NEW YORK (AP) — Raul Esparza was once invited to go backstage at "Les Miserables" on Broadway to learn how the effects were done. His response was the same as when he was invited in Las Vegas to check out the tricks backstage at Cirque du Soleil's "O."
No thanks, he said both times.
"I don't want to know how it works," says the four-time Tony Award nominee who stars in "Leap of Faith" on Broadway. "If I don't believe in the magic, what's the point of going to work eight times a week?"
That Esparza still wants to keep theater illusions sacred is one of many endearing things about the singer and actor who has lately taken on perhaps his biggest challenge: playing a devious faith healer who mixes magic with the divine.
"Very few people in their lifetime, I think, get to have the experience I'm having right now of a musical being built around them," Esparza says. "I felt this role is once in a lifetime. They don't get written like this anymore."
He plays the huckster Jonas Nightingale, whose traveling revival show gets stranded in a drought-stricken Kansas town after their bus breaks down. Despite the threat of arrest from a skeptical sheriff, Nightingale puts on a three-day event to pray for rain and wheedle money from the townsfolk. Then something unexplainable happens.
"'Leap of Faith' is about a guy who comes along and promises to fix everything. He's a complete liar and a sham. And he ends up getting redeemed by grace and he absolutely doesn't deserve it," says Esparza. "A very bad man gets saved."
Esparza, 41, has been a part of the musical — adapted from the 1992 film starring Steve Martin — since an early reading in 2007 and he has stuck with it through various cast changes, overhauls and three directors. There were times that he lost faith it would ever make it to Broadway.
"You get to the point, over so many years, where you start to fear that maybe it's not going to happen and you've hung on all this time, but maybe this isn't it," he says. "I'm beginning to make peace that no work of art — which is essentially what you're trying to create — will ever be perfect or will be exactly what you imagined it to be."
Christopher Ashley, the show's final director, is honored that Esparza stuck with the show. "He's so talented and he's got such a wide-ranging mind and a rock star's voice. He's got it all," says Ashley. "He's got infinite imagination, inventiveness and playfulness."
Esparza, a first-generation Cuban-American, was raised in Florida and made his New York stage debut in the Broadway revival of "The Rocky Horror Show" and then as the Master of Ceremony in "Cabaret." Comfortable in dramas and musicals alike, he's been in the recent revivals of Tom Stoppard "Arcadia," David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" and Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming." His musicals range from Stephen Sondheim's "Company" to "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Taboo."
He's played "Twelfth Night" in Central Park, toured in "Evita," and appeared on stages at Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Ahmanson in Los Angeles. Producers of "Leap of Faith" have put their own faith in Esparza, putting his name above the title of the show.
"I feel a huge responsibility. This is silly because it's been said a thousand times, but it's a little bit lonely. No one else can feel what I'm feeling there and I am trusted by the creative team, in a way, with their baby," he says. "It's a little frightening. I can make or break it on a nightly basis."
The show opened Thursday to generally poor reviews, though Esparza's work rate was hardly faulted. Critics, who have praised his talent in the past, said he seemed too smart for the show or too self-conscious this time.
"Leap of Faith" joins a few other shows this season on Broadway like "Sister Act," ''Newsies" and "Once" that also are adapted from films, a trend that Esparza has watched with wariness.
"I find that trend very troubling on Broadway. It's great when you try to go from a movie and be inspired by it, but I don't love the idea of copying a film and setting it to music," he says. "Lord knows, things like 'The Producers' and 'Hairspray' seem to work gorgeously, but for every one of those you end up with a show that is very close to the original film and it doesn't work."
He's thrown himself in it, losing 10 pounds in a few weeks simply by dancing. He gobbles down fruit and coffee and avoids alcohol, dairy, sugar and carbs. "It's like being in training for a marathon," he says. "It is the most exhausting part I've ever played."
Esparza, who was raised Roman Catholic, has wrestled with the role of the church, and is repulsed by the idea of canonizing John Paul II and the intolerance of evangelicals. "There's nothing like a fundamentalist for getting the Bible fundamentally wrong, as far as I'm concerned," he says.
He's visited holy places like Israel and the famous shrine in Lourdes, France. He's also felt the power of something powerful in Joshua Tree National Park, Big Sur, the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Ariz.
To get further into the Nightingale character, Esparza went to watch a Fresh Fire Ministries revival in Orlando, Fla. He noted the manipulation and carefully created frenzy — he basically saw the backstage tricks.
The whole thing gave him no peace.
"I don't know what I believe, but I will say that it is arrogant for me to think that I have the answer," he says. "I sat there, looking at the revival, going, 'Look at them, raising their hands and cheering hallelujah and talking about healings. They're just lying.' And then I thought, how is this different from me going to Mass on a Sunday?'"
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