Four-time Tony Award nominee and OBIE recipient Raúl Esparza is certainly no stranger to the spotlight and the actor is reluctantly starting to get used to the new virtual world we have found ourselves in.
Esparza has starred in Hannibal, The Path, BoJack Horseman, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and numerous other films and TV shows, while his impressive Broadway credits include the 2006 revival of Company, Leap of Faith, Arcadia, Speed-the-Plow, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Cabaret, and The Rocky Horror Show. On Wednesday, July 22, at 8 p.m., Esparza is bound to dazzle East End audiences (and potentially viewers from around the world) during Bay Street Theater & Sag Harbor Center for the Arts’ 29th Annual Summer Gala, A Starry Night, which will be streamed online.
We had the pleasure of chatting with the charming Esparza about his A Starry Night role, connection to Bay Street, fondness for the Hamptons, Broadway highlights and much more.
“Driving into Amagansett and going into Montauk, in that area it’s really chill,” the actor told us about a recent visit. “I felt really comfortable. It felt like we’d been away from the City for a long time in the week we’d been there – a nicer pace.”
Do you come out here [The Hamptons] often?
RE: Not as often as I used to. I used to go out all the time for the film festival. My partner worked there for a long time. And also Mariska [Hargitay] is out there. We go out and hang out at her place. We have friends in Sagaponack as well. I feel like the last year, not as much as we used to. But I do love it out there.
Is that why you wanted to champion Bay Street?
RE: The reason I’m championing Bay Street is because Scott Schwartz is a friend. He and I worked on Tick, Tick… Boom! together on Off-Broadway. He directed the show and I was the star of it. My first show in New York was Rocky Horror on Broadway, but I feel like Tick, Tick… Boom! was my big break. Scott has just been really significant to me since then. That was 2001. They knew they were not going to be able to have the Gala. He’s asked me to come out to perform a couple times and I’ve just never been able to square it away. I was happy to be able to help, at least virtually.
Now, you’ve already taken part in a few virtual events, including Stars in the House, MCC Theater’s Miscast and Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, which you actually spearheaded. Have you had to alter your preparation methods and what has it been like to perform digitally?
RE: The Sondheim that I produced ended up being like a series of self tapings from the greatest artists who have done Steve’s work. The fascinating thing is, so many of these people are people that I consider absolute giants, legends and everybody was having a nervous breakdown. That made me feel a little bit better that we were all in the same boat of like, okay, filming yourself is really hard. Putting yourself on tape, you have to let go of any sense of perfection, any sense that what you’re doing is something you can totally control and that’s hard to do because you are in control because you’re the one who’s filming yourself. So, that’s one of the big lessons coming from all this is you got to let go and you have to just see it for what it is – a temporary thing that we are doing right now to kind of hold it together. Steve’s thing was just a live stream and you sort of do what you can. But that was so early in the lockdown that everybody was holding it together by accepting that the technical problems were going to be part of the situation.
What’s happened now is that things have gone on more and more. We’re getting better at this, you’re aware of what you don’t have, which is you don’t have hair and makeup. You don’t have a team, you don’t have good lighting, you’re stuck in your apartment, and you’re trying to figure out a way to perform that is true to what you always love, or that has some of the energy of what you always love, without any of the things that feed you that energy and would feed you the energy of an audience. It’s a little bit of a mind game.
Then there’s the extra layer of learning all the technical things that we’ve all had to do now. Everyone’s gotten really good at dealing with ring lights and camera angles. It’s an extra bit of preparation that is not something that any of us have generally had to deal with – except when you put yourself on tape for an audition for a film or something.
Just last Saturday I did Molière in the Park with Samira Wiley. The whole cast of us, some people were filming in Italy, some people were filming in Los Angeles, some people were here [in New York], some people were in Portland, Oregon, and we were doing a live stream performance. We did two of them. The New York Times reviewed it and they gave us a rave, and I can’t believe it. This is a whole new world we’re entering. I don’t want to get good at this and this is a solution for now.
That being said, putting together the project for Bay Street was a ball. My co-producer and great friend Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who did work at Bay Street, they did a Shakespeare project. She was my musical director on Company and she was the musical director and co-producer of Take Me to the World and it was her organization [ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty)] we were benefiting. So, she and I had this idea that for Bay Street, because of the theme they wanted me to do a Sondheim, so we had come up with a fun mash-up. I spent about five hours filming myself. I gotta say the day didn’t suck, it was fun. I don’t know how good it is… It was really ambitious and I had a good time. She and I tossed music stems back and forth and got really nerdy about the whole technical side of it and trying to make this number work. It was really inspiring and really creative. I was like, okay, that was a fun, creative day stuck at home. So, I hope it comes out nice. I haven’t seen the final edit, but I’m looking forward to it.
I’m sure it will be amazing. A Starry Night is an ode to musicals of the 1970s. What about those productions and the music resonate with you?
RE: Well, I think the 70s was the last great Golden Age before now. We had the mega musicals of the 80s, which was a British phenomenon. Then the only really great writing in the 90s was influential stuff with Larson. I feel like the 70s was the last great hurrah because you had Fosse and Robbins still choreographing. It was the beginning of Stephen Schwartz and you had Sondheim, Hal Prince. There was just a lot of mix between pop cultural things that had happened at the end of the 60s. They were moving into the Zeitgeist in musical theater and then the rise of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work. So, it was a big explosion. You’ve got Pippin, you’ve got Chicago. It was like the big last explosion, until now. I really feel like we’re living through, or were living through, a new and exciting era of musicals in the last decade.
But I feel like that was a good, exciting period for Broadway. The 80s ended up being the big, giant musicals and then Off-Broadway ended up getting pretty exciting at that time, in a way that Broadway used to be. So, that era, I was too little, but certainly a lot of the musicals I love tended to be from that era, especially the Sondheim works – some of his greatest.
You’ve performed in numerous Broadway productions. Do you have a favorite or a number that stands out?
RE: My favorite show I’ve done, as a musical, is Sunday in the Park with George.
RE: Because it’s transcendent. It’s like doing theater away from the edge of the universe. Steve [Sondheim] writes about the creation of art, it goes on beyond us forever and touches on some aspects of grace and beauty that is inspiring. It’s moving and that makes us feel like we’re lucky to be alive. To show that vibrates with beauty.
I’ve done two shows like that and the other one is Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. They both had a similar kind of like dancing on the edge of the galaxy feeling when you’re on stage.
I did that [Sunday in the Park with George] at the Kennedy Center in 2002 as part of a Sondheim celebration.
Last winter, you starred in MCC Theater’s Seared. When Broadway re-opens, do you have any plans to return to the stage or have any other projects in the works?
RE: I do. We’ve got a revival of Chess with Tim Rice and ABBA, and Michael Mayer directing. That team took that to the Kennedy Center right after I had finished at SVU. We did a reading of it in December and they were talking about what we were going to do to bring it in. I have a project that I’m working on with Jordan Ross as well, a new musical, which is exciting. Then I was just starting an arc filming on a series. Everything is in suspension. Plus, we got Hannibal on Netflix right now. They keep talking about having us come back to do a season four. But everybody’s in limbo waiting to see what happens next.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
RE: I’m just really happy to be ultimately supporting the company. I’ve known about the theater for so many years. I was good friends with Mike Nichols who was so much part of their world. I love Sag Harbor and I love the opportunity to get to support Scott.
I really honestly think what we’re going through right now with COVID, there’s a lot of fear about what the future of theater is. There’s all this talk that things aren’t going to come back until Broadway comes back. But, I really believe that the model needs to be theaters like this – because smaller theaters can come back much sooner than Broadway. They can be much more creative and can be safe spaces. I hope that we can make that happen. I think that it’ll happen before you can get these giant productions back up.
In addition to Esparza, A Starry Night will feature Ben Vereen, Melissa Errico, Betty Buckley, André De Shields, Josh Young, Hunter Parrish, Trent Saunders, Arianna Rosario, Omar Lopez-Cepero, and many more. Richard Kind will host.
To register to watch Bay Street Theater & Sag Harbor Center for the Arts’ 29th Annual Summer Gala, A Starry Night, visit www.baystreet.org. There is no fee to stream the Gala.