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.”
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