all the things he thought he would be now that he's in his mid-40s.
There's the extra emotional weight of recognizing that I'm helping put David's voice out there, which felt like unfinished business to me. He put together an audition book for all of his students. In the back of that book, I had one song from The Waves, "Byron," that I never sang but always kept, always wondering if one day I would do it in a concert or sing it at an audition. And Sunday, during the performance, I became quite emotional, because there I was, singing that song in front of an audience. It really hit me.
This interview originally appeared on WAMC.com on July 18, 2018
Raúl Esparza On The Waves And Why He's Ready To Create New Work
Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s second Main Stage Powerhouse production this summer is “The Waves,” a musical adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf. The piece, which features a book by Lisa Peterson and music and lyrics by the late Davick Bucknam, was produced nearly 30 years ago in New York City. The version running at Vassar July 19-29 is directed by Peterson, features additional music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, and employs four time Tony Award nominee Raúl Esparza as creative consultant and actor.
Esparza’s Broadway credits include “Cabaret,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Taboo,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Company,” “The Homecoming,” “Speed the Plow,” “Arcadia,” and “Leap of Faith.” Television credits include “Pushing Daisies,” “Hannibal,” “The Path,” “BoJack Horseman,” and he recently finished a six-season run as ADA Rafael Barba on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Esparza joins us to talk about his work.
This interview first appeared on Playbill.com on July 17, 2018
How Raúl Esparza Wound Up Leading the Cast of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves Onstage
It may have taken 30 years and some star power, but Woolf’s famed novel hits the stage as a musical.
Thirty years ago, writer Lisa Peterson teamed up with composer-lyricist David Bucknam to adapt one of Peterson’s favorite novels: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. “The language is gorgeous and probably one of the most fantastic descriptions of the experience of life that I’ve ever read,” Peterson gushes. (She’s not the only one who feels that way; in a 2015 poll by the BBC the novel was voted the 16th greatest British novel ever written.)
The Waves follows the lives of six friends as they grow up together, lose sight of each other, and find their way back to their childhood friendships. “The novel starts with first experiences—literally days-old experiences—of these six characters, but it follows them up into their middle age,” which is the focus of this adaptation, which is this year’s solo Mainstage musical playing Vassar College & New York Film and Stage’s Powerhouse Theatre and begins July 19.
Coincidentally, the process of writing The Waves mirrors its story: Peterson and Bucknam bonded over their love for this book and setting it to music, but then Bucknam passed away. Peterson shelved the project, but harbored a desire for people to hear Bucknam’s score. “There’s no recording of it, so we began this process thinking we were just preserving something,” she says. Recently, she found a way to come back to it and, through her collaborators, Bucknam’s creative sensibility.
She brought on Adam Gwon, a composer-lyricist and former student of Bucknam’s at NYU, to write additional music and lyrics. “He was the first person who told me that I should be a composer, that that was where my voice lived,” says Gwon. Then she recruited Tony nominee Raúl Esparza, another student of Bucknam’s as a creative consultant and one of the six friends. (He’s joined by all-star castmates Ken Barnett, Eleasha Gamble, Douglas Lyons, Tony winner Alice Ripley, and Tony nominee Lauren Worsham.)
“He reminds me a lot of David,” says Peterson of Esparza. “He has a similar kind of fast mind, but he’s injecting—as Adam is—a new perspective into it for me.”
But some elements remain the same, specifically Woolf’s voice in the piece. Because Woolf’s prose captured Peterson in the first place, she prioritized the preservation of the original words wherever she could.
“People will hear her language spoken and sung,” says Peterson, who also directs the project.
“Each of the six characters capture one part of Virginia Woolf’s personality,” says Gwon, “and they’re six very different friends, but when you look at them together, somehow they capture something about the human experience because they all go through these iconic, spiritual journeys.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Here you'll find all the up-to-date news about Raúl and his projects.