Matthew Murray sends us this chat with the very busy Raul Esparza, currently starring in tick, tick...BOOM!, the musical story of Jonathan Larson's days as a struggling artist in SoHo before Rent, and soon to go into rehearsals for Sondheim's Assassins.
Matthew Murray: How difficult is it to perform tick, tick ... BOOM! eight times a week?
Raul Esparza: It's mostly difficult to do it because of the emotional side of it. It requires a lot of emotional stamina, and because you have to forget what you've learned. It's a show that's all about a journey and what he figures out in the course of a night, which is the course of a week in his life. You have to go back to the beginning ... After you've done one show, you have to do it again on the same night, and that can be very hard - you have to forget everything you just went through and go back to the place where he starts.
Where he starts is he's got a lot of joy but he's very neurotic and really anxious. His shoulders are bunched up and everything about him is on edge, and at the end he's really peaceful and standing tall and is really sure of himself. And so you have to go back. That's really the hardest part. It's a lot of music, but I haven't really had any vocal problems with it - I'm used to singing a lot higher than this is. So this is not a vacation by any stretch of the imagination.
The other hard part is the speaking, because there's so much talking, which is very difficult. I'm never offstage. There's one moment when I'm not singing a song but I have to sit there acting my ass off. That's another thing that's very difficult about this play. It's a musical, but it really feels like a play and it feels very, very small. And if you do anything extra, it just comes off fake. Because the space is so small - I can see the last row - that means you really have to do it. You can't fake it. The audience will see right through you. Everything has to be really simple and really emotionally committed, so anything you're feeling and doing has to be honest. It should be in every theater, I don't mean to say it's not, but sometimes if you're tired, you can get away with less. You can't in this one. Every performance has to be brand new.
MM: How did you approach this role?
RE: I didn't want to imitate Jon. I didn't want to necessarily make it completely about looking like Jon or acting like Jon. I didn't know him, and I don't think that's the point. His father said the character could be called Raul for all he cares, because it's fictionalized enough that it's not Jon. I just tried to approach it as if I were playing myself, in a really anxious state of mind. I tried to find as many parallels with myself as I could, which is what you should always try to do, I guess, with every kind of play, but this one hit home a lot. It felt very familiar to me; I would have liked to have known him, because it's really a joyful piece. A lot of the things he says in it feel very familiar to me. I did watch some videotape of Jon because I wanted to find some of his gestures, just sort of the way he moves, because it's good to suggest it, and it's good to try, no matter how similar he is to me, to keep it as a character, don't get up here and play myself. So that helped.
It also helped to dress in a way I never would, and probably Jon never would. I saw so many pictures of Jon, and what I'm wearing with these suspenders and this shirt I have on is sort of color-schemed for the show, it's not even what Jon really wore. But it feels different enough from me. That's a problem we had when we were costuming it - the clothes all felt like stuff I would wear! I like to step into a character's clothes, I like to feel different. In some parts, it's very easy if you have a lot of makeup and stuff, you can hardly recognize yourself. This one was so close to me, that was hard. So we tried to find things I would never put on, and probably Jon wouldn't either, so this includes some of that. And I tried to include his smile and some of his hand gestures and things like that. It's very tricky to watch him, because then you do start imitating him. So I watched a little and let him go.
MM: How did the show evolve during rehearsals?
RE: It was always a one-man piece, Jon always performed it as a one-man piece. I think he did it three times. Second Stage, I think the Village Gate, and the New York Theatre Workshop. There were five drafts of it that David Auburn sort of pulled together and created a three-person play. When I came in, it was a three person play. The biggest evolution was in figuring out how to continue to make it a three person play, finding places where the other actors, Jerry and Amy, could sing more, where the songs were not solos. It felt like a lot of solos when we first started, and we started to expand it out so that they weren't backup singers, they had a reason to sing too. We also fooled around with how much I should talk to the audience and how much there should be scenes. We fiddled around with things Jon mentioned but doesn't really explore in his script.
MM: Such as?
RE: There's a scene between Jerry and myself at the airport that is suggested, but I'm not completely sure how much of it is Jon and how much of the situation is suggested by things that Jon wrote. We just felt that Jerry's character, Michael, who's his best friend, needed a little more stage time, more opportunities to engage with Jon and make things clear beyond the one song they have together. So that was important. And then we had to figure out how to set the tone of the night, because it felt a lot like a stand-up routine for the first couple of performances. Because Jon's by himself, welcoming the audience, and he saying, "Hey, welcome to my show," and you want a little bit of that, but you also want it to feel like a play, and we had a hard time nailing that down. We worked on the opening three scenes until the critics came, and that was the hardest part for us.
MM: Were the songs always in approximately the same order?
RE: Yeah, we ended up cutting two songs and adding one. We cut a song called "Swimming," and it hurt me like hell to see it go.
MM: Where did it fit in the show?
RE: It fit in after the diner. It was a song where Jon went to the gym and swam and everything that was upsetting him was going to his head, and it's brilliant. It's one of the clearest indications of Jonathan Larson's original voice, unlike anything you've ever heard in the theatre. It changed meters like four or five times, it was part rap, part spoken, part sung, part harmony, part melodic, part stream-of-consciousness--it was a really, really interesting and engaging song, but it kind of stopped the action because it was just Jon talking to himself, not really forwarding anything.
We also cut a rap that he had written that was a scene in Times Square where I was just walking around which we did in performance a couple of times. The rap was a lot of fun to do, but you just didn't get a lot of new information, so we wanted to make it cleaner, and it went away. Besides, watching a white boy rap is a little silly. And we added a song for Jerry called "Real Life," which is one of my favorite songs from the show, so I'm glad it made it back in. The show originally opened with another song called "Boho Days," which is on the album with Jon singing it. We talked about that being the last play-out music in the show, but we didn't do that. That's about it - the songs were pretty much the songs all along. What's extraordinary is that our musical director, Stephen Oremus, took all these solos and turned them into trios and duets, and it seems like they were always written that way. And he did it all based on Jon's writing, like listening to Rent and listening to Superbia and fitting them in the way Jon would have done it.
MM: How much would you say those other works influenced tick, tick ... BOOM!?
RE: Very much. I mean, Superbia, because it's the show he's talking about ... We use a song from Superbia in the show, which is probably my favorite song from the show, that Amy Spanger sings gloriously. And that workshop and the writing he did for the workshop sets some of the tone for that portion of the show. Also, his parts writing for Rent. The song "Will I?," in Rent the song "What You Own," some of Rent itself, all of that was definitely influenced on how things were structured by us. The thing is, of course, tick, tick ... BOOM! influenced Rent. The events tick, tick ... BOOM! describes are the things that Rent is eventually about.
But, in Rent, he needed to write a bigger story. He finds out his best friend has AIDS, and it's a death sentence. And that's just one story. It forced him to sit down and reevaluate his life, and make some changes for himself. We know he kept writing and never really saw the successes that we've gotten to see for him. What did happen for Jon is that suddenly all his friends are getting sick. It wasn't enough to tell just his best friend's story, he had to tell seven or eight stories. And that's why the canvas got bigger, that's why Rent is so huge and sprawling. It should be. That's the mess he was dealing with every day. tick, tick ... BOOM! was too small. In some ways it is a more concise, clearer, sharper piece of playwriting from Jon than Rent, because he doesn't have to tell huge stories, and it's so specific in its details, that I think it becomes very immersive, beyond even the AIDS issue, beyond even Jon being a composer ... I think it's so specific that anybody dealing with, "What am I going to do with my life? I just turned ... whatever age ... and who am I, and why am I here?" can relate to it. And the more specific you are, I always find, the more that happens. So, that's pretty cool.
He was actually writing Rent during the time he was writing tick, tick ... BOOM! originally, but we decided not to mention that, although Rent is mentioned in a couple of the drafts. I don't think he knew what it was going to turn into at the time, he didn't know it was going to be as huge as it was. I mean, as a piece, I don't think he'd know all the success it'd have. It's smallness is not only charming, but it's, I think, really powerful, because it's so personal. And in this space, it's great, because it's so intimate, too.
MM: You went right from Rocky Horror into this, and you're going into Assassins. How do you handle being so busy? How do you manage to keep your work and other life together?
RE: What other life? (laughs) That's the central question. Yeah, it is hard when you're doing rehearsals during the day and a show at night. I haven't started on Assassins yet. When I was doing Rocky Horror, it was very difficult, because Riff Raff is incredibly high singing, but this was such a relief to do because Jon is so human and Riff Raff was so deranged. It was a blast to play, but just completely different worlds. Going into Assassins, for me, is a dream come true, and that's why I chose to do it.
MM: When do you start rehearsals?
RE: September 24, I think. I've just always wanted to work with Sondheim and work on a Sondheim show, and I've never been cast in one. To just get a chance to really be there work with him and to work with Joe Mantello and Paul Gemignani, I mean, to me, that's the elite of Broadway, and it's only my third job in New York! For me, it's exciting. I'm one of those people where the more I have to do, the better I am at things. If I'm overworked, I end up becoming better. I always think my performances are better when I'm tired, because I can't get in my own way.
MM: Do you have anything else coming up?
RE: Just Assassins. I'd really love to come back to tick, tick ... BOOM! after the end of the Assassins run. I certainly haven't finished with this. I love it and I want to keep doing it as much as I can. I'd like to do it in other cities if that happens. It's a show I could see being in for years, because it's so rewarding to do. It's hard building a career as an actor, you have to keep moving all the time, and I'm just beginning to scratch the surface of what this show can be. So I'm leaving it with a lot of regret, but also a lot of excitement.
Tickets for tick ... tick ... BOOM! available at Telecharge.
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