Interview: Raul Esparza takes a ‘Leap of Faith’

See Raul Esparza in "Leap of Faith" at the St. James Theatre. Learn more or buy tickets at www.leapoffaithbroadway.com.

Last night, “Leap of Faith” opened on Broadway. We caught up with leading man Raul Esparza while the musical was still in previews to discuss how it was coming along and what he thought about the show’s themes. Esparza has been with the production for five years, since it first took shape in California in 2007. He plays conman Jonas Nightingale, who leads a chorus of evangelists through the country to raise people’s hopes – and then take their money.

So we heard you’ve been making changes right up until the last minute with this show.

It’s scary, but we’re also making really good strides. The audience is telling us what works and what doesn’t. Yesterday’s changes were really big, to the second act, [such as] the extra dance break in the third revival – which isn’t quite there yet.

And the last scene, the goodbye between Sam [Kendra Kassebaum] and Jonas, is totally new. We’re looking for an emotional core to the scene. She and I could barely get through it, we were trying not to cry. … The one who’s been in the show as long as I have is Kendra, who plays my sister. She and I have a comfortable relationship. Part of the reason we were so moved last night is because we’ve been waiting five years for that chance to say goodbye. They just wrote it yesterday. We’ve always said she and Sam need that moment of like, “You got what you’re wanted and now you’re walking away?” I think the hardest thing he has to do in the whole show is say goodbye to the one person he’s loved his whole life.

Now we’ll fine-tune it for a few more days. It’s exciting. We’re walking the tightrope right now, which I love. It’s my favorite part of rehearsals. We’re having to learn new stuff every day.

But the press is already coming.

We know critics are coming, but I don’t like to know when. I can’t read reviews, because they influence me too much. You’re never that good, and hopefully you’re never that bad. … Our goal here is to make the best musical we can possibly make – hopefully something that lasts beyond this. It won’t be perfect. You have to make your peace with the fact that it’s not going to be everything you thought it would be and please everybody and always be successful. That’s why I like this part of the process, because it’s still possible. And you have to make peace with that. And we have to know that we all, every member of this team, did our very best.

The show actually doesn’t talk much about God or Jesus. Do you think it’s approachable for people of all denominations?

Yes, I do. Because it isn’t about one particular religion, it’s about the concept of faith. It’s about grace in one man’s life. He is a bad man who’s redeemed by no goodness of his own. What I love about it is that you would think he would be saved, but he’s not. And [in the end], he doesn’t know if there’s a God.

So you think Jonas is a bad man? Or does he think of himself as a bad man?

Well no, I can’t play him that way. He’s doing the best he can to survive. I think he probably did three-card Monte in Times Square. Is that a bad guy? Maybe. Did he run a carnival sideshow for awhile? Probably. But did he come from a really bad, religious upbringing in the Ozarks? Yeah. He lived in Chicago for awhile, he was a street kid. It’s a grift he knows. He did magic tricks as a kid, now he uses them to steal people’s money. The end justifies the means, and I think he just doesn’t see himself as bad. I think the thing that’s hardest for him is that he’s never had to take responsibility for anybody but himself and his sister. And when he has to do that in this play, he says, “I’m a bad man. Don’t believe in me. I suck, walk away!” … So I can’t make that judgment.

The role was originated by Steve Martin (in the movie “Leap of Faith,” 1992) – do you feel pressure to live up to that, or have you made it your own?

Jonas is so different than the Steve Martin character in the movie. Jonas was inspired a little bit by Ricky Jay, inspired a little bit by some of my work with Mamet, inspired a lot by Janus dreaming of a faith healer one night – Janus Cercone wrote the movie [and co-wrote the musical's book]. She had the idea that this is based on the concept of what happens when a big rock band plays a small town: They just blow through with their semis and their big trucks and make everyone’s head spin. This thing has always begged to have music, the music has added an emotional element to it. That’s why I’m wearing leather pants. It’s like, let’s go rock star on this. And that’s all inspired by Bono – I wish I was that cool, but I’m not. It’s so far from the Steve Martin version of it that I haven’t really thought about him. However, he came to see me in “Speed the Plow” and we talked, and he knew I was going to be playing Jonas. He’s like, “I can’t wait to see you do it. I’m glad they got you, this is great.” Having Steve Martin’s blessing on it is a relief.

You’ve worked with co-star Jessica Phillips before, briefly – how is it reuniting on this project?

Jessica and I did a concert together for John Doyle, my director from “Company.” I filled in for Patti LuPone at the last minute. It was an evening called “The Ladies Who Sing Sondheim.” Patti couldn’t do it, so I sang “Being Alive.” I was one of the ladies who sang Sondheim. [Laughs] Nobody fills Patti LuPone’s shoes – nobody. But maybe in this case she was having to fill mine, “Being Alive” luckily being a song I’m associated with now.

Jessica was part of that evening, and I remember looking at Jessica that night and hearing her voice – her voice is not classic Broadway, it’s got a country tinge to it, like Joni Mitchell-meets-Idina Menzel voice. To me, [that’s] a huge compliment, I hope she takes it that way! But it’s not placeable, it’s not an easy Broadway voice. That’s not the classic Sutton Foster vein or the classic Audra McDonald vein. She’s much more natural. And I thought it would be hard for her to get hired to sing classic Broadway unless the right role comes along – and I think it’s miraculous that it’s this one. Plus, she’s hot as hell, which is great. Also, she’s an actor’s actor. A lot of us have admired her for a long time, and she’s finally gotten a chance to lead a show. She’s a cool co-star, she’s got my back. We just look into each other’s eyes, and we’re good to go.

You have some scenes with young talent Talon Ackerman – with a great dynamic between you two. How is it working with children onstage?

They say never work with kids or animals. But Talon is great, because Talon is an absolutely honest actor. He never makes a false move, which is the biggest compliment I can give him. He’s totally honest and simple, and I love that. The rest of us go to school to learn what he does naturally. And someday he’ll have to learn how to do it again, too. But right now he’s in that perfect place, he just walks onto the stage and tells the truth. He’s not your typical musical theater kid at all, he’s got a good head on his shoulders. And I love it when Jonas is not willing to go there for him – that really turns the audience against me [laughs].

So love, family, faith – those are the big themes in the show?

I think there’s so many ways into this show. It’s about grace functioning in your life and whether you deserve grace or not. And there’s a way in that’s about family – a way in that’s about the kid, a way in that’s about the sister. And there’s a way in about religion if that’s the way you choose to see it. Or there’s the aspect that there’s a revival happening now in the St. James. The event is being created by the audience. That’s another way in – the immediacy of the experience. Who’s ever heard of an audience in New York putting their hands up in the air? I get chills every night. … You have the most intelligent, cynical people in the world coming in to watch the show and they’re like, “Cool, I’m going for a ride.” I mean, who’s ever heard of such a thing?

Read our review of “Leap of Faith.”


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