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What’s it like to be in ‘Hamilton’? Minnesota crew: it’s a ‘once in a generation’ thing

August 23, 2018

King George says his songs sometimes become impromptu audience participation moments. George Washington has enjoyed a spike in Instagram followers. And the dance supervisor points to a backstage area piled high with fan-produced art.

Just about everyone associated with the touring production of “Hamilton” that opens Wednesday in Minneapolis agrees it’s not like working on other musical hits.

“I call it a generational show. Once in a generation, you get one,” says Marcus Choi, who will play the first president of the United States. “I was lucky to be part of ‘Wicked’ about 15 years ago and that was a similar feeling, in terms of just seeing it everywhere. But that was pre-social media. I think ‘Wicked’ rewrote the equation and now ‘Hamilton’ has taken it and exponentially grown it.”

And, by “exponentially grown,” Choi means stuff like Seattle artist Rafael Calonzo Jr., who goes by “huskypants” on Instagram and has created a dizzying array of images of “Hamilton,” including a portrait of Choi as Washington labeled “Here Comes the General.”

That’s just one among hundreds of “Hamilton” fan-art pieces, many of which you can view on the Instagram page of Choi and other performers. Kourtni Lind-Watson, the Minnesota-raised dance supervisor for the tour that’s coming here, says the artwork is her favorite part of being in the eye of the Hammicane.

“This show has inspired more fan art than I’ve ever seen,” says Lind-Watson, who was in the Broadway company of the ill-fated “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and a tour of “Wicked” after graduating from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. “A lot of the actors get sent portraits or paintings of them in their costumes. There’s so much fun stuff that comes in, and they bring it in to these tables we have backstage, just inside the stage door, so we all get to see it.”

Jon Patrick Walker’s King George III has appeared on a fan-created fake cover of a magazine called Awesome Wow (that’s a quote from a King George song in the show), complete with articles about how to hold a scepter and break up with a royal ex. But his favorite piece of fan art may be a crown, knitted out of golden yarn.

“It’s nice to have this little yellow crown that I can wear around the house, because I don’t get to bring home my other crown at night,” jokes Walker, who says there is a rock-star-like vibe to the attention that cast members of “Hamilton” receive. That’s something he knows a little about, since he has recorded and toured behind three rock albums.

“It’s certainly the only time in my career I’ve ever received entrance applause. I’m not a famous actor, so they’re not applauding because Jon Patrick Walker is walking out there. It’s because the king is walking out there. It’s thrilling to feel that welcoming embrace from the audience.”

Thrilling and, occasionally, disorienting.

Both Choi and Walker say they’re not distracted when some people in the audience — who know the songs because of the mega-selling cast album — sing along with them. But they can see and, occasionally, hear it.

“In my big first number, I say, ‘Everybody’ [as if leading a singalong] and I sometimes hear the audience following that by singing the da-da-da-da-dees,” says Walker. “I’ve been given direction to not make it seem as though my ‘Everybody’ is to the audience but that I’m beckoning my subjects to come on stage and sing along with me. So it’s staged to downplay the singalong aspect, but there are times when the audience sings along, anyway. The other night, oddly, people started clapping and they weren’t really in time, so I was glad they stopped.”

Walker says knowing that at least some of the audience is familiar enough with the show to try a little Hamaoke adds to the pressure of performing: “One night in Salt Lake City, I opened my mouth and my mind had wandered for a second, so the words weren’t there. I sang words that didn’t make sense but somehow fit with the musical time and the rhythm but I was very aware that 80 to 90 percent of the audience, with this particular show, probably knew I was messing up. They just know the show so well.”

Barricades and security personnel at the “Hamilton” stage door make sure interactions with fans are friendly — selfies, autographs and screams of “I love you,” mostly — but they also add to the rock star vibe. “You feel a little like the Beatles on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” says Walker.

Lind-Watson doesn’t even perform in the musical but she gets the occasional Beatles-esque response, courtesy of hair that resembles that of a “Hamilton” dancer:

“There’s a girl in the show who wears a short, blond wig. Keep in mind that I’m at least a foot taller than her, but people will still scream at me, ‘You were so amazing!’ and I’m like, ‘No, you didn’t watch me tonight, but thank you. She was amazing.’ ”

The show has also proved to be a good conversation starter: “Whenever I get my hair done or I’m in a Lyft, they’ll ask why I’m in town,” said Lind-Watson. “I’ll mention the show and it’s always, ‘Omigosh, my co-workers saw it and are going nuts about it.’ So it makes for fun conversations with strangers in every single city.”

The occasional grocery-store or Lyft encounter aside, Choi says rabid fan response to “Hamilton” is more of a phenomenon on social media than in real life. And, with support coming from seemingly everywhere, he’s fine with that.

“The show resonates on so many levels,” says Choi, who gained 800 followers in less than a day when he did a takeover of the show’s Instagram account a few months back. “Musical theater fans love it because it’s a genius piece of theater. Kids who love hip-hop and rap are interested that something like this exists that they can connect to on a musical level. You also have an older audience that loves it for the historical aspect. And then the ethnic diversity in our show attracts a wide array of people in the audience, from older people down to kids of every color.”

The actor thinks creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s insistence that the “Hamilton” cast look like today’s America is a big reason why audiences nationwide are going nuts for the unlikely blockbuster about the Founding Father who died an ignoble death.

“As an Asian-American actor, I could not pass up the opportunity to tell this story,” says Choi, who sometimes uses the hashtag #azngeorge. “If you look at American history, it’s all told from an immigrant point of view. Our Founding Fathers were immigrants. So it’s a beautiful thing that in this show, ethnic actors and immigrants get to tell this story.”

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib

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