Raúl Esparza at the Kennedy Center(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Raúl Esparza at the Kennedy Center
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
These days, Raúl Esparza is getting a much warmer reception at the Kennedy Center than he did during a boyhood excursion to Washington, D.C. with his mother. Back then, already harboring theatrical ambitions, he had wanted to get inside the opera house to take a peek--but a rather rude usher thwarted his efforts. "She said, 'No, you can't get in, nobody can get in,' and she was really mean about it," Esparza recalls, still somewhat irked by the memory. "I turned to my mom and said, 'I'm going to work here one day...'"

Wherever that usher is now, it's probably not as enviable a place as that occupied by Esparza, who is taking on starring roles in two challenging and contrasting musicals that are part of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration this summer: He's currently playing the two title characters in the Seurat-inspired Sunday in the Park with George and he has just begun rehearsals for the reverse-chronology musical Merrily We Roll Along, in which he will play Charley, a lyricist who becomes estranged from his longtime friend and songwriting partner. Not bad for someone whose first thought upon hearing of the four-month festival of Stephen Sondheim musicals was, "It would be great to get tickets."

Although Esparza's career has been flying faster than the Concorde since he made his Broadway (and New York) debut less than two years ago as Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Show, he sometimes thinks he's the last one to realize how far he's come. "Somebody told me the other day they were keeping a journal of everything that's going on this summer, and they wrote down that they got to meet me," says the 31-year-old actor. "It's very flattering but, at the same time you wonder if it's really happening." No doubt about it: Esparza is rapidly building a solid reputation as a musical theater star, something there are precious few of these days. He's a terrific leading man who can also play character parts with just as much expertise and vigor.

After Rocky Horror, Esparza landed the central role in the late Jonathan Larson's autobiographical Off-Broadway musical tick, tick...BOOM! His portrayal of an aspiring composer at a crossroads earned him an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination (as well as the chance to sing a spoof of the Sondheim song "Sunday," the original version of which he's currently crooning at the Kennedy Center). Esparza left that show to begin rehearsals for Assassins but the Roundabout Theatre revival was canceled after 9/11. Instead, he ended up in another Roundabout production, assuming the role of the Emcee in Cabaret. Now, the Miami native--the son of Cuban refugees--is situated for the summer in a D.C. apartment, from which he spoke with TheaterMania over breakfast as a Bill Evans jazz CD played in the background.

Esparza with Melissa Erricoin Sunday in the Park with George(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Esparza with Melissa Errico
in Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Esparza, who speaks as smoothly and mellifluously as he sings, has been rising early and turning his morning run into a sightseeing excursion that takes him around the Lincoln Memorial and along the Washington Monument. Once he gets to the theater, however, his focus is on playing the 19th-century French artist Georges Seurat and the painter's own great-grandson 100 years later in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Eric Schaeffer and co-starring Melissa Errico. "[Sunday is] sort of like a pure Zen exercise," Esparza says. "There's something incredibly spiritual about it. I'm shocked at how emotional it is." That became apparent to the cast one day when they were rehearsing the song "The Day Off" and one actress started weeping from the power of the music.

Esparza has had the chance to ask Sondheim, whose godlike presence occasionally materializes at rehearsals and performances, what the musical is about. Sondheim's response initially seemed rather skim. "He said it's about a creative artist, and I thought, 'That's useless,'" Esparza recalls. "But I realized, that is about as clear a definition of the play as you can come up with. It's about a person who creates out of nothing, invents an entirely new world. It's about how an artist sees and how that keeps him from engaging in life--or he may engage in life completely, like he does in Act II, but then not be able to create."

In between rehearsals and performances, Esparza's life over the last several weeks has revolved around befriending and supporting his coterie of colleagues. (Both Merrily and the Sondheim Celebration's production of Sweeney Todd are helmed by Esparza's Rocky Horror director, Christopher Ashley.) "A bunch of us who are here are like the Sondheim cheering squad," he says. "We watch people's techs and dress rehearsals and cheer each other on. We even have T-shirts that say 'Camp Sondheim.'"

But summer camp was never like this! Esparza has faced the task of recreating a role made famous by the indomitable Mandy Patinkin--something he did once before, when he played Ché in the 20th-anniversary tour of Evita. Although he realizes that comparisons are inevitable, he says that he focused on learning from Patinkin's performance rather than competing with him. "Obviously, I am not the [vocal] technician that he is," Esparza says. "There was a little bit of intimidation because his voice is so pure and his quality so unique, but I had to live up to it, so I didn't have time to think about whether or not I could be as good as he was. I simply knew that I had to get there."

A less hairy Esparza in Bryant Park in August 2001(Photo: Karla Merrifield/Star File)
A less hairy Esparza in Bryant Park in August 2001
(Photo: Karla Merrifield/Star File)
Speaking of getting there, Esparza's journey thus far has taken him from Miami to New York University, where he studied theater and English, minored in psychology, and contemplated law school. It was his parents who urged him to pursue his theatrical ambitions. "I had already worked professionally," he relates, "but I was afraid I didn't have the guts or stamina to put up with the actor's life. I wasn't sure that I was ready for New York." He ended up in Chicago, thanks to a teacher who urged him to audition for a show there--and he stayed put for eight years, working with renowned companies such as Steppenwolf and the Goodman but not doing a single musical. "I got to grow a lot, but there does come a point where you have to make a choice: Do you want to be a Chicago actor who never goes any further or do you want to move on?" he says, echoing a famous song from Sunday. So he came to New York and became a bona-fide musical theater star in record time.

Negotiations are currently underway for Esparza to resume his role in Cabaret on Broadway in September. Right now, though, he's thrilled to be in D.C., singing Sondheim with such esteemed colleagues. "It's really exciting," he enthuses, "to know that, when we finish this summer, we will all not just have had a wonderful experience--we will also be that much better performers. I love that kind of challenge, when you're not the smartest kid in the room anymore."

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[For more information on Raúl Esparza, visit his website at www.raulesparza.com]