Eden Espinosa Has Been Waiting a Long Time for a Role Like Lempicka | Playbill

Spring Preview 2024 Eden Espinosa Has Been Waiting a Long Time for a Role Like Lempicka

After 16 years, the former Wicked actor is finally back on Broadway.

Eden Espinosa photographed at Bond 45 Heather Gershonowitz

It’s been a while since Eden Espinosa was on Broadway. In fact, it’s been 16 years. Espinosa is a musical theatre favorite because she played Elphaba in Wicked and was the final Maureen in Rent on Broadway in 2008. It’s not like she wasn’t working—since 2008, she’s done concerts, Off-Broadway shows, and regional theatre productions. But in her 30s, as Espinosa saw herself aging out of the ingénue roles, the opportunities started drying up. She subsequently went through a crisis of confidence.

“I went through such a psychotic mental period of time in my 30s,” she remarks frankly. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, I'm not working anymore. I'm not worth anything. People don't want to hire me.’” So, Espinosa went to where the roles were that truly challenged her—away from New York and the lights of Broadway. Then, when the offer came to play the title character in Lempicka in 2017, Espinosa jumped on and has been clinging with a tight grip on the show ever since.

Lempicka, the highly anticipated new Broadway musical from Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, follows the life story of real-life Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. A contemporary of Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, Lempicka was one of the most sought-after portrait painters of her time, known in particular for her vivacious depictions of women. In Lempicka’s work, even when the women were nude, they had agency—they looked straight at you. Lempicka was also a survivor of the Russian Revolution, and fled the Nazis during World War II. She was a wife and mother, and her family’s breadwinner. She was openly bisexual. Lempicka begins performances at the Longacre Theatre March 19, and will open April 14.

"In our show, Tamara isn't interested in whether or not you like her. She is only interested in what she has to do to survive and thrive in a world that would just as soon have her dead," explains the show's composer Gould, who has been working on Lempicka for almost 15 years. 

In other words, the artist was a powerhouse. Like the woman playing her, says Gould. "That requires an actor who is willing to be ugly at times, to be unlikable, to show a tenacity and drive that isn't always viewed as becoming in a woman. Eden doesn't care what you think. Eden wants to get it right. Eden wants to survive. You see it in the way she carries herself, the way she sings with abandon, the way she dresses, and the way she holds her friends and her castmates. Eden is a force. And she's not afraid to let the world know what havoc a force can wreak and also what love a force can bring. She's it."

Espinosa has been involved with the show since 2016, when it had a presentation at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. She recalls being floored when Gould first sent her the demos of the songs. “I just never heard anything like it,” she recalled. “It's like Valjean of Les Miz. There are very few female characters that get to experience everything that this character gets to experience.” 

The show follows Lempicka from her days as a young wife trying desperately to get her family out of Russia, through her second act as a famed painter, to her old age when she has faded into obscurity. It allows Espinosa to play a woman of ranging complexity. Says the actor: “Women are forced to make difficult decisions every day of their lives…And a lot of times, we’re pegged a certain way for it: Cold, ambitious, unfeeling, difficult. And my intrigue with her was to find the humanity...You don't have to like her. I'm not asking you to, but I want you to have empathy for her struggle and feel for her.”

When speaking about the role, Espinosa talks about it as a calling, something that she just knew in the deep fiber of her being that she was destined to do, even in the face of doubt. For instance, after that initial workshop in 2016, Espinosa got the heartbreaking news that the role of Lempicka was being recast with someone who had, as she put it, “a more bankable name.” When that person dropped out, it wasn’t a guarantee that Espinosa would return. Instead, she was asked to go through three rounds of auditions before Lempicka’s world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018. She admits that not everyone would have put aside their pride.

“I believe that I'm supposed to play this role,” she recalls feeling at the time. “I want to do everything I can to say I tried. So I was like, I'm throwing my name in that hat as many times as they'll keep it in there.” Then after that world premiere, where the New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote that Espinosa “has finally found a part to match her high-voltage talent…her Lempicka is indeed a legitimate successor to [Patti] LuPone’s Perón,” Espinosa’s future with the show was no longer in question.

And now, it is her face in all the ads for the show, her voice singing “Woman Is” in the show’s official music video. Lempicka is calling for all of Espinosa’s skills as an actor, portraying a woman who is simultaneously powerful but also sensitive and flawed. And the show’s songs require Espinosa to use the highest of her vocal range. But she is grateful that this Broadway opening is happening now, calling it “divine timing.” This same season, Espinosa also starred in a musical Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, called The Gardens of Anuncia, where she played the mother of Tony-winning choreographer Graciela Daniel. It's been a career homecoming for the actor.

Despite the pressure that comes when your face is the one on the posters, Espinosa is handling this limelight with a quiet confidence that comes from years of experience. “I'm ready,” she says emphatically. “I think there were other versions of me, versions of me with this project, that still felt like I needed to prove something and prove myself: Do I have what it takes?” And here she adds, with quiet determination, “This time around, I'm ready. I have what it takes…I feel fortunate. And I feel called to lead this cast and tell this woman's story.”

Eden Espinosa photographed at Bond 45 Heather Gershonowitz

Espinosa admits that time, she’s now in her 40s, has helped her quiet those voices (either internal or external) that told her she’s not good enough or that she was past her prime. “It’s been a lot of internal healing of past traumas and narratives that don't serve me and industry standards that don't serve me,” she admits. “I feel like every decade that a person goes through, we have something to offer—women in their 40s have something to offer, women in their 50s, women in their 60s.”

Sure, she admits there is the economic pressure to succeed. And she characterizes Lempicka as a wildcard in this Broadway season—a season that has so far not been kind to original musicals. “It's the wild, wild west out there right now in musical theatre, whether your show’s commercially viable or not,” she explains. “And we are the wildcard. We’re not based on a movie or a film. We don't know what's going to happen.”

But again, she’s choosing to trust. In the show, in her collaborators, and, most of all, in herself. All the hard work, all the times she had to prove that she was the right person to play Lempicka—it has all been worth it. “The biggest thing for me is just keeping my head down and doing the work. Not comparing myself to anybody else. Getting my body ready, getting my mind ready, getting my voice ready,” she explains.

Then as a woman who is truly no longer afraid of what people think of her, Espinosa adds with refreshing honesty: “I've worked my ass off for a very long time. I know what I'm doing. Let's go do it. Nothing else is in my control, therefore, it sort of doesn't matter. And if it's great, if it’s well received, that's like icing on the cake.”

Photos: Eden Espinosa Has Been Waiting a Long Time for a Role Like Lempicka

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