Christopher Jackson was doing fine stepping into the boots of George Washington during rehearsals of “Hamilton” – until he had to actually put on the boots, breeches and frock coat.
The veteran Broadway actor had captured the essence of the Founding Father as part of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking hip-hop musical, but pulling on the costume started throwing him off.
“The second that I put that suit on, the weight of all of it became overwhelming. The burden of it was just oppressive,” says Jackson. “I felt the weight of who I was playing to the point where it was limiting my ability to put life into it.”
Director Thomas Kail noticed it, too. And it wasn’t just Jackson suffering. “So that was great,” Kail politely told the cast after their first run-through in costume. “Everything is going great. We know the show. Right now the costumes are wearing you.”
The stuffy weight of history is something the powerful, ingenious “Hamilton” has staunchly avoided in its attempt to show America’s revolutionary men and women as red-blooded, fully dimensional figures.
How did they stop the costumes from taking over? Jackson, who was last on Broadway in “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” says it was a “working-back process” to recapture the living, breathing Washington while getting rid of his Father of Our Country pedestal.
“Hamilton” has no need for them. It’s a musical in which the Founding Fathers swear and swagger, have rap battles over monetary policy and use a street-hustler’s cunning to get ahead.
“The beauty in that is seeing how accessible these people are and really putting some blood into the statues that we know and the portraits that we grew up seeing,” says Jackson, a history buff who visited Washington’s Mount Vernon home to get into character.
The show’s diverse cast includes three African-American actors playing U.S. presidents, which instantly blows the dust off history and pulls an audience in.
“There’s something to be said about seeing your face represented. There’s just something really important about that,” says Okieriete Onaodowan, who plays James Madison. “It just draws you in more.”
It even worked on the actors themselves. Daveed Diggs, a rapper and actor who plays both Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the show, recalls seeing Jackson portray Washington at an early workshop of the musical and being left emotional.
“I was literally chocked up, like almost tearing up, pretty much every time he sang a song,” Diggs says. “It was so clearly George Washington. It changes everything.”
Miranda’s much-buzzed-about biography about the nation’s first treasury secretary was a sold-out sensation earlier this year when it debuted off-Broadway, with people paying well over 10 times the $120 ticket price and a crush of fans seeking lottery tickets. Celebrities like Tom Hanks and Madonna showed up, as well as first lady Michelle Obama.
It has jumped to Broadway this month and its creators hope it can find a larger audience of non-New Yorkers. One set of questions it raises is: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Cast members say one of their joys is peeking out at school kids and see how they are reacting to having America’s powdered wig-wearing, very-white history come alive in the hands of a largely Latino, Asian and African-American cast.
“If I’d seen something like this when I was 11 years old, I could have aspired and believed that it was possible – just in the same way that my 6-year-old daughter walks into school and sees a picture of Barack Obama on the wall,” says Jackson.
Diggs agrees: “If I had been able to see something like this, I think my world would have been much larger, much faster. The options would have been so much more clear.”
The weight of history goes the other way, too. That things would be very different if any of these actors were actually present in the 1770s isn’t very far from their minds.
“It is kind of a trip,” says Onaodowan, who has been on Broadway in “Rocky” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.” “Sometimes I joke in rehearsal, `If this was truly a period piece, I’d be in chains somewhere.'”
Audiences have left changed after seeing the show, but so have the performers. Diggs says he never felt particularly American until he started portraying a Founding Father.
“Working on this is the first time I really started to identify that way because there’s this sort of ownership over the actual founding of this country,” he says. “Everybody should feel that way. It’s ours and we live here and we participate in it, whether we want to or not.”
The starry list of people who have already seen “Hamilton” includes Michelle Obama, Madonna, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rupert Murdoch and Paul McCartney. The show has now opened on Broadway and promises to lengthen the number of celebrities in attendance.
But for Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson and Okieriete Onaodowan – who each play U.S. presidents in the ground-breaking show – there were some favorite guests during the musical’s 117 performances downtown this spring.
Jackson, who plays George Washington, said one of his best moments was spotting Harry Belafonte one night in the third row. Jackson is a huge admirer of the older actor and activist.
“When he was my age, he couldn’t perform on certain stages because of the way he looked. That, to me, really puts it into a most glorious context,” says Jackson.
“You realize we are able to do what we’re doing because of people like him. But, also, we are truly picking up the mantle that he has carried his entire life.”
Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton,” was floored when he came face-to-face with Busta Rhymes, wearing a gold chain in the front row. Busta is one of Diggs favorite rappers and the show even has a musical nod to Busta’s “Pass the Courvoisier.”
“There were definitely moments,” says Diggs. “The energy in the room is different when there’s a super-famous person. Or when there’s Secret Service around.”
For Onaodowan, who plays James Madison, it was having singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles in attendance. “I absolutely love her music,” he says. “I kind of had a moment.”
The actors said the long list of diverse celebrities in the downtown space seemed to validate a show in which a multicolored America seizes U.S. history and makes it its own.
“What other event would you have Michelle Obama, Busta Rhymes and “Weird Al” Yankovic all come to see this show?” asks Onaodowan. “What other thing would bring those people together? From Paul McCartney to Dick Cheney?”