Four-time Tony Award nominee (one for every acting category) Raúl Esparza (Company) hasn’t been on Broadway since Leap of Faith in 2012—but he’s kept busy in the interim, starring on Law & Order: SVU since 2012.
But now Esparza has left SVU and is currently in Washington, D.C., starring in a new, semi-staged adaptation of cult favorite Chess at the Kennedy Center, which began performances February 14. Written by Tim Rice and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the “BB” of ABBA), Chess is about—of all unlikely subjects—the game of chess and the Cold War. Even if you aren’t familiar with the show, you still probably know a few of its songs,be it “I Know Him So Well,” “Anthem,” or “One Night in Bangkok.”
Esparza takes on the role of American world chess champion Freddy Trumpet, battling it out with his second, Florence (Tony winner Karen Olivo), while his Russian opponent Anatoly Sergievsky (Ramin Karimloo) and Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (Ruthie Ann Miles) fall into a love triangle with Florence while Freddy barely notices. Danny Strong has freshly adapted the book and Michael Mayer directs. With performances scheduled through February 18, we checked in with Esparza about his return to the musical stage in a show that he has known since high school and that he first saw in its original production in London.
On becoming involved with the latest Chess revision.
“This came up last summer. We’ve done a couple of readings and I was asked to come in and take a look at it. At the first reading we worked on it for a while and it was pretty thrilling, and we did it again and Tim Rice came, and now we’re here. We have no expectations about [its future], we just started working on it.”
On working with Danny Strong.
“We all made suggestions, it’s been a very collaborative process. This cast is very smart. And even now when we put this concert together, we spent the last two weeks of rehearsal in New York with everybody in a group talking about what we sort of need and what’s unclear. But Danny’s essentially writing a book, and writing a book for a musical is one of the hardest things in this business. His enthusiasm has been really thrilling, and he’s been really open to making changes about where songs should go, what suits this particular actor, where this song should go, what helps for clarity. And we’ve all been able to contribute here and there. You’re working within a framework of a show that already exists in many versions. It’s such a great score that it can lend itself to a lot of movement, and I think people want very much for it to have a life that is rich and strong. It has a devoted following in terms of the score. But it’s a dangerous prospect, going around thinking you can fix musicals. You have to be very conscious of the time you’re in and how the world changes and I think musicals are of their time.”
On how a musical about the Cold War plays in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
“We are finding this one is resonating very, very powerfully here right now. Danny’s done a great thing. He’s really placed it in the Cold War politics, and he’s created a real Cold War history musical. That sounds dry, but it’s not! So the chess and the politics are mashed up together into this arms race that dominated the 1980s, but it’s kind of vibrating on another level relating to our political life right now. And that’s great, and you just let it play.”
On audience reaction to a cult favorite coming to life again.
“It’s been electric. It’s been extraordinary. We’re having a ball—it's like a rock concert and it’s such a first-rate cast. I’ve never worked with Ramin before, but he’s a massive talent. And Karen and I have never worked [together] onstage before. But what’s blown me away is what the ensemble has accomplished in two weeks. You do these staged concerts and they slowly morph into almost-productions, and there is some choreography that is just breathtaking. Having been away from musicals for six years, it’s been, in a corny way, very moving to watch so much excellence every day from this company of dancers and actors. Really moving to me to see people work right to the edge of their limits. We do a lot of great things on camera, but that sense of human achievement, pushing yourself towards excellence, only comes from what live performance requires. And this is a lot of fun to do. At the sitzprobe, everyone was head banging. There was a lot of crazy joy at the sitzprobe.”
On his favorite song to sing in Chess.
“It’d have to be ‘Pity the Child,’ for me. It’s really turned out to be a real, amazing monologue with real depth and emotion and pain to it. And it surprised the hell out of me. There’s one side of the score that’s about the fun of singing it, but the other side is living inside of it and there’s all this ache. And then I get to hear those guys do the beautiful lush, romantic ballads. Hearing Ruthie and Karen sing ‘I Know Him So Well’ is a highlight for me every night.”