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Wayne Brady: What It’s Like to Join the ‘Hamilton’ Phenomenon

Variety logo Variety 1/24/2017 Gordon Cox
© Provided by Variety

Wayne Brady wants everyone to know he’s doing just fine. Toward the end of his first week playing Aaron Burr in the Chicago production of “Hamilton,” he jumped off a stair to get ready for the number “The Schuyler Sisters” and his calf seized up, forcing his understudy to replace him for the rest of the show. But he was back on “Hamilton” that very night. “Look, I’m great. My leg is fine. I’m back in the show!” he said in a video posted on Twitter.

Brady may be best-known as a TV personality from series including “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and “Let’s Make a Deal,” but he got his start in the theater and has made a habit of coming back to it. On Broadway, he’s had stints in “Chicago” (as Billy Flynn) and “Kinky Boots” (as Lola), and in L.A. he’s appeared at the Wallis in “Merrily We Roll Along” and at the Hollywood Bowl in “Rent.” He talked with Variety about his current stage foray in the musical phenomenon “Hamilton.”

You’re starring in the biggest musical hit to come along in years.

I’m a fan. I think I’ve seen it eight times. I thought, “Oh my God, I need to be in this.” I love anything that changes the paradigm or breaks down a wall of perception. It may sound corny, but every night I am moved close to tears during the bow because I’m so happy. Because I’m part of something big. Sometimes when you have a name, you are the big thing in the room at that time. But with this, I’m just a piece of this. And it’s awesome.

The show feels particularly resonant now, in the days after the Trump inauguration.

Not only did Lin[-Manuel Miranda, the musical’s creator] show us what a complete badass Hamilton was, what a flawed man, what a great man, what a motivated man, what an amazing story he had — His story truly is the American dream. In the day and age of “Make America Great Again,” and people talking about who has the right to be an American, this show completely knocks on that door.

How did you get involved?

I’ve been friends with Tommy [Kail, the director] and Lin and that crew for awhile, and I think it was maybe a year into “Hamilton” that I kind of just nonchalantly threw my hat in. And then it became not so nonchalant. I was like, “Hey, could this work out? Are you interested? Could this be a thing?” So we started talking about it, and I knew that this is something you’ve gotta prove you can do, so I said, “I’d love to come in and audition.” So I flew myself back to New York and I sat in the casting office with everybody else. It’s weird auditioning for people you call your friends, but if you love what you do, you humble yourself to get yourself where you need to go.

Why Chicago and not New York?

I was still shooting “Let’s Make a Deal” when I first auditioned, and I still had two months of shooting left. And then the Chicago company opened and I still wasn’t available, so I made peace with the fact that maybe it wasn’t going to happen. But then this beautiful little window opened up. It was six in the morning in L.A. when I got the text that there was good news from “Hamilton,” so I put the phone on speaker and went into my daughter’s room to make the call. You have never seen a teenager so excited to be woken up at six in the morning before.

What’s your take on the role of Burr?

I only knew [Tony winner] Leslie [Odom Jr.’s] take on Burr, which by virtue of being the first was the definitive Burr. And then I made it a point to watch Joshua Henry [who initially played the role in Chicago]. I did a lot of reading on the relationship between Burr and Hamilton, and I received a lot of books for Christmas, too, once my family found out I was doing it. I thought about what I loved about Burr and how I could make mine different, and the thing I came away with is: If you look at this show sideways, Burr is the more sympathetic character. Hamilton had this fire and this want and this desire to plow through the world and make his mark. Burr wanted to be successful, too, but he wanted to do it his way — “talk less, smile more” — get through life on your deeds, do what you gotta do. He was just as driven, but it was understated. I connected with that piece of Burr. He was trying to let his work talk for him. I feel like that’s my story, in a way.

What’s the reaction from audiences been like?

This audience is rabid. Chicago feels like a town that has its own franchise baseball team: They are very, very loyal. “Hey, this our Burr.” I walk down the street and people say, “Hey, Wayne!” It’s like being a baseball player who just got drafted to the local team, and everybody knows about it. I start off the show with the very first line, and I walk out and I just hear this deafening roar. It’s so loud I have to really trust that my sense of rhythm is acute, so I don’t lose the first piece of the song. The first night I came out and heard that, I felt like I was back in high school. Like it was my first time on stage ever.

What’s your favorite song to perform?

From a physical viewpoint, I love “The Room Where It Happens.” You really have to think it through, and you jump off the table, and then you do a dance at the end. But the song that really means something to me is “Dear Theodosia,” the song Burr sings to his daughter. Because every night I see my daughter.

For someone who keeps busy in TV, you make a point to return regularly to the stage. Why?

I never saw myself doing anything other than theater. Everything else I’ve done is a beautiful blessing of a detour. But you only have X amount of days to live, so you have to do what makes you happy. And hopefully this has alerted the Broadway community that I’m not going anywhere, and that I’m very willing to do my day job and then step out on stage.

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