In touring production of ‘Hamilton,’ Julius Thomas III plays the title character with passion, determination and a keen view of how a musical can impact a nation
Are you a Burr or a Hamilton?
It might seem an odd question to pose to the actor playing the title character in “Hamilton.” Of course Julius Thomas III is a Hamilton. He plays the role seven performances a week in the national tour (now in its opening week at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre). Stepping into the role originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is the emotional core of the show. His character’s ambition, achievements, follies, flaws and greatness drive the action. He’s the one who sings the American-dream song (well, the country isn’t quite America yet) “My Shot.” The one who barrels along a path from obscurity to greatness in a way both dazzling and incongruous. The one who helps cajole a new country into existence even as he falls victim to some of his own personal excesses.
Pictured above: Julius Thomas III is Alexander Hamilton in ‘Hamilton.’ Photo: Joan Marcus
But spend some time on the phone with the actor, and catch up on the thoughtful video and print interviews he’s given for the tour across the country, and I begin to realize the answer to the Burr-or-Hamilton question is more complicated than you might think.
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had fundamentally different personalities – Burr more methodical, Hamilton more of a scrambler. And Thomas definitely identifies with one more than the other.
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“At my core I am still a Burr,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, just in the way that I govern myself on a daily basis. He’s more calculated. He’s more risk averse. He is more about getting to the end result in one piece, with the same number of fingers and toes. Hamilton is a little bit more like, ‘If I’m missing an arm, we’re fine. As long as we got there.”
Many people in the greater Fresno area are saying the same thing about the “Hamilton” tour – they’re glad that it finally got here.
The first two national tours played several times for long, sit-down runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and many hardcore fans from the Fresno area made the drive. But there’s something special about the third national tour making an extended stop at the Saroyan Theatre. (Unlike the usual two-night stands taken by most of the Broadway in Fresno tours, which tend to be non-Actors Equity productions launched after a first national tour has disbanded, “Hamilton” is playing a 16-performance run with an Equity cast and the same production values that hit the major cities.) The audiences are a little different in places where the show has never played before, Thomas says.
“It’s a very slight and nuanced thing,” he says. “There are some markets that have had it a couple of times, and so they’re, like, ‘Oh, Hamilton’s back.’ But you know, we played Boise not too long ago and ‘Hamilton’ has never played there. The enthusiasm is just sort of unparalleled. Everybody’s usually excited, but the cities that haven’t had it before are just a little bit more excited.”
Though he’s spent a lot of time in the Bay Area, Thomas has never been to Fresno. On the day I interview him, I ask about the weather in Denver, where the show has played for a few weeks. He tells me about snow and 30 degrees. I say: “Brace yourself, but it’s supposed to be 90 here today.”
“Oh, thank God,” he says. “I love summer. I love sun. I love heat. I’m 6 foot, 150 pounds and always cold. I’ll take it.”
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‘Hamilton” has been such a tremendous cultural phenomenon since it hit New York in 2015, and so many people have opined about everything from its musical style to all the Disney + subscriptions it racked up, that it’s easy to forget the show’s fundamental truth: Casting people of color as the Founding Fathers really is making an impact.
I tell my students at Fresno State – who are learning about interviewing at the moment – that I’m scheduled to talk with Thomas. What are some questions I should ask?
A student comes up to me after class and tells me how pleased he is that “Hamilton” is coming to Fresno.
“This show means so much to me, and I’m so excited,” he says. “And the reason is because it’s this view of American history that uses people that look like me.”
Thomas is gratified when I tell him the story. When we look at the media, we are all hoping to see ourselves reflected, he says.
“I mean, that’s basically what art does is reflects back to us, and for a large swath of time in this country, a certain swath of people haven’t been able to see themselves in a beautiful light. Back in the ’90s, when I was consuming a lot of media, I could look at the TV and say, ‘Oh, I could be drug dealer No. 1 or No. 2. That’s who TV said I could be on television.”
Compare that to “Hamilton,” which is set In a time where Black people and Brown people are depicted usually one way: as slaves, and as servants, and as underfoot.
“And here we are on stage telling the story about the founding of America with these beautiful Black and Brown faces in these beautiful costumes with this incredible music that’s inspired by, you know, music from Black and Brown people. It’s an opportunity for people to see themselves in a way that they have not seen before.”
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Dig around on the internet and you’ll find plenty of examples of Thomas using his platform as “Alexander Hamilton” to talk about how the show is changing perceptions of the era. One of his favorites: the idea that the Founding Fathers were not the godlike figures that some Americans have turned them into. Yes, they started a new kind of country, and they should be respected and looked up to. But they certainly weren’t infallible, and they couldn’t see into the future and predict the diverse, eclectic and modern society that this country would become.
“We all want to give them their due and pay them their respect and be grateful for what it is that they championed,” Thomas says. “And at the same time, we can also acknowledge that these were humans that had affairs and made mistakes and gave their kids bad advice. And, you know, just did a multitude of things that were stupid and wrong. And yet they still did something great.”
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Let’s get back to the Aaron Burr thing for a moment. It takes a certain amount of intellectual guts and thoughtful self-awareness to be able to identify with essentially the villain in a piece. In some ways, Burr is a more complicated character than Hamilton, Thomas says, and the four times he got to play him as a standby on tour, he never thought he got the character quite right.
But Thomas also feels sympathy for Burr, which I find fascinating. None of us want to go down in American history as a bad guy, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. Burr was pushed to the edge because of circumstances, and he snapped. Thomas, it seems, is intent on pushing himself as much as he can, but doing it with a constant degree of self-assessment. Snapping isn’t part of his plans. Adapting – and getting better – is.
An early example was the way he switched from studying biology on a full scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa to musical theater at Wichita State University. (He was doing well in all his classes except biology – which he considered not a very good sign.) In college he’d gone to the national tour of “RENT,” which sparked a personal inspiration: He’d done theater in high school. Maybe he could do it for a living.
What followed was a slow but steady career rise in which he started as an understudy. The first show he booked out of college was an Equity tour of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and he has fond memories. “I paid off my student debt with that show, and it will hold a special place in my heart,” he says.
(When I tell him that Good Company Players is in the middle of a “Spelling Bee” run, his ears perk up. “I definitely will try and see it when I’m in Fresno,” he says.)
Thomas made his Broadway debut in “The Scottsboro Boys” in 2010. Other Broadway credits include “Porgy and Bess.” After appearing in the Broadway ensemble of “Motown the Musical,” he starred in the national tour of the production as Berry Gordy in 2015. His TV credits include “Modern Family” and “Sesame Street.”
After working his way up the ladder in “Hamilton” — including a run as standby for Burr, Hamilton and King George — he’s found that even with his identification with Burr, the longer he’s played the title role, the more Thomas finds in common with the character.
“And just speaking of my work ethic, there’s an unrelenting nature to Hamilton where he just pushed and pushed, knowing that he had somewhere he needed to get. Now how we get there is very different. I am also a person that is very much interested in pushing to be the very best to make the biggest mark that I can to touch as many lives as I can. And for me, that’s art.”
Every day that he’s in his hotel room, he’s either writing scripts, auditioning for other projects – he’s a big believer in keeping sharp through constant auditioning – and helping friends perfect their craft.
“There’s always a train forward,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with being in the ensemble. It’s very noble, great work. But I’ve pushed very hard to be a leading man. I’m working very hard on all my skills. And I want to continue to use them and to hold them in the next project. I continue to do better and to be better.”
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I’ve conducted thousands of interviews over the decades, and I make it a rule not to gush in them. But with Thomas, I break that rule. (I do wait until the end to go a little fanboy.) My 25 minutes with him have an intellectual and emotional impact on me far greater than that short time period would suggest. I’m inspired by his drive in his career, his passion for the arts, his calculated efforts to make a difference. In that last regard, I truly can see his overlap with Aaron Burr. I tell him how much I appreciate how thoughtfully he considers this role and the evangelistic way he is able to spread the good news.
For a moment he gets deep with me. And very real.
“I’m going to share something with you that I only share with close people to me,” he tells me. “And, I don’t know, maybe this is too incendiary for this article. But ‘Hamilton’ has done something really incredible.”
He mentions again the way we only think about Black and Brown people in a certain way when we think of time frame of the Founding Fathers.
Perhaps, he says, “Hamilton” is shifting that narrative.
“Nowadays, when you say the words George Washington, the first face that comes to most young people’s minds is Christopher Jackson. And he is a Black man. I don’t know what effect that will eventually have on society, but I think it is a very interesting and beautiful thing. To have Alexander Hamilton’s name be spoken and the first face you think of is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a gentleman of Puerto Rican descent — It’s going to do something. I don’t know what exactly – I guess changing the hearts and minds of younger people to where they don’t see Black and Brown in a negative way. Maybe it’s more of a positive light or continuing that narrative. But whatever it is, I think it’s a good thing and it’s one of the reasons why I really love the show.”