Southwest Florida theatergoers have two chances to catch the biggest Broadway hit of the twenty-first century this month. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will be at Artis–Naples January 1-12 and the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers January 14-26. After reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton, Miranda was inspired to immortalize the first Secretary of the Treasury in a hip-hop-infused musical that premiered in 2015 and went on to win 11 Tony Awards. Here, we chat with Paul Oakley Stovall, who portrays George Washington, about his role, Revolutionary times, and the lasting impact of Hamilton.
NI: Why do you think Hamilton has been so popular? What about the show do you believe resonates with so many people?
Stovall: Hamilton checks the traditional three boxes of great theater. [It has] the three E’s: entertain, educate, and edify. Visually and sonically it has something for everyone, employing the language of hip-hop while also giving us lush ballads and earnest musicality. Theatrically, I associate it with how the groundlings must have felt about hearing and seeing Shakespeare. It was new, exciting, and for them.
For all of its wild, innovative spirit, it simultaneously tells a very traditional hero’s journey story that hits at the core of the human psyche and soul. Love, trust, death, fear, courage, mistakes, recovery—these are things we grapple with every day, and they are all on fantastic display in Hamilton.
How did you go about preparing to play George Washington? What research did you do?
Once I had the role, I actually initially focused solely on the text and making sense of it as if I were in scene study class. Who is this guy? What does he want? How does he try to get it? What’s in his way? Once I had the building blocks under my belt, I started digging in on George Washington’s life, and as the supervising director told/warned me, the rabbit hole is endless, so I continue to research even over a year into it.
Did you discover anything surprising about Revolutionary times while preparing for your part?
Frankly, it’s all a surprise. One of the surprises that’s directly useful in doing the show is that these people lived and communicated through letters. The written word was so precious and therefore had to be not only specific, but also filled with code and innuendo.
What has been the most challenging aspect of performing in Hamilton?
Probably the focus and endurance it requires. It moves like an opera. The music is continuous, so unlike, say, a Pinter play where if you forget a line your scene partner can save you or you can fill the pause with some action and vamp until you get back on track, in Hamilton, that train goes by quickly, and you’ve got to figure out how/when to jump back on. It’s treacherous—and constantly thrilling.
What’s your favorite number to perform in the show?
It’s a tough call between “Guns and Ships/History Has its Eyes on You” and “One Last Time.” I’m lucky [because] both of them (and most of my material) play like scenes, and that’s the world I come from, [that of] Chicago scene study [and making] sense of the words. So, I am able to relax—not really—into the notion of “playing the scene.” I just happen to be singing.
What do you personally find so inspiring or intriguing about Alexander Hamilton?
He’s mysterious. He’s driven by a force within that only he could truly know. There’s a moment in the show where our director and choreographer on different occasions have told us that we all become Hamilton in this moment, looking off into the distance, the unknown world. And the only guidance we have is the line being sung, “What is it like in his shoes?” I find it personally so inspiring to have those three to four seconds to not only mind-meld with Hamilton (hopefully), but to support the idea that we don’t know what it’s like to be in anyone’s shoes, and if we did, we’d be a lot more forgiving, understanding, and curious, and much less judgmental in our daily lives.
What message do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Well, ultimately, I hope people come away with the idea that forgiveness is our best quality as humans, and that when we forgive, we feed our own hearts and come away from each experience with a little more dignity.
If you could have lunch with any of the founding fathers or female figures of the Revolutionary era who would it be and why?
I can’t pick one. Give me three. George Washington, so I could ask him how I’m doing in the role; Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman in the colonies to be a published writer, who famously wrote to General Washington requesting a meeting to discuss the plight of enslaved black people; and Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, an openly gay German immigrant, who, like Hamilton came (kind of fled in his case) to the colonies under duress and ended up being hired by Washington as the inspector general, tasked with whipping the Continental Army into shape during its darkest days. I think the four of us would find plenty to talk about
The cast is obviously a multicultural one, with actors portraying historical figures that don’t necessarily correspond to their own race. What does this type of casting signal to audience members, particularly young theatergoers, about America and the evolution of the American dream?
On a purely surface level, meaning what the audience literally sees before them, it shows many people of color engaged in complicated storytelling, leading complicated lives. Too often in American theater, people of color are two-dimensional or behaving in response to the white characters’ prominent storylines.
On a deeper level, it says that the experiment of America, while highly flawed and messy and some would even say evil, borne of slavery and genocide, is also a story of survival, hope, craftiness, courage, and endurance. Who better to tell that story than the people who had to exhibit those traits in order for their descendants to be alive to tell it?