‘From the neck up, we’re completely different’: ‘Hamilton’ actors ready to take their shot with Salt Lake City audiences

Joseph Morales and Nik Walker return to Utah to perform in the revolutionary hip-hop musical.

(Courtesy photo by Joan Marcus) Joseph Morales and Nik Walker play Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the Phillip tour of the Tony Award-winning hip-hop musical, "Hamilton."

Nik Walker wasn’t fond of “Hamilton” at a time when everybody else was in love with the century’s most groundbreaking piece of theater.

Walker, who received classical Shakespearean training while studying at New York University, eschewed hip-hop for rock. “ ‘Rent’ was more my speed,” he says.

He was a bit envious, too, of the original “Hamilton” cast and replacements, actors like Ephraim M. Sykes and Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who had been his castmates in the musical “Motown.” “These were my boys,” Walker says. “All of a sudden these guys are superstars. You couldn’t escape them.”

A similar attitude, perhaps, to founding father Aaron Burr, Walker’s character in the second national tour of “Hamilton,” which plays its first Utah run at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on April 11-May 6.

In the role, Walker’s Burr matches political wits with upstart immigrant Alexander Hamilton, portrayed by Joseph Morales. It’s the story of two Founding Fathers whose fates became intricately entwined.

Morales was more familiar with the rapid-fire mashup of hip-hop, rap, R&B ballads and classic musical-theater numbers of “Hamilton,” all filtered through the inventive style of Lin-Manuel Miranda. After all, Morales is touring in his second Miranda-created role, after playing Usnavi in the first national tour of “In the Heights.”

“I’ll follow him anywhere,” Morales says of Miranda. “I don’t know how I got so lucky.”

He says you can tell a performer wrote the role, because it’s so much fun to play.

Both actors are returning to Salt Lake City stages after performing in musicals at Pioneer Theatre Company: Morales as Usnavi in 2011’s regional premiere of “In the Heights” and Walker as Tom Collins in 2012’s “Rent.”

Before the “Hamilton” run begins, Utahns are invited to meet Walker and Morales at a Tribune Q&A on Monday at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City.

Meet the cast<br>Joseph Morales, who plays Alexander Hamilton, and Nik Walker, who plays Aaron Burr, will share behind-the-scenes stories with Tribune arts writer Ellen Fagg Weist.<br>The Tribune event, with a Q&A, will be at 7 p.m. Monday, April 9, at the Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City.<br>Tickets are $20 ($12 for Tribune subscribers). Visit https://bit.ly/tribhamilton for tickets and more information.

Don’t say no to this

Through the off-Broadway and Broadway runs of “Hamilton,” Walker auditioned eight or nine times with multiple callbacks. When the show blew up, “everybody was loving it, and I hated it,” says Walker, who worried he didn’t have enough energy to be cast in the hip-hop musical.

It wasn’t until a friend advised him that the rap lyrics were just heightened verse that he found his way into the role.

“As soon as he said that, I thought: ‘Ahhh. OK, that’s something I understand,’ ” he says. “I’m not a hip-hop guy, but I can speak this as Shakespearean verse, then I have to give it a bit of a rise, a little bit of tone, to bring it back to what it is. These lines have to rise. It’s taking your voice and dragging the person along. It’s not natural, it’s incantation, it’s seduction — that’s what hip-hop is.”

(Courtesy photograph by Joan Marcus) Nik Walker as Aaron Burr on the Philip tour of the musical "Hamilton," which will play Salt Lake City on April 11-May 6.

Walker, 30, an African-American actor who was raised in Boston, hopes theatergoers connect with the scope of the founding father’s ambition. “It’s looking at the people who succeed in the world, and looking at the beauty of the world, and not understanding why you’re not there,” he says. “Most of the show is with the audience; I talk to you, and I fully expect you to respond. And it’s only because you don’t respond that I keep talking.”

Walker says he appreciates Utahns’ enthusiastic response to the arts, which he witnessed at Pioneer and on previous tour stopovers. PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg, who directed Walker in “Rent,” praises his intuitive gifts and his generosity as an actor.

“That summer doing ‘Rent’ was one of the greatest gigs of my life, because of the confluence of super-talented people, and super-good people, and good-hearted people,” Walker says, adding that he’s looking forward to eating at The Pie and other favorite Salt Lake City haunts. Whenever he’s between roles, he asks his agent what’s going on at Pioneer, because he loves the theater company and its location at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

Morales, 35, grew up in a military family around the country, living in Virginia and Texas and Hawaii. As a super-shy new kid, he discovered theater and school choirs as a way to make friends. His ethnicity is Mexican, German-Irish and Japanese; in Hawaii, he was cast in white roles. When he moved to New York and began auditioning, he was shocked when he wasn’t seen in white roles.

‘Hamilton’ actors with Utah ties<br>Springville High graduate Thayne Jasperson originated the role of British loyalist Samuel Seabury on Broadway and is still in the cast.<br>Joseph Morales played Usnavi to Anthony Ramos’ Sonny in 2012’s “In the Heights.” Ramos went on to originate the role of John Laurens/Philip Hamilton in the off-Broadway and Broadway runs of “Hamilton,” and at 24 was the youngest member of the cast.<br>Jen Sese, from Pioneer’s 2009 production of “Miss Saigon,” is in the ensemble of the Salt Lake City touring cast and understudies the roles of Eliza and Angelica Schuyler.<br>Also in the ensemble is Tia Altinay, a Brigham Young University graduate.<br>Jordan Danica, who played Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in the first national tour, performed in the Greenshow and “South Pacific” ensemble at Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2015. He’ll play Freddy Eynsford-HIll in this year’s Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady.”<br>Aubin Wise, from Pioneer’s 2016 production of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” plays Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds in the Chicago cast of “Hamilton.”

What comes next?

In “Hamilton” tour rehearsals, Walker and Morales quickly became onstage brothers. “We both had an understanding we wanted to explore these men as friends” in the first act. One moment that reveals that choice is when Burr toasts Hamilton’s wedding to Elizabeth Schuyler.

The characters repeat the line “I’ll see you on the other side of the war,” which can be something of a tossed-off sentiment in a jam-packed script. But once in rehearsal, when Walker passed the drink to Morales, they held the glass together for a moment and it became a meaningful expression. “Oh, yeah,” he says of the moment they created together organically through rehearsals. “That’s our thing.”

It’s an illustration of the choices actors in all five “Hamilton” casts are encouraged to make to reinvent their characters, even as they perform the same choreography and the same lyrics.

“That’s the beauty of having so many different actors in this show,” Walker says. “Everyone’s going to attack it in a slightly different place, with whatever tools they’ve been trained with, whatever they have been successful with in the past.”

At a recent Salt Lake City speech, Miranda praised the strength of Walker and Morales’ touring cast, known as the Philip tour.

“Dramaturgically speaking, ‘Hamilton’ is tricky,” Miranda told the Salt Lake City audience, as Hamilton and Burr’s rivalry didn’t fit exactly into theatrical templates. It wasn’t until he discovered the men’s contrasting temperaments that he was able to unfold the story.

Hamilton, an immigrant who was orphaned at a young age, threw himself forward recklessly. He didn’t want to run out of time. Burr, born to a privileged American family, was also orphaned at a young age, which made him cautious. He didn’t want to make a mistake. “It’s messed up, man, and it’s also fascinating,” Miranda said of his characters.

The story of tonight

”Hamilton” is an incredibly demanding show to perform — physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. Walker says he feels as if he has been hit by a Mack truck after each show.

One reason is because it was created by theatrical geniuses, he says of the Tony Award-winning creators — Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and musical director Alex Lacamoire. “When you meet these men, you realize how autobiographical this show is,” Walker says. “This is as much about them as it is about these characters.”

Lyrics call back and respond to other lines in a script that contains nearly 24,000 words. “The choreography is literally like watching Andy’s mind,” Walker says. “Every move of the wrist has a meaning; every pattern you see the dancers doing has a meaning.”

Morales says the actors who play Hamilton share a kind of secret handshake. “It’s such a giant thing we’re being asked to do,” he says. “At the same time, you can’t think of it that way. You just have to take it moment by moment.”

After all, ethnic actors are rarely considered to play leading roles in musical theater. And every “Hamilton” cast looks different, as each cast features actors of different ethnicities portraying American revolutionaries.

“We’re all wearing the same clothes, but from the neck up, we’re all completely different and have different hairstyles,” Morales says, which is against the convention where replacement and touring actors wear wigs to appear like the original characters. “All the things we’re being asked to do is unlike anything else that even exists. We’re all just kind of doing our best to stay on top of it.”

Walker adds: “You can’t half-ass the show. Really, this show asks all of you. It’s very intense.”

(Courtesy photograph by Joan Marcus) Shoba Narayan as Eliza Hamilton with Joseph Morales as Alexander Hamilton in the second national cast of "Hamilton."

10 things you need to know<br>What’s the big deal about “Hamilton”?<br>• The musical about the “ten-dollar founding father” is noted for its contemporary vernacular and successful blend of hip-hop and R&B within a classic musical-theater storytelling structure.<br>• It’s innovative in featuring actors of color playing the passionate American revolutionaries.<br>• The female characters also get a lot of great songs, including a lyric request that Thomas Jefferson include women as equals in the sequel to the Declaration of Independence.<br>• The show was nominated for 16 Tonys, winning 11, in 2016.<br>• Lin-ManuelMiranda, the writer and star, rapped his Best Musical acceptance speech on a night he lost the best acting award to his co-star Leslie OdomJr., who portrayed Aaron Burr.<br>• It’s arguably the fastest-paced musical in history at 144 words per minute, according to the statistics blog The Five Thirty Eight — which calculated that if “Hamilton” were sung at the pace of a normal musical, it would clock in at four to six hours.<br>• The musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the annotated script was a best-seller.<br>• The show also gave the biography that inspired it, Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” another ride on the best-seller list.<br>• The Broadway cast album won a Grammy Award.<br>• Together, all of this “Hamilton” hype even helped to keep its namesake’s portrait on America’s $10 bill.

(Courtesy photograph by Joan Marcus) Ta'Rea Campbell as Angelica Schuyler, Shoba Narayan as Eliza Hamilton and Danielle Sostre as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds.

Getting your shot<br>The Salt Lake City run is sold out, but check artsaltlake.org/events for late-release seats or apply for the daily digital lottery or look for tickets on the secondary market.