Hamilton: An American Musical is a singular piece of theater for any number of reasons, including the creative team’s ability for plucking young talent. Joseph Morales is one of the few actors on the planet who have earned the distinct honor of playing Alexander Hamilton in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece. The 34-year-old Hawaii native is already familiar with playing a Miranda written and originated role, having been cast as the lead character, Usnavi, in the first national tour of In the Heights. I spoke with Morales about managing anxiety, facing his own death every night on the stage, self-care, and what he loves about playing Hamilton.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
Joseph Morales: I was never the kids that wanted to be in the spotlight. I was (and still am) painfully shy. It didn’t help that my step-dad was in the military and we moved around every few years. I was so lonely that I auditioned for the school play just to meet people. I don’t remember when or why I thought I could act and sing publicly. Or why I chose drama and not the math club. It just happened. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. And for whatever reason, my teachers saw something in me and encouraged me to continue and work hard. It became my life and when it was time to decide what I wanted to do when I graduated, there just wasn’t another option. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
What was the first show you saw on Broadway?
It was Avenue Q. My college professor who had encouraged me to leave school and move to New York took me right after I had moved there. I’d never even been to NY before I showed up with two suitcases and a dream. It’s absurd thinking about it now. I was clueless.
How do you manage audition/performance anxiety?
It’s taken me years to figure out the balance. It’s still something that I’m working on. I think the biggest tool to manage anxiety is preparation. If I feel prepared, I am able to let go and tap into the art that makes the anxiety disappear. I become someone different. If I’m not feeling confident, it’s just Joseph pretending and that feels terrible. But there’s also something about not taking yourself so seriously. So there’s that tricky balance of working hard and preparing, but also being able to let everything go and be in the moment. When I’m in the pocket of the moment, I’m fearless. That’s what I aim for.
How does audience response impact your performance?
When I was younger, I gave the audience so much power. If they were responsive and loud, I thought it meant that I was doing a great job. It feels great to the ego to have a responsive audience. But if they were quiet, I assumed they hated me. That’s just not the case. Some of my favorite shows have been when the audience is quiet and focused. It’s really fun to draw them in and feel the vacuum when time stops and everyone is on the same vibe. You feel the moment click in. It’s almost like a freeway and every audience takes a different on-ramp. Some take longer than others but if we’re committed to telling the story, they always jump on board. It has nothing to do with how loud they are. The question is: Are they listening?
What role does self-care play in maintaining your instrument and stamina?
It’s everything. I HAVE to get enough sleep, that’s number one. It’s pretty incredible what sleep will do for you. And how it will affect you in every way if you don’t get enough of it. During the week I make sure I’m getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising. I’m pretty boring, but I enjoy it. It’s also important to me to feel like I can have a life outside of work. So I don’t feel bad about the pizza and beer on a day off. Balance, right?
You have now done two shows written by Lin Manuel Miranda. What do you relate to in the material he writes?
Lin writes from his heart. He captures what it is to be human. And he is profound in his simplicity. He finds a way to tap into the humanity of any situation and people see themselves in us. That kind of art changes lives. That’s the only kind of art I want to be a part of.
You played Usnavi in the first national tour of In the Heights (the first show Miranda wrote that played on Broadway), replacing Lin. What did you learn from him about leading a cast?
I’ve learned that it’s a responsibility that comes with the job and your role offstage is equally important to your role onstage. You set the tone for the environment backstage which directly effects what happens on the stage. There’s a lot of trust that goes into hiring someone to lead a cast. I don’t take it lightly. I’ve got to lead by example and it has to be genuine.
Tell me about getting the call that you had booked Hamilton.
I was on tour in Philadelphia with a show called If/Then. We were having a company meeting and I got a call from my agent. I just knew this was the call where he was going to tell me if I got it or not. I left it go to voicemail and had to wait for the meeting to finish before I could call him back. It was the longest twenty minutes of my life! When I called him back my agent put me on speaker phone with the whole office and told me I was getting the offer. It was a huge relief for all of us. It had been a long process. Lots of flights to NY for callbacks and video tape submissions since I was out of town on tour. It was a team effort and I was very grateful that it worked out. It was also super cool to find out with my If/Then family. They were all rooting for me.
Hamilton is facing his own mortality from the very first song up until his death in the show. What is it like, as Joseph Morales playing Hamilton, to face your own mortality, especially in “The World Was Wide Enough” [during which the ill-fated duel with Aaron Burr occurs]?
I have always thoughts about my own mortality, even as a kid. I can’t imagine anyone not thinking about it constantly. That’s why I related to Hamilton and why I felt like I had to be a part of the show. We are put on this earth for a tiny fragment of time; I have to make it count. I can’t imagine a life without purpose, it would be too painful. I am eternally grateful to have a passion. If we can get others inspired to find their own, I think we could fix a lot of the mess that’s happening in the world right now. I think that’s why the show has been such a phenomenon. It speaks to the voice I know we all have inside of us. I see it in the faces of the audience during the curtain call. A yearning, a desire for more. When you’re gone, who’s going to tell your story? And what will they say?
One of the most impactful moments in the show is the simple act of forgiveness by Eliza in taking Hamilton’s hand during “It’s Quiet Uptown” [which occurs after he has made some significant and hurtful mistakes]. Can you talk about what you are feeling as Hamilton in that moment?
The power of forgiveness. At this moment of the show, he’s lost everything. It’s the most vulnerable we have seen him. He’s made these massive, selfish mistakes. But life is complicated and messy. And Eliza sees that. It’s that moment of empathy that is so heartbreakingly beautiful and brave. I hope everyone gets to experience that kind of love, including me.
How do you contain the emotion of playing Alexander Hamilton so that you are not bringing him home?
I let myself feel whatever it is I’m feeling after the show, but try to see it from on top and not get lost in the emotion. Like when you’re meditating, it’s not about pushing the feelings away. It’s about acknowledging them and not letting them swallow you. The deeper you allow yourself to go, the harder it is to come back. Some days it doesn’t affect me at all. And other days I need to be alone. But I try not to beat myself up about it, though. I’m human.
What place do you think live theater has in a time of decreased connection and community?
We are absolutely necessary. We are being called to serve and we don’t take it lightly. We circle up everyday before the show to remind ourselves why we do what we do and how much the people in those seats that day need us. They are spending their hard-earned money (and lots of it) to escape and to be inspired. We have an opportunity eight times a week to change the world a little. And at our best, we do change lives.
Morales was grounded, soulful and full of insight. You can hear the passion behind his words when talking about the way that live theater can change people. There are so many ways to be a part of the solution in this world. It is clear that Morales has found his way.
If you would like to see Morales in Hamilton: An American Musical, go to http://www.broadwayinchicago.com/ (and be sure to get tickets for a Sunday when he is on as Hamilton).