Local Arts

CMS grad in Chicago cast of ‘Hamilton’ offers insider tips – and a heartfelt message

At the Observer’s request, Phillip Johnson-Richardson took a recent selfie in full “Hamilton” gear in Chicago. He graduated from Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts in 2014, is a member of the “Hamilton” ensemble and serves as understudy for Hamilton and the dual part of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.
At the Observer’s request, Phillip Johnson-Richardson took a recent selfie in full “Hamilton” gear in Chicago. He graduated from Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts in 2014, is a member of the “Hamilton” ensemble and serves as understudy for Hamilton and the dual part of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison. Courtesy Phillip Johnson-Richardson

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With anticipation about “Hamilton” sky-high in Charlotte, we wanted an insider’s view of the production. Phillip Johnson-Richardson has it.

Now in the Chicago cast of “Hamilton,” Johnson-Richardson graduated from Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts and was in the school’s 2012 production of “The Color Purple,” which became key to the inspirational “Purple Dreams” documentary. He graduated in May from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. (We’ll have more about him, and a few more Charlotte connections, in upcoming coverage.)

Johnson-Richardson is a member of the ensemble in “Hamilton,” and serves as understudy for the roles of Hamilton and the dual part of Hercules Mulligan/Jamees Madison. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning smash will be at the Belk Theater in Charlotte from Oct. 10-Nov. 4, with its multiethnic representation of the founding generation.

Here are five things for audience members to watch and listen for, in Johnson-Richardson’s own words:

1. The hip-hop and musical theater references that are spliced within the show. Lin has paid homage to a lot of people who influenced him and his writing, and the references are sometimes ever slight so you will need to pay close attention when watching the show. My favorite hip-hop reference in the show is the song “Ten Duel Commandments”; it is a direct reference to the “Ten Crack Commandments” by Biggie Smalls.

2. Something that I’m still finding interesting within the show is how the show is staged and how much the ensemble is involved. The ensemble switches between storytellers, and being an extension of the characters and what they are feeling. I have experienced both sides being that I am in the ensemble as well as one of the understudies for “Alexander Hamilton.”

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3. The excellent use of repeated melodies within the score. In most shows, there are usually melodies that are repeated, and for me that can sometimes feels redundant. But in this show it is beyond effective! And the melody that’s at the beginning of the song “Yorktown” is also the same at the song “Hurricane.” To me it’s almost as if it represents the moment that something, for lack of a better word, is about to go DOWN. And as the resident director, Jess McLeod, has said to me, it’s as if in those very moments, Hamilton’s heart drops.

Phillip Johnson-Richardson 2.jpg
Phillip Johnson-Richardson Phillip Johnson-Richardson wants to "remind people that the importance of this show is not just within the story but the factor that a person of color wrote it and that we are also the forefront storytellers."


4. The amount of stacked rhymes in the show. In my music rehearsals for the show (mostly for the role of Hamilton) the music directors would talk to me about how often Lin would use rhymes on top of rhymes on top of rhymes on top of MORE rhymes, and it’s really when people are digging into each other. Personally, I love (being the) conflict onstage so that’s some of my favorite stuff.

5. Last but definitely not least, I think this is the most obvious but just to remind people that the importance of this show is not just within the story but the factor that a person of color wrote it and that we are also the forefront storytellers. I walk to the theater every single day and before people see me enter the stage door, hence knowing that I am one of the actors, they tend to give me dirty looks and look at me funny as if I don’t belong in the area, which is a very nice area.

What you should look for in the show is that someone like myself is on that (stage) portraying a complex human being regardless of what they look like or what your preconceived notion of their appearance might be. I would just like for people who love people of color onstage, love us just as much when we’re being human beings in everyday life.

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696; @abell
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