One of the meatiest roles in the show is Riff Raff, henchman to Frank 'N' Furter, the evil genius of a scary group from the planet Transsexual Transylvania (!) that preys upon an innocent, young newlywed couple when they stumble upon the aliens' castle one dark and stormy night. Riff leads the company in the show's big dance number, "The Time Warp," and it's no exaggeration to say that all hell breaks loose at Circle in the Square when Raúl Esparza does so. This super-hot new Riff is a multi-talented American (from Miami) of Cuban descent who previously demonstrated his ability to wail in a major tour of Evita but is only now making his Broadway debut. Meet him here in a TheaterMania interview that took place just before Christmas.
TM: I saw the show the night before it opened, Raúl, and I loved it.
ESPARZA: Excellent. That was a critic's performance, so we were definitely at our best.
TM: Audience feedback is such a big part of Rocky Horror. Do you find that there's a big difference in the degree of reaction from performance to performance?
ESPARZA: Yes, absolutely. Saturday nights, especially the late show, we get these insane, die-hard Rocky fans. It's shocking to look out in the audience and see people who are dressed like they should be up on stage! The other night, there was a woman--I'd say she was about 45--who knew every single line of the show and was saying them all along with us. Some of the other people in the cast were sort of annoyed, but I kept looking over at her, and she was just filled with joy. It's true, that kind of thing can throw off your concentration; when someone shouts something from the audience, it's kind of like there's an actor who didn't come to rehearsals and then, all of sudden, he's there armed with a water gun and is trying to get his lines in.
TM: I'm guessing that the audience participation issue was discussed in rehearsals.
ESPARZA: It was discussed, but there wasn't a lot we could foresee. There are ways we can control the reaction to a certain extent. If we speed up the lines and pick up our cues, we can cut down the responses. If we give them space to shout, they'll shout! So it becomes pretty clear to them where they can and should respond.
TM: Was it decided that Dick Cavett [who plays the show's narrator] is the only performer who talks back to the audience?
ESPARZA: Yes. Frank is also allowed to do it, but Tom [Hewitt] tends not to, and I think he's pretty smart about that. You have to be really, really fast when you respond to the audience. I myself tried to get in there once, and it shot the scene to pieces.
TM: It must be a different show from night to night.
ESPARZA: Very much so. There are times when it can feel like a rock concert, and that's when it's at its best--when the audience is just sort of riding away with you. I've never experienced anything like it before in the theater.
TM: Your have to do a lot of heavy rock singing as Riff Raff. Has vocal strain been a problem?
ESPARZA: It is a demanding role, particularly the way I decided to sing it. When Richard O'Brien came to see the show, he said to me, "I don't know how you sing it that way." I said, "You wrote it, and you sang it yourself." He said, "No, I never sang it. I always talked it." He told me he saved everything for the one scream on the line "It's like you're under sedation" in the "Time Warp" number. I went back and listened to the album, and it's true! So, yes, the show can be straining, but I'm okay. I do have to rest a lot. And I'm a smoker, so I should probably cut back on that! You know, the last musical I did was Evita; I played Ché, and he has about two and a half hours of music to sing. Also, some of Ché's stuff is very rock and roll but some of it is legit, and that's harder to do. Your voice has to be in extraordinary shape for you to sing like that. Because Riff Raff is all rock and roll, probably no one would notice if I were to crack a note.
TM: How was the Evita experience overall?
ESPARZA: It was unbelievable. I hadn't done a musical in eight years, because I was in Chicago and had only done plays out there for a long time. I started in musicals just out of college--I played Danny Zuko in Grease for a big revival that started in Chicago--but then I sort of decided I didn't want to do them anymore. When Evita came along, it really busted my chops.
TM: What made you give up musicals for a while?
ESPARZA: In Chicago, theater is very much divided. You can work all the time in musicals if you're willing to do the dinner theater circuit, but I wanted to do something else with my career. Part of it was that I really wanted to work with some of the great theater companies out there, like Steppenwolf and the Goodman, and they tend not to do musicals. Those doors were opening for me when I was about 20 or 21, so that's the way I went.
TM: How old are you now?
ESPARZA: I just turned 30.
TM: And is Rocky your first New York show?
ESPARZA: Yes. Evita was hired out of New York and we were supposed to come to Broadway, but Andrew [Lloyd Webber] pulled the rights at the last minute. To tell you the truth, I don't know how much Evita opened the doors to Rocky Horror for me. The show got a mixed reception, though I was blessed with some amazing reviews. My grandmother could have written them!
TM: I didn't know that Evita tour was supposed to come to Broadway.
ESPARZA: Yeah. Larry Fuller re-staged it. Then Hal Prince came into rehearsals, tweaked it, and went with us around the country. Tim Rice came out to see the show. But Andrew wanted to do Superstar on Broadway instead.
TM: Well, that was a mistake!
ESPARZA: I think so, too. Superstar is a magnificent show, but I don't think that was a magnificent production. I actually was flown to London to audition for Judas. It's funny: James Barbour [of Jane Eyre], Patrick Wilson [of The Full Monty], and myself were flown to London to audition for that role. We all met at "Broadway on Broadway" in Times Square [at the beginning of this season], and we just started laughing about it. We had all tried to make the best of the London trip, because it was pretty clear that they weren't going to hire any of us. We were, like, "Oh, well. Let's just explore London." And now, each of us is playing a major role on Broadway.
TM: Was Richard O'Brien heavily involved with the new Rocky Horror?
ESPARZA: No. He doesn't control the rights to the stage show anymore. But he was overseeing it from London, and then he came out to rehearsals during the last week. I heard that he was very nervous about it, because the show was slammed so violently the first time it played in New York.
TM: And what about you? Were you nervous having him around, considering that he not only wrote the show but also played Riff Raff originally and in the movie?
ESPARZA: No, it was really exciting that he was there. I kept pinching myself. I have to say, there are moments when I'm on stage and I think, "I can't believe this is happening to me." Richard was incredibly complimentary about my performance. But I think I'm very different from him in the role. It was a concern for me that I not repeat what he did, though I do a little bit of a tribute to him in that I definitely use his smirk in the show. I think it's fun to do that with parts that are really associated with particular performers.
TM: How much of a Rocky Horror groupie were you before you were cast in the show?
ESPARZA: I only saw the movie once, when I was 15, and I didn't like it. It was a midnight show, and I remember feeling like I wasn't supposed to be there. I felt that I was being initiated into this strange world. It scared me a little bit--everybody chanting when Frank comes in, and the newspapers, and the water guns. Plus the whole cross-gender thing freaked me out. Drag queens terrified me at 15. I was going to a Jesuit school, and the concept of drag queens just didn't exist for me. I thought, "What is this!"
TM: Given that experience, did you hesitate to take the Rocky Horror job?
ESPARZA: Yes. My initial reaction was, "This is so stupid. It's not gonna have any kind of a life." And I put off the audition three times. But my agent said, "No, no, this is gonna be great. Chris Ashley is a marvelous director." The audition material was mailed to me in Chicago. I flew in to New York, got off the plane and went straight to the first audition. I had made some insane decisions about how to sing "Time Warp," so I jumped up on a chair and started howling the music, and I changed my mind about the show right on the spot. I thought, "This is a blast! I want this!"
TM: You had an epiphany.
ESPARZA: Yeah, right there in the audition room! Chris was so specific with direction; he threw some things at me that made me think this was going to be a very challenging and exciting show to do. The cast has become incredibly close. It's a small company, and I think there's a lot of mutual respect involved. Even the members of our ensemble could easily carry a show. One of the crew was watching an understudy rehearsal the other day, and he came up to me and said, "You know, the second cast is just as good as you guys!" We all have our own special gifts that we bring to Rocky Horror. Lately, Daphne [Rubin-Vega] and I have developed a kind of shorthand on stage. I feel so safe with her, and I would say that's true of all of us. We really take care of each other.