As Hamilton hits our screens, Christoper Jackson tellswhat it was like to star in the smash-hit musical that suddenly feels more relevant than ever
It’s the unlikely hip-hop musical about an American founding father that became a musical sensation. The original cast of Hamilton recorded their epic show over two memorable nights in front of a live audience - and now they’re showing it to the world.
The resulting performance comes to Disney+ for an entertainment-starved public as theatres remain closed in many countries. The aim is to bring a cinematic eye to the live theatrical experience. One of its stars, Christoper Jackson, has had an early peek and promises that fans will be pleased.
“From the perspective of a theatre maker and a theatregoer I've never seen anything like it. I’m still trying to put it into words and make sense of it,” he says.
We weren't working with the type of situation where Tommy (director Thomas Kail) could go back and do ten takes. The level of understanding of all of these angles and all of these moments, the institutional memory that Tommy had to bring to this, to film it live.
“We filmed in front of two live audiences, and then we had one day to do some steadicam things. But to be able to capture that, in real time, is a feat.”
The show comes to the small screen in what is certain to be a historical moment in US history. The shocking death of George Floyd has led to worldwide protests and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I'm grateful that we're having this conversation, I really am,” says Jackson. “I feel better for my children and your children and all of our children to know that. To do this work now, I think we can't help but make things better.”
Hamilton, a story that looks at history, race and justice and is often described as being about “America then, told by America now”, seems more on note than ever.
“A show like this, a story like this requires the audience to do more work,” says Jackson.
“After you've been entertained for two and a half hours, it requires that you go back and learn what the thing was. And approach the telling of the story in an honest way. That work is required by everyone in society, whether it's in a theatre show, or whether it's walking through the halls of our government. You have to do the work. You have to make room for everyone.
And I think that this moment is happening because the injustice has never been acknowledged. It's never fully, formally been acknowledged. And contrition has never been acted upon.
From a small town in Illinois where there wasn’t a great deal of access to theatre, Jackson studied in New York, and used to go to the city’s Performing Arts Public Library to familiarise himself with all the great musical performances on record and cassette.
He first met Hamilton writer Lin Manuel Miranda in 2002 before they both worked on a smash-hit production of In the Heights (shortly to be released as a movie adaptation) and the two became good friends.
Jackson was already making a name for himself on Broadway, starring first as an ensemble cast member and later as Simba in The Lion King. In 2015, he originated the role of President George Washington in Hamilton, one of a number of non-white actors playing historical figures.
Washington was a slave owner who later freed his slaves in his will. Was he challenging to play given his history?
Well, I own my inability to make sense of why any person would feel empowered to claim ownership of another person. That is despicable. It always has been and it always will be.
“I struggled with that very early on. And what I always kind of come back to is that we've got... the entire world is coming into a place where there's a reckoning happening, right? As black people, In America, we've always understood where it was, but it's not up to the victim to explain the actions or the morality or lack thereof, of the perpetrator. It's not for the oppressed, to explain the mindset or to rationalise the mindset of the oppressor.”
Like many of us, he has spent a good deal more time at home lately with wife Veronica, also a singer and actress, and their children CJ, 15 and Jadelyn, 10. CJ has autism and the couple work with charities that support other families. Lockdown has been challenging, he says.
“It's not been without its bumps, more so for them, honestly, than for us. You try to make them comfortable and afford for them the space to make that adjustment too. With CJ, it's an interesting time - he’s actually been more engaged in things that didn't involve a YouTube video or what Lego set he happens to be building right now. Virtual classroom stuff has been rather difficult for him, just because of compartmentalising a lot of what happens in school. But he's engaging with the nightly news in a different kind of way. And we're having conversations about what's happening with the coronavirus. Are people getting better? Do we have to wear masks now? So in that respect, it's been very very productive.
My daughter is moving to middle school next year. She has a drive-by graduation on Friday morning, which is going to be fun. And we're just doing what every other parent is trying to do which is keep them informed, help them to understand the context of our times and just be available for every question that we can answer. And for every point of confusion or concern, we just try to meet that moment.
With the recent success of La La Land and Mamma Mia, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story adaptation and In the Heights set for release soon, it feels like the big-screen musical is having a moment.
“As with all things in this industry, there's an ebb and flow there, things can sort of run in seasons and I think we can go back and forth between the audience dictating what needs to be made, and the filmmaker saying: ‘You know what? This is a great idea. Let's run with it’. I've never been a great comic book fan, but I've seen all the Marvel movies because they're entertaining. At the end of the day, that’s what we're there for. I hope that there continues to be a platform for the movie musical and I hope that the genre itself can continue to grow.”