What it means to step into George Washington’s shoes in ‘Hamilton’
America’s first treasury secretary gets most of the glory in “Hamilton,” which seems only sensible — this is Alexander Hamilton’s show, after all.
But few moments in the hit musical — whose touring production wraps its San Diego run this weekend — are quite so stirring as when George Washington strides onstage for the first time to a rock-star welcome and chants of “Here comes the general!”
On the “Hamilton” tour, the veteran actor Isaiah Johnson plays the Father of Our Country, and brings a sense of steadfast command as well as soulful, gospel-tinged vocals to the role.
Johnson is no newcomer to big musicals: His Broadway credits include the key part of Mister in the most recent revival of “The Color Purple,” as well as support work in the La Jolla Playhouse-bred revival of “Side Show.” (He also appeared in the Broadway production of the La Jolla-bred play “Peter and the Starcatcher.”)
For that matter, he’s no newcomer to “Hamilton”: Johnson participated in the early development of the show, which eventually premiered on Broadway just a few months before his turn in “The Color Purple.” (Christopher Jackson wound up taking on the role of Washington.)
We caught up with Johnson for a conversation about playing America’s first president eight times a week. Some excerpts:
Q: Is this your first time in town, or have you been through here before?
A: The first time I came to San Diego (was when) I won a talent competition and the regional competition was in San Diego. So when I was 16 and in high school (in Alaska), I came down to San Diego for this talent competition, and then I went to the nationals in Indianapolis.They ended up giving me a scholarship to go to undergrad.
Q: And when did “Hamilton” first come into your life?
A: I was first introduced to the show in 2014, doing the lab productions at the Public Theater before the off-Broadway production (in 2015).
We were able to get a lot of information about what the play actually was during that time. And that felt completely liberating to be in the room. (We) didn’t know what this piece of work was. All we had was this glorious music, which was amazing. So our job became, how can we match the quality of the material with what people are seeing in the storytelling?
So coming back (for the tour last March) after all those years — it was amazing to be able to step into those boots again.
Q: Does it feel as though the role of George Washington has evolved in certain ways over time?
A: With the last presidential election, the validity of the Washington track has actually grown with audiences. Whereas before, he was kind of a very strong supporting character, now that people’s eyes and ears are more toward the presidency, the character’s value in the story has changed. He’s become more of a central character.
Q: That moment when Washington sings “One Last Time,” as he announces his retirement from public life, is so affecting. Are there particular moments that really get to you, or you feel have deepened over time?
A: I think the relationship between Washington and Hamilton has definitely evolved for me in various ways. Generally we kind of get the idea he’s kind of a father figure, and he and Hamilton have this father/son relationship. But it’s kind of skewed, because Hamilton doesn’'t have his parents anymore, so he’s kind of: “You’re not my daddy!” (Laughs)
I think Washington is also watching a young soldier who’s trying to make his stake in life, the same way Washington went about it. He’s looking at Hamilton getting ready to fall into some of the same pitfalls he fell into, and he’s trying to warn him against it, in the way a person with wisdom does.
(As Washington), I’m not going to tell him directly, “You’re messing up,” but I’m going to tell him: “Keep your eyes open. You could fall.”
Q: What do you feel — or hope — people take away from seeing “Hamilton”?
A: The whole play in a sense for all these characters is about, “What kind of future are we going to leave?” That becomes of paramount important for all of us — not just those of us who are parents but all of us who are citizens.
One thing (President) Obama was very clear on during his presidency — that now people are starting to understand, but maybe didn’t understand then — is the notion that people, despite the government, need to govern themselves.
I think people are realizing, WE need to start having those important conversations. And I think “Hamilton” is a huge catalyst for those important conversations.
When: 8 p.m. today (Jan. 26); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Jan. 28.
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: Sold out except for resale tickets, from the high $200s up. Final lottery for $10 tickets open now, at hamiltonmusical.com/lottery or via “Hamilton” mobile app (available free in Apple App or Google Play stores).
Phone: (619) 570-1100
MORE ‘HAMILTON’ COVERAGE
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