They’re not just in the room where it happens. Joseph Morales and Nik Walker are in the room making it happen.
When “Hamilton” opens Tuesday at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, Morales and Walker will be center stage — playing friends-turned-rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, respectively — in the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical.
It’s the second time Morales has portrayed a role created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote “Hamilton’s” book (based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton”) and rap-flavored musical score.
When Morales was playing bodega owner Usnavi in the national tour of 2008’s “In the Heights,” Miranda’s first Tony-winning show, Morales remembers Miranda “playing some record” that “was just going to be a mixtape.”
Miranda thought his mixtape might inspire an eventual stage production, following in the stage footsteps of, among others, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Chess.”
Instead, Miranda and his “In the Heights” collaborators — including director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler — opted to transform the “Hamilton” mixtape themselves, first in an off-Broadway production at New York’s Public Theater. (That’s where many notable productions, including such landmark musicals as “Hair” and “A Chorus Line,” originated.)
After revisions, that production eventually moved to Broadway — and is now playing to enthusiastic audiences everywhere from Chicago (home of “Hamilton’s” first escape-from-New-York foray) to London, where the musical celebrating Britain’s breakaway colonies cleaned up last month at the Olivier Awards — the U.K.’s Tony Awards equivalent — with seven trophies, including best new musical.
The “Hamilton” opening Tuesday at The Smith Center may be the show’s second national tour, but “it’s exactly the same” as the Broadway production, Morales says. “There’s nothing different — other than different actors.”
And that, Walker suggests, makes it totally different than the Broadway version, where he was an ensemble member and understudied the roles of Burr and George Washington before playing Burr on tour.
“Hamilton’s” creative team determined that “the only way to keep this alive” was to allow cast members to play “what is true to us,” Walker says. (So, “if you’re coming to hear what you heard on the CD,” he adds, you’ll have to adjust your ears to the live performers.)
Fortunately, this particular show is “so well put together,” he says, that “it can withstand so many different interpretations.”
Besides, “Hamilton” was “a passion project for Lin” and his collaborators, Morales says. “His heart comes through and you feel it.”
Making “the piece they wanted to make” was “just as much a gamble as any piece of art,” Walker says.
And in that sense, he adds, “Hamilton’s” creators have a lot in common with Hamilton himself, who in his short life (he was in his late 40s when Burr fatally shot him in an 1804 duel) was Gen. George Washington’s right-hand man during the American Revolution, the first secretary of the treasury of the new United States, primary author of the Federalist Papers advocating adoption of the Constitution, anti-slavery advocate and more.
“It’s the story of any creator … who has an idea and goes out into the world to make that idea known,” Walker says. “It’s all there. It’s that fight to find your place in the world and make your voice heard.”
Beyond that, Morales says, “Hamilton” strikes a chord with audiences in part because its creators “captured the humanity” behind its historical characters, who include future presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, along with the Marquis de Lafayette. (Not to mention “Hamilton’s” resident comedy-relief figure: Britain’s King George III.)
The show “brought these figures to life and made them all human,” Morales says. “You can relate to these people and decisions they made — and the mistakes they made.”
Taking their shot
Nik Walker knows just how Aaron Burr feels. And not just because he plays Burr in one of “Hamilton’s” national tours.
“When I first heard (of) the show, I hated the show,” Walker admits — because a number of his acting colleagues were cast members.
“I had come up with these people,” the actor recalls. “I literally went away to do a play in Denver” — and when he returned to New York, “Hamilton” was the toast of the town, as were his friends.
“You have no idea how annoying it is,” Walker says, sounding very much like Burr, the politician who wants to be “in the room where it happens” but prefers to follow popular opinion rather than take a strong stand.
During a four-year period, close.” But not close enough. (Another link to Burr, whose relationship with Hamilton metamorphosed from friendship to rivalry to deadly confrontation.)
“The turning point for me” in auditioning, Walker says, came when someone explained that the show’s rap-style numbers were “just heightened text, just verse.” That clarified matters for the former Shakespeare drama major, who became a “Hamilton” ensemble member on Broadway and understudied the roles of Burr and George Washington.
As for this tour’s Hamilton, actor Joseph Morales had worked with “Hamilton’s” Tony-winning creative team — led by writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler — when he played Usnavi in the national tour of Miranda’s first Tony-winning show, “In the Heights.”
Many people have remarked on the resemblance between Miranda and Morales. “I have gotten that a lot — that we look alike and sound alike,” Morales says. “I’ve been following Lin for the past five years.”
Morales only “went in once” to audition for “Hamilton,” then submitted a few videos before being tapped to play the show’s title character in Chicago.
He was touring in “If/Then” with Idina Menzel when he received a call about his “Hamilton” casting. “I don’t think I understood how big it was, or how huge it would be in my life at the time,” he says.
Now that he does, Morales likens playing “Hamilton’s” title role to “being shot out of a cannon.”