For these theater students, a visit from a ‘Hamilton’ cast member is a chance to connect to the professional world
The time and place: Friday morning at Butler Church on the campus of Fresno Pacific University, where an esteemed performer from the national tour cast of “Hamilton” is giving a workshop for a group of invited students.
The cast member: Christopher Henry Young, a swing in the show, made his Broadway debut in “A Bronx Tale.” Now he’s on his ninth long-term contract as a swing, an actor who covers a number of roles (and one of the hardest jobs in show biz). He’s here to listen to students sing musical-theater numbers and offer on-the-spot acting critiques. You can tell immediately from his bearing, physique and speaking voice that this is a Broadway professional, and the students – who include students from Fresno Pacific and University High School – listen in rapt attention, leaning forward in their seats as they try to soak up his wisdom.
The student in the spotlight: Alexander Lujan, a Fresno Pacific student, tells Young he’s going to play Donkey from “Shrek” in the number “Don’t Let Me Go.” Young asks him to run through the song. Coincidentally, I’d just seen Lujan perform the night before in the FPU production of “Ordinary Days,” and I’d already gotten a glimpse of his comic exuberance. He brings that this morning to the role of Donkey, whipping around the stage using expansive movements and even a nifty martial-arts move.
Related stories: Theater review: Saroyan Theatre is the room where it happens for a stellar national tour of the musical ‘Hamilton’
Also: In touring production of ‘Hamilton,’ Julius Thomas III plays the title character with passion and determination
Also: As ‘Hamilton’s’ cast belts it out to the balcony, is the Saroyan Theatre able to deliver good sound? The answer is complicated.
And: Fun facts from backstage at ‘Hamilton’: 20 Things to Know about the national tour at the Saroyan Theatre
The advice: Young helps rework the entire monologue, first stepping in as Shrek himself and making Lujan follow him plaintively around as he sings, then digging into the character’s motivations. It’s a tough number because it’s comic but is underscored by real emotions. Donkey isn’t trying to be funny in this song; he’s actually offended that Shrek is blowing him off.
The transformation: It’s striking. When Lujan performs the number a third time, by himself, he has incorporated Young’s notes into the monologue. Donkey is pissed and funny, and it’s a vivid combination.
The others: With each of the students who (bravely) get up on stage, Young is a cross between omnipotent acting coach, charismatic motivational speaker and astute observer of human nature. He instinctively seems to know what will work with each of his charges, figuring out the emotional or intellectual trigger that will help them more fully realize their characters.
Questions: After his critiques, Young takes a few minutes for questions from the audience, which range from acting-process queries to what it’s like to be on the road in a national tour: How and when does he warm up? (He likes to do jumping jacks while vocalizing siren sounds.) How has Covid-19 impacted life on the road? (You have to arrive at the theater earlier for mandatory screenings, and masks are worn all the time when performers aren’t onstage.) What’s the difference between working on Broadway and a national tour? (When you’re in one place in New York, the cast members tend not to bond as closely because folks are so close to home; on tour, it’s like you’re in a bubble and forge a stronger sense of community.)
The life of a swing: Young’s job is to be ready to fill in on a moment’s notice for six male ensemble roles in “Hamilton,” which means he has to know the vocal parts, blocking and choreography for each (and keep them straight in his head). On Thursday night’s performance at the Saroyan Theatre, he stepped into the role of George Eaker, the lawyer who fatally shoots Philip Hamilton in Act 2. Young tells the students an amusing story about the first time he played that track as a swing. He’d been prepping for all his roles since the tour launched last August, but he didn’t actually perform as George Eaker until January. While on stage for that first time, at a pivotal moment in the duel, he realized he couldn’t definitively remember the complicated blocking he was supposed to execute on the revolving turntable. So he made a split-second decision and simply picked an empty spot on stage and stuck to it so he wouldn’t mess anyone else up.
Sharing about himself: Young makes his biggest impact on the students when he talks about the joys – and challenges – of life in a national tour. One questioner asks boldly: What did you have to lose by pursuing this career? Young laughs, and that’s when he truly opens up. “Family is big to me, and not just the family I’m born into,” he says. “My friendships are family to me … At any given moment, I’m several hundred to several thousand miles away from them for all the most important things that are happening in life.” Those moments include celebrations: a friend’s 40th birthday, important holidays. And tragedies: his mother’s cancer treatment, the death of an infant nephew. What makes it worth it, he says, is prioritizing the right things, sharing his talents with others, and making a difference in people’s lives. His family understands, and they’re proud of him.
The takeaway: Generous with his time, infectious with his enthusiasm, and brimming over with what you might call the spirit of performance, Young makes a deep impression on his audience. Perhaps the most elegant and gracious thing he says is a simple compliment after one of the students performs: “Take a bow,” he says. “That was wonderful.” Those words won’t be forgotten.
Other ‘Hamilton’ tidbits
• For “Hamilton” lead actor Julius Thomas III, an open offer still stands from the management of Good Company Players: Come see the local production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on Sunday. Matinee is at 1 p.m. Tickets are waiting for you! (In my interview with him, he talked about how he has fond memories of “Spelling Bee,” which was his first real acting job out of college.)
• Are tickets for “Hamilton” still available for its final two performances? Sure. On the Ticketmaster chart, I counted about 40 open seats in the orchestra for the Sunday matinee, including some with two or three seats together. Go ahead, take a chance. Who knows when the show will return to Fresno?
• Some of the interactions I had on social media about the show had to do with folks complaining about this and that (mostly the sound and the uncouth behavior of audience members, including ringing cell phones, people reeking of pot, rustling papers, etc.), but, actually, the vast majority of feedback I got was positive. People were excited to be able to share in the “Hamilton” experience in Fresno.
I also received two cool tweets from cast members. One is from Thomas, aka A.Ham, whose dedication to performance and his love for the show really came through strongly in my preview interview with him. (If you haven’t yet read it, I hope you get the chance.)
— Julius Thomas III (@JuliusThomasIII) April 1, 2022
And I love this tweet from Rick Negron, who plays King George. I sent out my review with a tweet encouraging him to read to the end because I use his character as a sort of summing-up of why the show works so well. He replied:
I did read till the end… @HamiltonMusical has so many facets that seeing it multiple times brings more discoveries and a deeper appreciation of this musical theater masterpiece. I’m proud to be a part of an amazing company of artist @JuliusThomasIII @donaldwebber https://t.co/El9ehaLfm0
— Rick Negron (@RickNegron3) April 5, 2022
It’s cool when royalty tweets back at you.