Q&A: Isabella Esler & the Wild World of the Beetlejuice Musical

San Jose Native Takes Us Behind the Scenes of Her Professional Debut in Hit Musical Adaptation
Isabella Esler as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, coming to San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from August 1-6, 2023. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Recent Archbishop Mitty High School graduate Isabella Esler is coming back home as a Broadway performer with her first professional role as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice.

A musical based on the beloved 1988 Tim Burton film which saw Michael Keaton in the titular role of the ghastly ghoul attempting to spook the family of Winona Ryder’s Lydia from their new home. The extremely popular musical comedy adaptation has been taking stages across the country and providing audiences with an incredibly fun and touching show about family, love and of course, the hereafter.

Beetlejuice will be coming to San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from August 1-6, 2023. It’ll be an especially memorable event for Esler, as she grew up sitting in the audience at that very venue.

Incredibly, Esler’s professional career started just last year, as she began auditioning for the show just as she was finishing up her senior year at Archbishop Mitty. She spent the summer of graduation doing callbacks and eventually landed the iconic role of goth girl Lydia with the touring production, which began its tour in San Francisco in December of 2022.

Recently Esler took some time to answer questions regarding her experience on the show thus far, as well as what this whole experience has been like, from being a San Jose teenager during the pandemic, to being thrust onto the stage of a touring Broadway musical in just a few short years.

How was it that you became interested in the performing arts and could you touch on kind of that journey, and to start your career in this?

Yeah, I’ve always grown-up doing theater. I’m really thankful for growing up in San Jose because San Jose had a pretty big theater community. I did a lot of community theater and did theater at my high school as well. And my parents kind of just put me in theater when I was six because I’ve always kind of liked singing. So that’s always been my thing, I loved it.

And with this show, specifically my senior year of high school, right when I just started senior year, I saw an audition online. It was like this open call online that I saw and I was going to prepare for college auditions because I was going to go to college for musical theater or acting or one of those. And so I was like, “oh, just for practice, I’ll send in something. I really love this show and this character, and I think it would be like a good experience.”

“I feel like a part of me being a teen, like all of those emotions you go through, I think it reflects a lot in Lydia because she’s a young girl just trying to be heard and I think I’m able to kind of bring myself in her a little bit and I love that about her.”

I sent it in when they were reopening on Broadway, and then I didn’t expect them to see it, but they did. And so I ended up doing some online callbacks for the Broadway show, and then over the course of that year until the summer, I did callbacks for the tour.

So it’s kind of like a yearlong process for me, which has been pretty cool and also really different from doing community theater, which has been great, but this was completely different. And now I’m here.

What is it like to go directly from high school into something like this? What are the feelings you have there in that experience?

Yeah, it’s really crazy. My junior and senior year, I had the plan set for myself, I like to kind of think ahead. So I was like I was going to go to college for theater or acting and then I was going to move to New York or LA, one of those places and then audition and then work my way up and I was really set on that. So it was kind of crazy how it kind of went backwards for me and I didn’t end up going to college and now I’m on this show, it’s really jarring for me.

If you told me I was going to be on tour at the beginning of my senior year, I would not believe you just because it happened so fast. But I’m so thankful for it. It’s so fun. And also, everyone else, the cast and the crew, everyone is so sweet and have been so supportive of me and as I’m learning and kind of figuring this whole thing out. But it’s been really great and definitely such a fun and interesting experience. It’s a huge learning experience for sure.

Could you talk about what it’s like to step in the shoes of your character Lydia?

It’s been really fun. I love this character. I think for one, being able to play a teenager when I still I mean, you know, I still consider myself a teenager. When I found out about the show, it was like right before COVID happened, so I was still 16. So I feel like a part of me being a teen, like all of those emotions you go through, I think it reflects a lot in Lydia because she’s a young girl just trying to be heard and I think I’m able to kind of bring myself in her a little bit and I love that about her. She’s really special to me because of that. And I love being able to play around her angst and her cleverness and being able to mess around.

And I don’t know, she’s just been super fun to play around with in terms of her character. I also love being able to bring out her softer and more genuine sides, because I know from the outside she’s a very goth character and dark, and so being able to bring out the more positive sides and I guess the innocence of her has been really fun too.

How would you describe the story within this version of Beetlejuice?

It’s pretty similar to the movie I would say, all the same elements are there, all the characters are there, all the big plot points of the movie are there. So I think if you’re a fan of the movie, you’re able to follow along pretty well. It’s interesting, in the movie, I feel like they focus a little more on the Maitlands, like the deceased couple. And in the musical, I think they kind of moved it into focus a little bit more on Beetlejuice and Lydia and kind of their background, their story and their development.

When I went to watch the movie, I didn’t realize Beetlejuice doesn’t come in until like halfway in the movie. But in the musical, he’s in it the whole time. He barely leaves the stage. So it’s kind of interesting getting a part of the movie, knowing what’s going on, and then also kind of bringing this new side of the characters that you didn’t see a whole lot of in the movie, which I think is really fun, and then also adding crazy different elements of singing and dancing.

So for Lydia, what would you say is the focal point of her journey in this show since her character gets expanded?

Yeah, in the musical it definitely focuses more on her journey with her mother, of her losing her mother. I know they mentioned in the movie a little bit how deal is her stepmom, but they don’t really expand that much upon that. So in this musical, that’s her whole deal is her trying to navigate – like they’re in a new place while she’s still dealing with the recent death of her mother and kind of mourning and realizing what that means and how she can get through that, which I think is a really important story to tell. And I think especially about loss and mourning. I think it’s a very there’s a lot of touching moments in the musical because of that, because of her journey trying to figure out how to navigate a new world without her mother.

Looking back at the first 6 months of this show, what has this experience been like for you, being on this tour and traveling and getting to see different audiences in different locations every week?

Yeah, it’s crazy, for sure. I could have never prepared myself ever for this. It’s something you just have to do to know how to deal with it. But it’s so fun, especially this show. On Broadway it had a really big cult following, very large presence on social media because social media is everywhere. I could only imagine how big it was all over the US. Not just in New York. So it’s been really cool going to all these different cities and seeing all of these Beetlejuice fans from around the country.

And every show there’s always people dressed up and people invested, and it’s really fun. And also a lot of artwork. I’m very thankful for this type of show just because it has such a supportive fan base and being able to bring this type of wacky, fun show to different audiences and see how they react to each different joke and stuff in different cities. It’s always been really fun being able to play around with it.

And throughout the experience, has there been a favorite aspect of it all?

I feel like for me, honestly, it changes all the time. I feel like a lot of our energy just because a lot of the show is very much like talking to the audience and reflecting off the audience. So sometimes when the audience is really crazy and really vocal and excited, I feel like it makes every moment of the show so fun because you’re giving back to the audience.

I would say one of my favorite moments would be right in the beginning of Act Two. The song is called “Beautiful Sound,” and there’s like a bunch of different Beetlejuice clones and everyone’s dancing around. And it’s actually the craziest song ever because having to describe it to other people is really crazy. But I think that’s why it’s so fun because there’s so much going on and just being able to see how the audience is reacting to all the flips and all the dancing and all the crazy screams and all the crazy stuff happening. It’s really such a fun way to start back, too, and it’s really thrilling, for sure.

How do you feel coming back to San Jose and bringing the show to family and friends. And how does it feel to come back and do the work you’ve been doing across the country at home?

It is really weird because I grew up watching a lot of touring shows at Broadway San Jose at that specific theater for years. So it’s really weird to know that I’m going to be on the other side, I’m going to be at that theater performing rather than watching. So I don’t even know how I feel. It’s really crazy.

It’s super exciting because I get to be in my hometown, go to all my favorite restaurants, all my favorite places that I haven’t been to in a while, and seeing all my friends and family, it’s really fun. It was nice too, because when we first started, our first stop was San Francisco, which know, really close to San Jose. I was able to have a lot of family and friends watch us just starting our tour. So I’m excited to see, because I know some people are going to watch a second time after six months to see kind of how the show has evolved over the months. I’m very excited.

Beetlejuice is at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from August 1-6, 2023. Tickets and info are available at broadwaysanjose.com.

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