Raul Esparza was robbed, they say. But I’m not so sure.
They say that he, having been long overlooked by the Tony committee, was due. This was his year. But last time I checked, the award was for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, not Best Leading Vocalist in a Musical.
I would gladly go out of my way to praise Esparza for his performance on the Tony Awards this year. I’ve never found occasion to like him before, but the passion and longing he conveyed -- not to mention the sheer power of his voice -- won me over. It gave me chills and caused me to lose control of the muscles that keep my jaw shut. Nevertheless, as I watched, I couldn’t help noticing how much effort it seemed to take him to sing it. It took me awhile to realize why that bugged me.
In musical theatre, song is a natural extension of the character. When some event, thought, or feeling is too much for the non-metrical monotony of everyday speech, the characters simply must burst into song. As a result, the actor must make it look natural . . . effortless. Take a look at four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, for example. You wouldn’t expect such a voice to come out of her with the way she presents herself. Each high note seems to take no more effort than an everyday discourse between friends; each one slides out of her mouth like water down a gently sloping hill. Then there’s Esparaza. Every power note, every long note –- especially that high note at the end of “Being Alive” –- that Esparza sings is preceded by a noticeable effort, as sort of gearing up for the big’un.
David Hyde Pierce, though he had an arguably less difficult and certainly less nuanced part in Curtians, did a much better job of hiding his effort. He was Lieutenant Cioffi because we didn’t see him trying to be Lieutenant Cioffi. Esparza did a bang up job as Bobby, but we all knew he was trying. Yes, the role of tortured, lonely Bobby seems to require more effort that the romantic, stage-struck Cioffi, but both should appear just as effortless to the audience.
That is where Esparza failed and Pierce succeeded. And that is why Pierce walked away with the shiny, spinning statue.