EXCLUSIVE: Picture the beleaguered General’s tent on a day when the war is going poorly and the prospects couldn’t be worse. An ambitious young man arrives; for his first personal encounter with the legendary leader. This is pretty much how the Alexander Hamilton/George Washington thing begins in Hamilton:
It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger –
I was just like you when I was younger.
Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?
Dying is easy, young man. living is harder.
Why are you telling me this?
Don’t get me wrong, you’re a young man, of great renown.
I know you stole British cannons when we were still downtown.
Nathaniel Green and Henry Knox both wanted to hire you.
To be their secretary? I don’t think so.
I’m being honest.
I’m working with a third of what our congress has promised.
We are a powder keg about to explode,
I need someone like you to lighten the load
And so, as Aaron Burr’s now famous introduction puts it, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor,” grows up to be “a hero and a scholar” and finally get his shot. In a musical that has not so much rewritten American history as returned it to the people, to all the people — including all the selves Thomas Jefferson left out in his “self-evident” declaration of humankind’s equality.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show has begun turning out stars faster than Betsy Ross, and among them is Christopher Jackson, the Miranda veteran playing George Washington and snapping those words of warning and entreaty. Jackson was a key player in Miranda’s last show, as Benny in In The Heights. He’s long been part of Miranda’s inner circle, he said when he stopped by Deadline HQ a few days ago. Jackson came to Hamilton already an accomplished musical-theater actor whose work includes runs in The Lion King, Memphis and After Midnight, as well as the undeservedly short-live Tupac musical Holler If Ya Hear Me.
DEADLINE: Start from the beginning.
JACKSON: This was about 2009, we were doing In The Heights and Lin came back from vacation and says, “I got the next thing.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s about the first Treasury secretary.” I looked at him like he was crazy. Of course at that point he could have said anything. We were riding so high just being able to go to work every day. He said, “Really, it’s about the first Treasury secretary!” I said, “Great, who do I get to play?” He got this look and said, “Just wait, it’s coming.”
DEADLINE: He gave you the tease and then said wait?
JACKSON: Yeah, and a few days later, [Heights and Hamilton director] Tommy Kail came over and greeted me as “Mr. President.” I sorta filled the role of team captain in In the Heights and I had a sense that this could be something cool. But it wasn’t a show, then, it was a concept album.
DEADLINE: This was what was originally called “Hamilton Mixtape”?
JACKSON: Yes, but to me it was just, I get to work with my guys again. I don’t trust anyone on the planet more than I trust Tommy and Lin. That’s the core group that we have and it’s All In. If one of us is doing a show, all will see it, it’s a tight-knit group of guys.
DEADLINE: So you watched it evolve from an idea that wasn’t even originally for the stage, into what it is today.
JACKSON: I don’t see Hamilton happening without Tommy. He and Lin dance so well together. They speak without speaking. And as a writer myself, just watching the turns that Lin has made over the years, well as much as I love In The Heights, it looks like a college project compared to what Hamilton has done.
DEADLINE: Which it was, of course. He began writing Heights in college…
JACKSON: And this is only his second show! I hope there’s five more shows we can do together.
DEADLINE: How did Lin-Manuel’s and your conception of Washington change over the course of the workshops and Public Theater presentation before Hamilton got to Broadway?
JACKSON: Much as with Benny in In The Heights, we had this immense trove of facts and personality traits about Washington to play with. As we all learned who these characters were, I found a lot of qualities that were in my own life. I didn’t come from the planter class, obviously; I moved to New York from southern Illinois but I care about the things that Washington cared about. In terms of comportment, in terms of reputation, in terms of integrity, in terms of doing things with honor. I consider it a great honor to be able to step on stage every night and do a show that people have paid money to see. I don’t ever take a day “off.” If I can’t work, I won’t work.
DEADLINE: Where did that ethic come from? Were you a theater kid?
JACKSON: I was going to play pro baseball. That was the dream. But in my sophomore year of high school a teacher who knew I performed, singing in church, she said, “You know we have a speech team,” and she handed me a copy of The Crucible. I’d never read a play before, and this was a pretty heavy thing, but I loved it. It grabbed me. And it got a different kind of response from the audience than I was used to at church. I was doing something no one else in school was doing. And I was good at it.
DEADLINE: And that took you where?
JACKSON: The same teacher, when it was time to apply for college, got me to audition for AMDA [the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York]. I wasn’t planning it, none of this was plotted, but I was accepted.
DEADLINE: What about your work outside of Hamilton? You won a Grammy for your song “What I Am,” written with Bill Sherman for Sesame Street.
JACKSON: I’m working on my second album and an EP with my writing partner Seth Stewart, he’s also a member of the company. And I do a lot of writing for Sesame Street and a couple of other shows in development. I love to write. But time these days is tricky.
DEADLINE: You and your wife are raising a son with autism and are active in the advocacy group Autism Speaks. You have a second child, so yeah, I suppose tricky is one way to describe the demands on your time. By the way, what happened to baseball?
JACKSON: The same thing that happens to most everybody else who dreams of playing baseball. Except that when I got out here, I grew six inches in my first year in college…But I was in New York! The second day of orientation they took us to see Crazy For You. I knew some Gershwin tunes but I’d never seen anything like that. I was mesmerized. I’d made the right decision. After the show we had a talk-back with the actors and I thought, Yep. These are real people. Like me.
DEADLINE: But you’re also a big guy. You must be the ringer on the Hamilton team in the Broadway Softball League.
JACKSON: Uh, I got game.