Raúl Esparza’s hopes for ‘Faith’
On a recent weekday afternoon, Raúl Esparza is in his dressing room at the Ahmanson Theatre showing a visitor two boxes of flaky goodies filled with guava, dulce de leche and shredded meat. His hands shake.
The actor of Cuban heritage has just discovered Porto’s, the well-known local bakery that sells empanadas and rellenitos.
A little later, he’s waxing rhapsodic about Virginia Woolf’s original manuscripts. “Her handwriting starts really small, but by the end, she’s writing in these big strokes,” he says, then quotes “The Waves,” miming an expansive scrawl: “‘Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!’”
To say that Esparza has conversational, much less theatrical, range is like calling the Everglades a bog. During the decade since he made his New York debut — on Broadway, no less — the four-time Tony nominee has played a struggling New York playwright, an incestuous evil sidekick, an androgynous Weimar-era showman and, in the current production of “Leap of Faith,” a rock-star evangelist huckster. He has done serious drama and pop musicals, Pinter, Sondheim and “The Rocky Horror Show.”
“The thing that is so exciting about him onstage is that he combines those smarts with incredible visceral and physical energy,” says Neil Pepe, the artistic director of New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, who directed Esparza in the 2008 revival of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.” “He has such fire and presence and specificity in his work. He has this intensity that is magnetic.”
That intensity is the saving grace, literally, of “Leap of Faith,” and in the closing days of the musical’s first theatrical run the 39-year-old is in a reflective mood. He and the producers hope the show will move on to Broadway. “I know that’s the hope. I don’t know how quickly that will happen,” he says. “You don’t want to lose momentum on this thing. There’s a lot of money involved, a lot of people involved, a lot of word of mouth now. I hear buzz coming back from New York that it’s good.”
Yet Esparza just gave up his New York apartment. He’s pursuing movie gigs, but he’s more interested in developing the one role he never has — that of the son of Cuban exiles.
“I’m clearing the slate, cleaning house a little bit,” he says. “I’m just giving myself a few months to see what the future holds. I’m thinking that it might be time to take a look at my own life and my own family story and histories and see what I can share. I’ve been considering writing some of my own work. Maybe tell my parents’ stories.”
Although he was born in Delaware, Esparza grew up in Miami, which he still considers home. A Spanish teacher at Belen Preparatory school changed his life. “We didn’t have a theater department; we would have plays,” he says. “There was something about the curiosity of engaging with art, humanities, history, politics. I loved telling stories about our lives.”
Esparza studied English, theater and psychology at New York University. But he didn’t really become an actor until he moved to Chicago in 1992 and worked with the Remains Theater. His manager discovered him in Second City and brought him back to New York for the 2000 run of “The Rocky Horror Show,” where he played Riff Raff opposite Joan Jett’s Columbia.
“He was just extremely talented,” says Jett. “I was worried about whether I could pull my weight, and he was so helpful in being kind and giving as an actor and singer. To me he seemed like an established Broadway star. He just seemed very confident but not egotistical.”
In 2001 Esparza starred as the writer Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” It was after he performed in the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration that “the doors split wide open for me,” the actor says. The four-month event featuring six musicals in repertory “was probably the greatest summer of my life, to get to work with Steve Sondheim every week. To me, he’s our Chekhov. Hell, he’s even our Shakespeare.”
Parts in shows from “Cabaret” to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” rolled in, as did acclaim. Winner of several Drama Desk and Theatre World awards, Esparza has been nominated for the four Tonys for which an actor can be nominated: best featured actor in a musical for “Taboo,” best actor in a musical for “Company,” best featured actor in a play for Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” and best actor in a play for “Speed-the-Plow.” He has yet to win.
This rapid rise has not been without bumps. In 2006 Esparza spoke about his confused sexual identity to a New York Times reporter, a candor he regretted. He now will not discuss his personal life.
Perhaps most infamously, bedeviled by poor reviews and a public spat between Esparza and producer Rosie O'Donnell, the Boy George musical “Taboo” sank 100 performances after its opening. The actor is philosophical about the experience. “I used to think the best way to get things accomplished was to scream and yell and be a big ol’ Cuban. Rosie is ultimately one of the most generous people I have ever worked with. I learned my lesson.
“Flops teach you a lot,” he adds. “When you’re doing a musical, it’s very easy to make shifts and changes and cuts over the course of time without realizing that you have in some way intrinsically damaged the material.”
These are lessons Esparza is bringing to “Leap of Faith.” He has been involved with the show since 2006. At first, he was reluctant to take on a musical based on a film: “It’s a trend that I don’t like.” But he found something “iconic” in the story of Jonas Nightingale, the rock ‘n’ roll evangelical — an “American huckster.” He shares the marquee with Brooke Shields, but the charismatic, big-voiced con man leaves the prim, thin-voiced waitress in the dust.
“This part allows him to show all of his dimensions, from the showman to some of the more tender moments to also more introspective moments,” says “Leap of Faith” director and choreographer Rob Ashford. “He colors within the lines of this guy but fills it out so fully.” Both Esparza and Ashford say that he will remain with the show if it moves on to New York.
The musical, a conversion fable complete with a miracle or two, is hampered by an earnestness that not even Esparza’s dastardly ennui can erase. He knows this, but he has, well, faith in the script.
“I don’t mind sentiment at all, but I do mind sentimentality,” he says. “It’s a show about letting go — letting go of things you love and people you love, and letting something else in, a different kind of love. I had thought it was just about faith, but it’s about letting go, grace and redemption.”
The actor grew up Catholic, not Protestant, but he draws on his upbringing to play this faux preacher, who might not be so faux after all. The duplicitous playboy ends a soul-wrenching finale with a solemn “Amen.” Esparza says that he means it in its original Hebrew definition: “So be it.”
“When people say that they don’t believe in God, I tell them to go drive up Highway 1 and go to Big Sur,” he says. “I defy you to tell me that there isn’t something greater than us in the universe. Is it a conscious man floating in the sky? No. But there’s something there, something extraordinary. So that’s what I tap into, more than my Catholicism: some sort of sense of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and going, ‘Wow.’ ”
Then Esparza pauses. “The Catholic side of it, they’d kick me out of high school if they saw me doing this role.”