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Once Upon a Time

Eden Espinosa stars in Brooklyn The Musical, a Broadway fairy tale.

Eden Espinosa has the title role in Brooklyn The Musical
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Do you believe in fairy tales? Eden Espinosa does. The young performer has the title role in Brooklyn The Musical, opening this month at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre. With book, music, and lyrics by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, the show centers around a group of five soulful street-corner singers and storytellers who spin an urban fairy tale about a girl named Brooklyn.

"It's a story within a story," Espinosa explains. "All five of us start out as street performers and then we put on this show under the Brooklyn Bridge." As the tale unfolds, Espinosa morphs into the character of Brooklyn, an orphan raised in Paris who travels to America in search of the father she never knew. Though the musical is structured as a fairy tale, that doesn't mean it's all sweetness and light. "It deals with homelessness, Vietnam War veterans, and drug addiction," says Espinosa. "It's also about the struggle with fame -- how people are hungry for it and what they'll do to keep it. The show definitely has some sad, tragic moments, but in the end, it's very uplifting and hopeful."

Espinosa has been with Brooklyn since its first developmental workshop, and she starred in an out-of-town tryout production in Denver last year. Originally from Southern California, she has been performing since the age of five; just prior to being cast in Brooklyn, she worked as an ensemble member in a live-action, stunt song and dance show called Spiderman Rocks at Universal Studios. ("Those were the days," she says wryly.) Now a resident of New York City, Espinosa made her Broadway debut in the hit musical Wicked as the standby for Elphaba, the misunderstood, green-complexioned young woman more commonly known as "The Wicked Witch of the West." She also understudied the role of Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, and went on in both parts several times.

"I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to do Wicked before Brooklyn came to Broadway," she says. "It really prepared me for doing a show eight times a week, though it did make me a little more nervous and apprehensive about putting Brooklyn up. I'm emotionally invested in the show; I want people to like it and accept it. Every person involved in this project is passionate about it, and that really makes a huge difference."

The gestation of the musical has its own fairy tale quality. Co-creators Schoenfeld and McPherson first met in 1982, when McPherson recorded some of Schoenfeld's music. Almost a decade later, McPherson was out walking in Brooklyn Heights when she heard a voice she vaguely recognized; it was Schoenfeld, who was eking out a living as a homeless street performer. McPherson invited the struggling artist to come live with her family while he got back on his feet. Brooklyn The Musical is the duo's first artistic collaboration, heavily informed by Schoenfeld's real-life experience, which Espinosa believes is not uncommon amongst New York City's street performers. "You walk down the street or in the subway station and you hear these amazing voices," she says. "It's unbelievable how talented some people are, and they're just having a little trouble."

Eden Espinosa
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Regarding Brooklyn's score, Espinosa couldn't be more enthusiastic. "The music is in a class all by itself," she says. "It's really different from anything else I've heard on Broadway. This music is radio-ready. You can enjoy it as pop, soul, R&B, or gospel." Her favorite number is "Once Upon a Time," a luscious pop ballad that takes full advantage of Espinosa's soaring voice. John McDaniel -- the show's musical supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator -- tailored the arrangement of the song to the singer's capabilities. "It's like a custom-made song, just for me," says Espinosa.

At the helm of Brooklyn is Jeff Calhoun, whose production of Big River with deaf and hearing actors earned the director near unanimous raves when it bowed on Broadway in the summer of 2003. "Jeff is very open and gracious," says Espinosa. "His policy is that the best idea wins. He has a great vision but he lets us really contribute. We're lucky to have him." Like Espinosa, Calhoun has been with the project since its first workshop. The same is true of the entire creative team and one of Espinosa's four co-stars, Karen Olivo. As for the rest of the cast, Ramona Keller came on board during the show's Denver run while Kevin Anderson started with the workshop, missed out on Denver, but is back for Broadway. Cleavant Derricks, the most recent addition to the company, has quickly become an integral part of it. "The experience of figuring out this new formula for the new group of five people has been amazing," says Espinosa. "It's loose, fun, and collaborative. It's like we're being paid to play."

Brooklyn The Musical has sometimes been compared to Rent, but Espinosa believes that's only because of the urban setting of both musicals. Brooklyn has a very different feel, and the actress offers these words of advice to potential theatergoers: "Come with an open heart, an open mind, and bring your imagination. You're going to have a good time."


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