Eden Espinosa

Eden EspinosaFor her upcoming concert residency, Eden Espinosa is going unplugged and unplanned. 

The beloved Broadway star—best known for her starring roles in Wicked and Rent—has four performances slated this month at NYC’s intimate cabaret venue The Green Room 42. But rather than a conventional concert with a firm setlist, Espinosa will improvise each of these acoustic and audience interaction-filled shows for a series of truly singular evenings.  

Ahead of the residency’s February 9th opening, Espinosa and I caught up on everything about this exciting and bold series of concerts, her upcoming return to the titular role of Lempicka in the new musical’s pre-Broadway engagement at La Jolla Playhouse this spring, and more. 

Though it’s a one-month residency, each of the four performances promises to be a completely unique experience. How do you prepare and rehearse for something that’s so unpredictable?

I actually planned it that way on purpose! I recently did a set in LA for a series that Shoshana Bean was producing called Standards at The Standard, which is meant for artists to come and play, try things out and sing songs they don’t normally sing. That was actually one of the most fun gigs I’ve had, but also one of the scariest! I was super nervous because it was a very intimate setting and it was just me and a guitar and I had sang a bunch of songs I’d never sung before. 

So I wanted to continue that challenge. Selfishly, I want to force myself to grow and face songs that I’ve been afraid to sing or show sides of myself that I haven’t before. I always like to create a very intimate environment in my shows. For this residency, I wanted to strip it down and have it just be myself and sing things that are kind of new and scary. 

I also definitely wanted it to be different every night and every week that we do it. Mostly because I feel like I needed to stretch myself with my repertoire. I’ve been singing the same group of songs for a while, and I also wanted to give the audience a fresh perspective. I want the audiences to have an experience that’s like, “I’m here tonight and I know that no one else is getting this show and it’s special for this one night”. That’s why I’m trying something new. We’ll see if it pays off!

What are the ways that you think that this unstructured format is going to show off a new side of yourself to your fans?

It forces me to dance on that line of spontaneity and freedom. It’s not going to be so off the cuff that I haven’t rehearsed. We’re also going to have a requests sections, where people can request songs and we’ll see if we know them. I want the shows to feel like a collaboration between the audience and myself. I think that forces me to be out of my head and be out of my comfort zone and just be fully present in the moment. 

Is there any material that you know you definitely want to include at each show? Or will you be totally starting over each time?

That’s a good question. I usually end all of my shows with “Look Around,” which is from The Will Rogers Follies, and is also the title track of my first album. So I’ll probably do that one. I think that there might be a few songs from Revelation that I’ll probably do every week as well. Plus, I’m sure in that request section people are going to request the same songs. I’m sure there will be repeats, I just definitely don’t know which ones for sure to expect. 

What type of creative itch does getting to perform on stage as yourself versus as a scripted character scratch?

I think that depends on the performer because some people are not comfortable really being themselves on stage. They gravitate more towards a scripted cabaret, with a storyline and a script and the same thing you say every time. I used to do that when I first started concerts. But over time, I realized that it just forced me to feel like I couldn’t make a mistake or I couldn’t say anything that was off the script. I enjoy the freedom of being myself when I do concerts like this because I don’t get to do that in a script or in a musical.

But also as an audience member, I love going to people’s shows and feeling like I get to know them a little bit more or that I’m sitting with them in their living room. That is my ultimate best experience when I go and see an actor or an actress do their concert. That’s definitely the environment that I want to create. It allows me to totally be myself, unfiltered and be okay with it. Even if that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, that’s okay. But I think the itch that it scratches is authenticity.

You mentioned that you were planning on including songs from Look Around and Revelation. What other types of music you’re going to plan to perform? Will you focus on musical theater songs, popular covers, original music, and/or something else?

I’m focusing the most on songs that make me really feel something and that I like to sing along with. That’s going to cover a lot of different genres. I’ve been working on a list of artists I may cover – Carole King, Dusty Springfield, U2, James Taylor, The Beatles, Harry Styles, Demi Lovato, Taylor Swift, Dave Matthews, Paula Cole, George Michael, just to name a few. I have a lot of material to cover!

But with the request section, I want that to be musical theater centric. I’m going to have a friend of mine who’s an amazing musical director and an accompanist come for every show and that section is definitely going to be off the cuff. Hopefully people are going to shout out musical theater songs that they want to hear. Even if I only know a little bit of it, I’ll sing that little bit of it. 

The other songs—besides the request section—will most likely be more pop covers than standards. But I do really want to have a musical theater section in every show because I’m a musical theater actor.

You also plan to tell intimate and behind the scenes stories from throughout your career. Is there one that you can preview that you definitely know you want to tell because it was particularly memorable and/or formative?

Over the years, I have gravitated more towards sharing stories and honestly just talking off the cuff. What’s funny is some people have really responded to it because they don’t expect it. I’ve even had people ask me, “Have you ever considered turning this into a standup routine with songs or a one woman show with songs? You’re just so funny.” And I’m like, “I am? I’m just telling a stupid story of what happened to me on the subway.” 

In my shows, I also encourage people to ask me questions. I literally love a responsive crowd. So I’m like, “If anyone wants to ask a question, just shout it out and I’m an open book!” I’m really hoping to create a dialogue and a camaraderie with the people who are there for that night. If they’re like, “Tell us a funny Wicked story,” I’ll tell like a silly mishap of things that happened with Megan (Hilty) and I. Or, “Tell us your worst audition story,” and I’ll tell one of those where I forgot my lyrics three times during “I’m Breaking Down” for James Lapine and Bill Finn. So there’s loads to choose from and I just hope people enjoy the evening!

These shows are also going to feature a slew of special guests. Can you tease who your fans can expect to see taking the stage with you?

I can tease who I want to ask! I’m definitely having Levi Kreis sing with me on one of the gigs. He won the Tony for Million Dollar Quartet. He and I have been friends for years and years and we’ve been wanting to do something together for a long time. So he’s definitely going to be a guest! 

I also want to ask Chris Lee, who’s known from the Chicago company of Hamilton. I want to ask Norbert Leo Butz to do something with me. I want to ask Jessica Vosk, Gavin Creel, Morgan James, Mason Alexander Park. There are so many people I want to ask! I have a big wish list. We’ll see who turns up!

The last time that we spoke, we were talking about Lempicka and you said, “I’d like to see this piece have its moment in the sun on the Great White Way.” Since then, it’s been announced that the show will be coming to the La Jolla Playhouse for a limited run this spring before it debuts on Broadway. Do you plan to star in these upcoming productions and how has the show evolved since its Williamstown Theatre Festival premiere?

It’s evolved a lot since Williamstown! I am definitely going to La Jolla Playhouse and if it moves on from there, I can only hope that I’m still included. I doubt that they would switch it up this late in the game. I’ve put in a lot of time with this one, which I love so, so much. 

The show has changed a lot since Williamstown. They’re really just working on the story. It’s very dense because there’s a lot of ground to cover with this woman and her life. They’re just trying to boil it down to what is the key story that we want to tell. A lot of the changes are in our structure and really honing in on making it the most concise story that we can tell. We just did a three-week development lab in December, so that’s exciting. There are a lot of changes, but they are all for the better! We’re all very much looking forward to La Jolla and to seeing what happens after that.

Later this month, you’re also going to be splitting the role of the narrator with Alex Newell and Jessica Vosk in a Lincoln Center concert presentation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. What are you most excited about for this one night only show?

The cast is a group of pals, old and new! I think when a group of people come together for one night only events such as this, it’s just magic no matter what. I’m excited to work with (director) Michael Arden. He and I are colleagues from when he used to act more. I’m so excited for him to direct me and to work with (musical director) Stephen Oremus again. I just can’t wait! 

I also really can’t wait to sing with Jess and Alex. I can only imagine what they’re going to have the three of us do. I’m excited to be in a room with them and to sing with them. I think it’s going to be a really special night.

Now that you’ve wrapped your run on Tangled: The Series after 43 episodes, what are you going to miss most about playing Cassandra?

I’m going to miss playing her every week! It was a dream come true to create a character for Disney in any capacity – especially one who is such a badass and so human and brave. She is all the things that I would have wanted to look up to when I was a kid. I’m going to miss working with that creative team. It was a beautiful experience from beginning to end and it was a total dream come true. I’m definitely going to miss being Cassandra in that recording booth.

What were some of the biggest highlights of getting back on stage with your Brooklyn the Musical cast last year for a reunion concert?

Oh my gosh, that experience was surreal! I can’t believe we pulled it off and actually did it. It was just beautiful to revisit the material all these years later. We all share so many memories and did so much reminiscing. Even revisiting the music had us going like, “Oh my gosh, remember when we learned this?” or, “Remember when they changed this?” It was a very poignant, emotional time in my life when we did the show. Revisiting it 15 years later was super special.

Last year, you independently released your second album, Revelation. Do you have any plans for a follow-up record?

Yeah, I definitely want to. I’m very specific about having a direction and having something to say. I’m not an artist who puts one thing on hold in order to do another. I continue to pursue musical theater and everything else that I do while I work on an album. I don’t say, “I’m taking a break for two years to write and record this album.” Some people can do that and that’s amazing. I honestly can’t afford to do it at this point. I don’t want to just pursue one thing. I selfishly want to be able to do it all! 

But yes, there will definitely be a follow-up album. I want it to be sooner rather than later. I definitely want it to be less time than there was between Look Around and Revelation.

Purely as a theater fan, what are some Broadway productions opening this year that you can’t wait to see?

Well, I’m a little bit behind in this season. I still want to see Jagged Little Pill. I saw Slave Play, which was amazing. I still haven’t seen Ain’t Too Proud, but I really want to. 

Right now, we’re inundated with remakes and reboots and I’m interested to see how that is going to affect the tapestry of Broadway. They’re all movies now. They used to be jukebox musicals and then for a while it was the biopic musical and now it’s the movie musical. We have Mrs. Doubtfire and The Karate Kid coming in. We have the Britney Spears musical coming in. It’s an interesting mixture of things. I love theater and I’m excited to see it all. 

I think there’s room for everything, no matter how long it lasts. I just hope that there’s still space for original pieces that are out of the box and artistic and have specific points of view. 

I’m also excited for Company and I’m super intrigued to see MJ. There are a lot of exciting projects coming! But of course, I’m the most excited to hear what’s going to happen with Lempicka.

If you were running for President this year, what would your campaign slogan be?

It would be “Elect me or anyone else to get this man out of office!” That’s what I’d say. Are my political views clear at all? It would literally be that blunt.

Eden EspinosaWhat are some of your biggest goals, both personally and professionally in 2020?

I have a lot of projects that have been on my mind and on the back burner for a long time. Some of them involve writing a script or screenplay, I don’t know which one. I also have an idea for a one woman show for myself, that’s theatrical and musical. I don’t know if it’s meant to be performed live or if it should just be filmed. 

My goal for 2020 is to start tiny projects, one step at a time, and to plant little seeds of bigger projects that I want to create. I’d like to one day have a production company or my hand in producing and creating events. Right now, those are my little seeds that I want to plant for 2020.

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Eden Espinosa’s February 2020 residency “Unplugged & Unplanned” at The Green Room 42 (570 10th Ave) in New York City and visit www.edenespinosa.com for all things Eden!

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.