An actor grows up with his character

Times Staff Writer

Raul Esparza was born in 1970, the year Stephen Sondheim's seminal musical "Company" opened on Broadway. Penned by George Furth, directed by Hal Prince and featuring the choreography of Michael Bennett, the original production knocked the theater world for a loop with its sophisticated, adult and honest portrayal of a 35-year-old bachelor named Bobby and his five married friends and three girlfriends. It took home several Tony Awards, including best musical.

The latest revival of "Company," which opened on Broadway in the fall of 2006 and concluded last summer, won the Tony for best revival. And Esparza, a Cuban American, received his second nomination for his open, charming and frank performance as Bobby. Though the original production featured Bennett's innovative, sexy dance numbers, director John Doyle simplified the set and the action. There is no orchestra pit; each performer doubles as an orchestra member on stage; Esparza only gets to play the piano in his final number, the haunting "Being Alive."

"I learned more about myself as a person and an actor from that experience than I have in anything else" the affable actor says over the phone from New York, where he's appearing on Broadway in the revival of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming."

"You can't help but always cherish the experience of doing a Sondheim musical because you laugh your ass off and live in the most beautiful place emotionally."

The day before the show closed, the cast performed "Company" twice in front of an audience and 10 high-definition cameras placed throughout the Ethel Barrymore Theatre for PBS' "Great Performances." The production airs this evening on KCET.

Though the character is often portrayed and described as unlikable, Esparza conveys the appeal as well as the pain and desperation of Bobby.

"If you look at the real action of the evening," Esparza explains, "Bobby is a guy who comes home from work on his birthday, drinks himself into a stupor for how many hours and then leaves. He has a breakdown. It's been coming for years. We don't know really when the things he's remembering in the play took place. The birthday party [in the show] isn't real. It's totally imagined by him. The one he doesn't show up to [at the end] is real."

Though it's been argued for years that Bobby is actually gay, Esparza is adamant that the character is straight. "He may have played around. . . . But if you make him a gay guy, you have reduced the show to a crisis of sexual identity, and it's not about that. It's about learning to accept yourself and the things you can't change about yourself because that is the beginning of being an adult."

And "Company" also made Esparza go through a lot of soul searching and growing up. Before the show's opening, he admitted in a New York Times interview that not only was he estranged from his wife of 13 years, but he was also bisexual.

"When you are doing a play about someone taking a long, hard look at themselves at the age of 35, and there I was turning 36 when the show came to Broadway, there was no way not to take that on in my own life and try to figure out who I wanted to be. It is not like it was anything I necessarily planned, but the show and the emotions in the show influence your life."

Undoubtedly, Esparza's most emotional moment is "Being Alive," which he delivers with a sense of purity and pain. He says it wasn't hard to get into that moment eight performances a week.

"It's easy because the writing is so good and it's so perfectly charted," Esparza says. "You don't have to do very much. One of the great things about acting in 'Company' is that it taught me that . . . it's really about the other actors. There is nothing I can do as an actor in any play I am in that's going to be as interesting as responding to the other guy. That's the great secret. Just simply be there and what you are given in that moment. The only way I could get to 'Being Alive' was by letting everybody else do their job and responding to them. "

By the time he moved to the piano to begin playing, Esparza says, he was in a zone, "and your hands go and your back gets into it and you start to tear into it. The emotions come because it's physical. It's not in your head. And then those chords -- Steve's chords -- his harmonic structure is so aching, the passing tones that suggest the possibility of a sound being complete, and yet it sort of lingers. It made it very easy to find that emotion."

"Company" marked the third time Esparza had appeared in a Sondheim musical -- he did "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Sunday in the Park With George." And the composer spent a lot of time at the "Company" rehearsals.

"It's extraordinary to have him around," Esparza says. "You learn more about acting and how to perform in musicals than you do in any sort of college course you could ever take. And you learn to be pretty damned humble. I once cracked that performing for him was like performing for a dragon because you are waiting for him to descend upon you. But he doesn't. What he does is demand that you can be as good as you think you can be. Every time I have worked with him I have come out a better actor."


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World