By Emma Sarran Webster | December 14, 2016 | People
You'll find actor Joshua Henry in Chicago's production of Hamilton as Aaron Burr, the musical's diabolical narrator, but he couldn't be more different in real life. Below, the actor shares his enthusiasm for Chicago, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the “Hamilton factor.”
Joshua Henry first encountered Hamilton three years ago, before the musical was the mega-hit, global phenomenon that it is now—before, in fact, it was even fully written. The Tony-nominee did a reading of the show, playing the characters King George and Hercules Mulligan. “At that point I knew—and everyone [who] saw the reading knew—that this was going to be a special piece of art that was going to change a lot of things,” he said.
Henry didn’t officially join the show at that point, but he remained one of its most diehard fans until he was presented with the opportunity to join Hamilton’s new Chicago cast, just as the Broadway show he was in, Shuffle Along, was closing. “It’s crazy how one door closes and another one opens,” he says.
Fast forward to today: Henry has been stunning Chicago audiences as Aaron Burr since Hamilton opened here in September. We caught up with the talented actor to find out how it’s going and chat about Chicago, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and what he's dubbed the “Hamilton factor.”
One of the interesting things about theater versus film and TV is that, unless you’re part of the original cast, you’re playing a role that at least one other person has already played. How do you make the role your own, while staying true to the script and the show?
JOSHUA HENRY: In the shows that I’ve done, besides Porgy and Bess, I had never replaced before, so it was a new experience for me. Leslie Odom, Jr. [who originated the role of Aaron Burr on Broadway]—who is just one of the most brilliant artists I know [and] who’s been a friend of mine for years—killed this role. [But] I knew that if I was going to do the role, I couldn’t pay attention to the stuff that he did. He laid a great template for what this was but to really own a role, you can’t duplicate things. If you do, it’s going to be really hard for it to come across as authentic.
So, it took some time vocally, with the choices that I was making, to define it for myself. I had to stop listening to the album a little bit because the more you listen to something, the more you try to emulate it. And, with the help of Alex Lacamoire, the music director; Tommy Kail, the director; and Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, I was able to start finding the role for myself and bringing myself and my skill set to it.
How is the cast dynamic? Have you worked with anyone in the Chicago cast on anything else before this?
JH: I had worked with Karen Olivo [who plays Angelica Schuyler] in In the Heights back in 2007; she was involved in my first Broadway experience. So it was really cool to be reunited with her, as well as Miguel Cervantes, who is playing Hamilton—we did American Idiot together on Broadway. So when the opportunity came up, that was one thing that made it really sort of pop. I [thought], “You get an opportunity to do your favorite show, with friends you’ve known for years.” That's an artist's dream.
You've mentioned In the Heights; that's another Lin-Manuel Miranda show. What’s your favorite thing about Lin's work, or being in his shows?
JH: He writes exactly what he knows; exactly what he’s experienced. From Usnavi, the lead character in In the Heights, to [Alexander] Hamilton in Hamilton, this is who Lin is. He’s a guy [who] is nonstop, a little bit awkward, quirky, a ferocious worker, but brilliant and, I think, a genius. He writes about himself and he writes about his experiences; the things he really connects with, and it’s coming from a very authentic place. I think that’s the success of it. It’s authentic. Aside from that, not only is he on every magazine but now he’s [also] taking over the world, let's be honest, [and] he has remained the same dude. Knowing him for [almost] 10 years now, he’s just the same humble, genuine, nice guy. He still seems to be that kid at heart, [who] just has more toys to play with now.
What is it like doing an extended run like this in Chicago versus doing a show on Broadway in New York City?
JH: Well, there’s the Hamilton factor. Doing this show, you know you’re not going to be just doing it for three weeks or a month. We’re very fortunate in that every audience we’ve had has been sold out, and a little into the future we’re going to be sold out. On Broadway, there’s not that guarantee all the time. You open a show and hopefully it goes for a year, but these days if you can get six months [or] even four months, that’s a successful run. So the stability you feel doing a show like Hamilton is immense. It’s something that’s very, very rare. I’ve been really fortunate to do several shows on Broadway; the longest run I’ve done is nine months, and that was Porgy and Bess. The shortest run I’ve done was about a month and a half; my first Broadway lead in The Scottsboro Boys. I’ve had the long runs and the short runs, but it feels really good to know the audience is going to be there and be really excited about [the show]. The Hamilton factor is playing a huge role in that.
The Chicago production has already been extended once. Has there been talk of extending it again? Do you think that's a possibility?
JH: What I know is that the possibilities are always endless when it comes to Hamilton. It’s broken several records. Audiences are really being touched by it, they’re being moved by it, and they're in love with the music. They just released The Hamilton Mixtape, which had me up until four in the morning. So, the world already [knew] about Hamilton but now on an even bigger scale, if that's possible. [The show is] now being magnified even more. There are different companies going out to different places—like London next year—so I wouldn't be surprised if it extended once again.
Speaking of The Hamilton Mixtape, do you have a favorite song from that?
JH: Oh goodness, oh boy, here we go. It’s really hard to pick. They’re all incredible and I love all those artists. I will say, one that really just struck me, was Andra Day’s version of “Burn.” I mean, goodness. I had it playing in my living room and I went to my bathroom and before I even took two steps in there, I heard her voice and I had to come back out, closer to the sound because she's got something really spectacular she tapped into vocally and emotionally in that song. I mean the song is so rich but she puts her own spin on it and it’s beautiful, heartbreaking. But I love them all, from Sia to Kelly Clarkson to Wiz Khalifa, [and] John Legend, it’s like [asking], 'What star in the sky do you like the best?'
You have posted quite a few "Ham Jams," mixing up some of the songs from the show. Are you working on any new ones you might be posting?
JH: Yes I am. The last one I released was “Wait For It”, and I think the next one I’m gonna do is “The Room Where It Happens,” which is one of my favorite songs in life. My plan is to go through the entire collection, but put my own spin on it with a different style each time.
When you have downtime here in Chicago, are there any specific things you like to do or places you like to go?
JH: I like to play ping pong, and there are a couple of ping pong places in the city—SPiN being one of them—so I love doing that. I also love going to Millennium Park and Grant Park. I [have] my dog with me, so we walk there and I just throw on some headphones—maybe throw on the Mixtape—and start walking. It's just a beautiful site to experience daily.
Shifting gears—you have a movie coming out in February, Renegades. What’s it like working acting in a film versus being on stage, and do you prefer one over the other?
JH: I think there’s something special about getting a moment perfect or near perfect. In a film, you can do that. You can try 10 times [and] you can preserve something forever. But in theater, you’re doing it eight times a week. Sometimes you're feeling a little more tired, or you're feeling more energized, so the performance that happens in the theater on one night will never be the same [as another]. There’s something very special about that; about one moment in time, with one group of actors who all feel a different way, [who] all came into the theater with a certain emotional state, and the audience did the same, and now we’re breathing the same air, and we’re giving and receiving energy. It will never happen again, in the history of the world, what I’m about to do tonight with this particular audience.
I think there’s nothing like that experience for me. Theater is certainly is my first love, if I had to pick. But I’m excited about this film and others I’ve been a part of. And part of being a well-rounded actor is hopefully going in and out of theater [and] film, and I want to do more music—which I’m going to get into next year, album-wise. You want to be versatile so you can do it all.
Photography by Joan Marcus; headshot courtesy of Broadway in Chicago