by Brandon Espinoza
The first time I ever was on the stage of the Palace Theater was for an audition for The Will Rogers Follies when I was ten years old. It was my very first audition for a show, and a professional one at that.. A born and raised New Yorker, I, at the time, knew nothing of Broadway (or musicals for that matter), and little did I know this one audition would be the beginning of my professional career and my love for theater.
It all started when a dance teacher in a local studio I was training at in Queens was also a casting associate of a show called The Will Rogers Follies. She somehow managed to convince my folks and myself to attend an audition for it. They were looking for boys who could dance and sing. I was unfamiliar with the show and knew little to none about musicals, but I did see the Cats commercial a bunch of times and was always freaked out by the actors dressed as cats. I was told by this teacher/casting associate that if I got far enough into the audition, I would have to have a song ready to sing for them. I never sang in front of anyone, not even my parents, because it terrified me, so I essentially had no clue what the hell would come out of my mouth if I was asked to sing. Despite taking classes, I was very much new to dance. I still had hopes of being a professional basketball player (hey a kid can dream, right?). Theater was never even a thought in my mind.
Cut to the day of the audition…which was going to be on the stage of the Palace Theater, where the show was running at the time. It was a cattle call of sorts. A sea of young boys with their parents, warming up, getting pep talks from their stage parents, a complete living nightmare. I wanted nothing to do with it and wanted to go home. My dad, [who throughout my childhood performing career was] the furthest thing from a stage parent, in an attempt to not disappoint that dance teacher, pulled me into the bathroom and promised to give me 20 dollars if I stuck it out and got it. My mother would have killed him if she knew that at the time. She definitely didn’t know this part of the story until now. Hi, mom. I made it to the singing portion of the audition, and it turned out I was at least able to carry a tune, so thankfully that got me through. After hours of waiting then dance calls then singing, I ended up landing the small role of the middle son to Will Rogers, James. My dad admittedly never expected me to get it and was shocked (being that it was my first professional musical audition). He figured, if anything, I hopefully would have a fun experience and move on, which is why he offered me 20 dollars. He gave me the 20 dollars, by the way, but I digress…..
There are a few things that stand out for me during this time of my life, one of them being meeting the cast and crew backstage and witnessing what was nothing short of a family-like atmosphere. Every cast member all took a moment to introduce themselves to me and for the first time in my short life, adults didn’t look at me as just a kid, but like a fellow peer. That was astounding to me. I had no clue what I was getting myself into necessarily, but I knew I wanted to be part of it. Then I got to sit in the house and watch the show for the first time. It was my first Broadway show I had ever seen. I remember being completely fixated on the size of the theater (I didn’t really take any of this in when I auditioned for the show) and the architecture of it all; looking at how high up the balcony was, the amount of patrons that filled the seats, amongst other things. Then, the lights dimmed, the show began, and the energy exuding from those performers was exhilarating. To see people giving such wonderful all-around performances from dancing and singing to crazy rope tricks was inspiring. Also, there was an act where there were about eight dogs on stage doing tricks so, naturally, it blew my 10-year-old mind. For those who aren't familiar with this show, it was almost like a circus with some of the insane acts that happened in it. I remember seeing the kids on stage and how evident it was that they were having the absolute time of their lives. On top of that, it was witnessing the sheer joy the show brought the audience members and the raucous applause after every number that left me completely enamored.
My Broadway debut was both terrifying and thrilling all in the same breath. Literally up until I was waiting behind the curtain to come onto the stage, I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of what it was to be on Broadway until my very first entrance. As I finally appeared on the stage, I got my first glimpse of the audience, and my nerves were in full force. Then my pants were falling down. True story. It certainly helped with controlling my nerves, though. Despite that, I will never forget the feeling I got after our first number, hearing that audience, but this time being on the stage to receive it. Also, working alongside seasoned professionals was such a tremendous learning experience. It was only a six month long experience for me, but I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life thanks to that show. Hey, I was never going to be a professional basketball player anyway.
Now, I am back at the Palace Theater, and I cannot fully put into words how surreal this is to be cast in SpongeBob SquarePants. I don’t think I will be able to absorb it until my first show. All these years later, that sense of community, that sense of family, is still going strong at this theater thanks to this wonderful cast who have welcomed me with open arms. I could not be more excited to be part of a show that puts emphasis on hope, on acceptance, on community, on teamwork, on love. What also makes this special for me is the fact that I’m stepping in for a guy who is like a brother to me in Jon Rua AND I get to work with my lady Ms. Lauralyn McClelland for the first time. As a former child actor growing up in this business, I never knew if I would necessarily be good enough to be doing this my whole life, but I knew as long as I had the love and drive for it, good or not, it was worth continuing to try. I am incredibly lucky for all the years I have spent in this business. I’m very much looking forward to this experience, and equally thrilled to have my folks out there for my first night back at the Palace Theater. Ten-year-old me could have never predicted this. Cheers.
Brandon Espinoza is an award-winning Broadway performer, most recently seen in Chicago's Goodman Theatre production of A View From The Bridge.