Exclusive: Eden Espinosa Talks Elphaba, Maureen, Brooklyn and ME

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Eden Espinosa is famous, albeit without the paparazzi — just YouTube her and read the comments from fans who freak out over her pipes. You may have heard her hit impossible high notes when she defied gravity as Wicked‘s Elphaba the green witch in LA, San Fransisco AND the Great White Way. But if you don’t recognize the name, you’re likely not a part of the fan culture who haunts stage doors in hopes of scoring a new Facebook default pic with their favorite Broadway star.

With a resume boasting roles that include Elphie, Maureen in Rent, and the title role in the short-lived Brooklyn The Musical, some have pigeonholed Espinosa as just another lucky pop singer who can riff. But Kelly Clarkson, she’s not. (Her dream role is the highly demanding Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita.) From Espinosa’s Disneyland past (she’d perform 5 to 6 shows a day complete with Pocahontas garb) to headlining her first solo NYC show, she has worked her way to the top the traditional way — with solid talent.

This weekend, she’s setting aside the green witch makeup and bringing a few of her favorite tunes (which include Eva Cassidy!) and special guest vocalist Katie Thompson to Joe’s Pub for a three night run of Eden Espinosa — ME, which garnered a previous sold-out run at LA’s Upright Cabaret. After the jump, we chat with Espinosa between rehearsals for her NYC solo debut about all things theater, including her nutty fans (cough, cough… Britney Spears) and the New York Times review that made her cry..

Flavorwire: Tell us about ME. What was the song selection process like?

Eden Espinosa: Upright Cabaret approached me about doing a concert and we got in touch with Billy Porter about helping to shape it, and he basically asked me to send him a sentence of what I’m feeling at this point — what I want my show to be about. Because I wanted it to be more a concert instead of a cabaret or a one woman show. My sentence was: “Coming into my own without fear. Lost love, found love, found me.” So I basically just chose songs that were my little touchstones helping me get through whatever or songs that I related to in my life, either professionally or personally. So you can expect songs by kind of obscure artists, but you can expect pop, rock, blues songs… you know, like Jeff Buckley and Eva Cassidy. I’m really proud of the show.

FW: What’s more nervewracking for you? Flying in the rafters belting “Defying Gravity” to hundreds or an intimate performance complete with cocktail-guzzling onlookers?

EE: Always the intimate. Even when I’m just singing one song at a benefit I get really nervous for it. Especially revealing something about your life through any song and someone will listen to the lyrics and be like “Oh, she was in a really dark place then!” (laughing) Something like that… so this is much more nerve-wracking for me.

FW: How does it feel being a lead in two of the biggest original musicals of the past decade?

EE: Amazing. Rent was the first Broadway show I ever saw, so to be a part of the closing company was like… a dream come true; a full circle crazy type thing. And, Wicked, I couldn’t be more grateful that I was a part of that show and am. It’s so much a part of my life still.

FW: Did you get over clogging your pores with that green make up every night?

EE: I was never over playing the character but at some point, especially at this last contract, I felt, for right now, I’ve learned all that I can through Elphaba and through playing her. So that’s the point when I need to step away. I mean, never say never. Five years from now I’m sure it’s still gonna be running and maybe, if they would ask me, if I should be so lucky.

FW: Broadway fans, especially with Wicked, are crazy. So I must ask in true Wicked superfan form: Who’s your fave Elphaba?! Idina, Eden, or Shoshana?

EE: People feel so strongly about it, they’re so committed. What I think is cool is that I haven’t seen any two Elphabas alike. I mean, obviously, yes the lines are the same, the songs are the same. But everybody has their own little take on the character and I think that’s what’s cool — that everyone can relate to this person’s version better or that person better. So… there’s an Elphaba for everyone!

FW: So the barricade-jumping fans don’t creep you out?

EE: I did it for Rent. I totally did! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I mean, you’re moved by something and you wanna just meet the person or get your Playbill signed or what have you..

FW: As long as they don’t follow you on the subway… Speaking of crazy fans, MTV seems to be catching on with their search for the next Elle Woods with their Legally Blonde reality show. How do you feel about shows like these?

EE: I don’t know how I feel about that to be honest with you. It’s a cool opportunity for people to experience that and if they are to win like the girl who won the Grease reality show who is now the lead in South Pacific and took over for (Tony Award nominated) Kelli O’Hara… But I don’t think it’s a true depiction of what it takes to live in this city and audition everyday and be turned down constantly.

FW: I remember when you were starring and singing your face off in Brooklyn The Musical , which featured an American Idol-like sing-off contest at the close of the show. The New York Times took it a bit too seriously and featured a negative story with a rather large picture of you, ranting about the current pop-belting Broadway scene. Hadn’t they ever seen Hair or Tommy?

EE: Oh yeah, that made me cry. That’s one of the downfalls of creating something and people seeing you as one thing and thinking that’s all you can do. And that’s what kind of happened with Brooklyn because everybody in that show sang so high and so like crazy pop vocals… And I was the standby for Elphaba before then. I think the title of the article was “Has Broadway lost its voice to American Idol style singing?” with my picture huge on the front and I was like… (gasps) Are you kidding me right now? And the thing is, do you guys really think I volunteered to sing like that eight times a week? Because, (laughing) I assure you that none of us did. But that’s what was written and that’s what we were told to do.

FW: Will Me allow you to show off your vocal versatility?

EE: Me is definitely another side of my voice that’s more organic and not so belty all the time. I mean, there’s a couple in there. But especially now that I’m a little older, I don’t choose to sing that way all the time… Because it’s difficult you know! I just wanted to show a different side to me and my voice; just a little bit of myself.

FW: You opted out of studying theater in college and opted for Disney. Why?

EE: A lot of people talk about theme parks and say, “Oh, you were a theme park person…” But anyone who has worked at Disneyland knows that it’s not the typical theme park experience. It taught me stamina: You do 5 to 6 shows a day in any climate, in outdoor theaters. But it also taught me a good work ethic. They’re sticklers over there. I mean, their eyes are on you. They take notes on you every single show; they don’t just pop in every once in a while. They’re making sure you’re on the number, doing the choreography right, that you don’t stray too much from what’s written in the vocals. So it taught me a great work ethic, discipline and stamina.

FW: I saw that you eventually got to play Ariel. Why didn’t you really go full circle with Ariel in Broadway’s The Little Mermaid?

EE: Oh, no, no! Years and years ago I did audition for it when it was in workshop. And they told me, “You know, if I was casting Ariel’s sexy older sister then I would cast you.”

FW: What’s the difference between performing as Elphaba on Broadway vs. LA?

EE: The theater in LA is bigger. The audience is more vocal because they’re so excited. It’s not like here where there are theaters and musicals and plays everywhere you turn. When a famous show decides to sit down there for a while, they’re just so happy to have it there that, at times, it’s like a rock concert.

FW: I hear even Britney Spears is a fan…

EE: But she left! She had like a turban on and big ol’ sunglasses sitting right in the center of the third row. And she left right before “Popular.” The paparazzi was crazy outside; I heard they got in the theater and started to bug her. But I did hear she was a fan.