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"Hamilton" actors bring U-M loyalties to their roles in hit musical
By Gary Graff
firstname.lastname@example.org, @GraffonMusic on Twi
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2019
See more SOUND CHECK
"Hamilton: An American Musical" is a challenging stage musical, by any measure.
But for a couple of members of the Angelica touring cast — one of two "Hamilton" touring casts working in the United States right now — last month's stand in Columbus, Ohio, it was even more complicated.
Dan Belnavis and Wonza Johnson both graduated from the University of Michigan's musical theater program. So being in the heart of Ohio State University, and Buckeye country, made the proud Wolverines — well, as the song says, a little more scrappy.
"Every Thursday we have company meetings to go over music notes or dance notes or talk about things coming up," Belnavis, 29, says by phone. "Company management let us know someone had come by and dropped off some Buckeye candy, so 'come and help yourself.' I was like, 'No, uh-uh, that won't be me.'"
Both Belnavis and Johnson also made sure that they wore "a little Michigan apparel" when they were out and about around Columbus.
But rest assured the rivalry was only a sidelight to their day-to-day duties on stage.
As a bona fide cultural phenomenon and generational musical from its 2015 debut on Broadway, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning "Hamilton" remains one of, and probably the, hottest (and priciest) theater tickets around the world right now. Each audience's expectations are high, and Belnavis and Johnson — both two-year veterans of the tour — as well as their cast mates are well aware of that each time they don the colonial coats.
"I definitely want to do whatever I can to uphold my end of it," says Belnavis, a Montclair, N.J., native who's part of the "Hamilton" ensemble and understudies George Washington, Hercules Mulligan and King George. "Some of these people have been waiting two-plus years to see the show. You feel a certain responsibility to uphold people's expectations — and surpass them."
Johnson, 25 — an ensemble member who's on-call to play Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson — recalls an email from a woman who saw the show for the fourth time. "She said, 'You made me hear things that I didn't the other times,'" Johnson, a Georgia native, recalls. "That made us feel great. The show affects people in such a beautiful way. The joy it brings people and how it affects them reminds you why you do it. You're just blown away that you're a part of something like this."
"Hamilton" is particularly special for Johnson because it's his first major tour after graduating from U-M — with the Philip Cast for a year before moving to the Angelica Cast in January. "Everyone's like, 'You're a kid! this is such a great beginning!'," he says. "It's very humbling. It's a beautiful piece of work and a beautiful piece of art." It also, Johnson notes, sets a high bar for the rest of his career.
"You don't want to go and do, like, a jukebox musical. It wouldn't be fulfilling after this," Johnson notes. "So, really, I'm not going to do anything unless it's something that I feel really connected to and is original, like ('Hamilton') is."
Both actors consider their times at U-M a highlight in their lives and a valuable stepping stone to "Hamilton." Belnavis, who caught the theater bug as a seventh grader, learned about the school's musical theater program from counselors and friends in a summer theater and was sold on his first visit to Ann Arbor.
"It was exactly what I needed," he says. "I wanted to get away from home and get a fresh start and all that. And I wanted to feel some sort of connection to being a part of the school. I loved that when you walked by someone, you may not know them but we both will say 'Go Blue!' to each other and have some kind of connection.
"It was a time of immense growth for me, personally and as an artist. A lot of what I learned in terms of theater training has served me so well, coupled with my personal experiences."
At U-M Belnavis performed in "Evita," "The Full Monty" and "Ragtime," among others. He met Johnson when the younger actor came for his first visit to the campus, steered by a director of the Broadway Dreams program in Atlanta, who had also attended U-M. Coming from a residential setting, the freedom of U-M appealed to Johnson — who even opted to reside on U-M's Main Campus rather than the North Campus, where the theater school is housed.
"I wanted to be near the stadium with all the frats and sororities and all of that," Johnson says. "It was a nice getaway, going home to guys who were in engineering. Having that disconnect was nice. It made me a more well-rounded person. It was really the best four years of my life."
While "Hamilton" is Johnson's first big step out of U-M, Belnavis racked up some other stage credits before it, including regional productions of "In the Heights" (Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's pre-"Hamilton" musical) and "Memphis," plus an international tour with "Dreamgirls," in addition to working a few "survival jobs" in between.
"I was out of school for, like five years before ('Hamilton') — which in the grand scheme of things is not a long time, but it felt like a long time for me," Belnavis says. "It's kind of a crucial five years, in your mid-20s. And I was working, so I'm not complaining.
"And it paid off. I was so excited and kind of flabbergasted when I got cast in ("Hamilton') — and I still feel that way today. This is the kind of experience you get into (theater) to do, so I don't take a minute of it for granted, I really don't."
"Hamilton: An American Musical" shows March 12-April 21 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are available on a limited basis. A lottery for 40 $10 tickets will take place two days before each performance. Call 313-872-1000 for more information, or visit broadwayindetroit.com or hamiltonmusical.com.
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