A conversation with Aaron Burr from "Hamilton"
"Hamilton" has finally arrived in Milwaukee – and the only thing more stressful and intense than trying to get tickets for Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical masterpiece is probably actually performing in "Hamilton."
Who would know better than actor Nik Walker? The actor joined the Broadway production back in 2016 – perhaps at the peak of the show's "Hamilton"-ness, just after it won an almost record amount of Tony awards and just before several of the beloved original cast members left to pursue new projects – and is still with it as he plays Aaron Burr for the touring version.
"I won't lie to you: It's the hardest job I've ever had," Walker said during our phone conversation. "I'm so tired at the end of the day. It's not a joke.
"Aside from the fact that you don't stop talking for three hours, for Hamilton and Burr, it's just emotionally tasking. ... I have to go to a real crazy place where I kill somebody every night. This is not the first show that's had high emotional stakes – you look at 'Miss Saigon' or 'Les Mis' or something like that – but I think the difference is that it is buttressed by this beautiful music. And our music is beautiful, but our music is also intimate. It's not a big orchestral arrangement. Some of it is, but the most emotional moments are just you alone, speaking. That's it. So you can't hide; there's nothing covering you. It's naked. So if you lie, it's very perceptible. The audience can tell when you're phoning it in. So you really have to give them the full show."
Walker and company will give Brew City that full show starting tonight, running through Nov. 17 at the Marcus Center. But before the show makes its highly-anticipated Milwaukee debut, I got a chance to chat with the actor about working on a cultural phenomenon and making Aaron Burr his own. And, of course, Marvel movies.
OnMilwaukee: What was that like joining a show that was, and still is, such a massive cultural moment?
Nik Walker: To be honest with you, I was just relieved because I was just about to get married and I needed a job to help pay for my wedding. (laughs)
I was doing "Motown" at the time – I did that from the beginning – and I'd done the tour, and they wanted to bring the tour back to Broadway. But the Broadway run only lasted about three weeks. And I was like, "OK, well, I'm getting married in two months, so I need a gig." I booked one show called "In Transit" that was on Broadway, and that was going to be great – but they weren't going to let me out for my honeymoon. But then I booked "Hamilton" … and I love "In Transit" and I love everybody involved in that show, but it was just a better fit and better timing. So that was really where my head was at.
In terms of the cultural phenomenon of it, I've never been a part of a show with such a voracious fan following. The way that the community and the fans treat you with this show is unlike anything I've ever seen – so much support and so much love. People know everyone from Hamilton to the stage manager down. They know our names, and they know what we do.
Not for nothing, but the show was right at the height of social media's powers as well. All of a sudden, you had a show that was very accessible, a soundtrack that was very accessible and you had a cast that was extremely accessible. You could find these people and get to know these people, and we were doing the "Ham4Ham" outside in the street and "EduHam" with bringing in schools. So people really got to know the cast.
That's what I walked into. So it was pretty insane. I just remember feeling like you'd walk in and everyday there was a new celebrity there coming through. It was a big thing! But bottom line: I was very thankful to have a good job. (laughs)
Obviously people have such a passion for the music and the performers. How much liberty did you feel you had, then and now, to make the character and the music your own as opposed to making choices that people expect and know?
"Hamilton" is like McDonalds now; it is a big show with six companies in all different parts of the globe. So there's a certain amount of … not streamlining, but you want to make sure the product you're putting out is the product that is "Hamilton."
But within that, just because of the brilliance of Lin's script, you almost can't make the same choices as the people who came before you. The detail is in the words, so it really demands that you be yourself. I love Leslie (Odom Jr., the original Aaron Burr on Broadway). Leslie's an amazing person. I'm not Leslie, and I was never going to be Leslie. I can only bring myself to this script. They don't ever want you to play whoever came before you; they want you to find the simplest, cleanest version of yourself for this character. That's always what Tommy (Kail), our director, is always asking for. Whenever things get extraneous, whenever you're trying to get a laugh, that's the stuff where people say, "Cut that out; that's unnecessary." It's what is at the core of this character when it comes to you. So there's freedom in the structure. And I certainly have found a lot of freedom.
I'm sure everyone encounters this, but I've certainly encountered this: It's jarring for people because people know this show because of the album, so they're used to a certain intonation on certain lines. And I'm not going to do that. (laughs) That's not my Burr. I know it often takes people a second to get used to that we're not doing the show you've heard. We're doing our show. But again, because of the power of the show and the power of the words, it still works. It is really a beautiful script that way, that it can handle all sorts of choices.
Is there one particular part of the script that you feel like you really got to create your own variation on the character?
Oh, there's several. The one thing that I've loved exploring is his humor. I think Burr is a very funny character.
For me, the thing I really wanted to explore was the idea that these two men, in my mind, have to be friends – really good friends. They have to be two people who really love each other and respect each other, because that's where the tragedy comes in. If these two could've put away their differences, they could've really built some amazing things. But particularly because of Burr's ego, it ended so tragically in the context of our story.
So the biggest thing that I've done is really resist playing him as a villain. Definitely snarky. But in my mind, his obsession was the only thing villainous with him, figuring out this man and beating this man at his own game. But that doesn't mean that every part of him has to be about that obsession.
I'm a huge Marvel movie fan – I was always a comic book kid and now living in the age of Marvel movies has been like heaven for me – but to me, Burr-Hamilton have always been Captain America-Tony Stark. These two people are very much fighting for the same thing, but Burr has always been Tony to me – at least in the earlier MCU when he's still the party boy and still not taking things to seriously. That's always felt like Burr to me. He's playing the long game. He's the smartest person in the room. He has nobody to impress, so we can have a good time and take it easy. But what he's hiding under that is immense insecurity and immense fear. There's that mask – somebody who's so charming and casual and fun and easy – but in those quiet moments, you see a little bit of that mask crack, knowing that there is something very dark under there.
That's the journey of the show then: watching that mask fall apart and finding what's really underneath this guy.
Now that you've brought it up, I have to ask: What is your favorite Marvel/MCU movie?
Oh dude. This is such a long conversation. But my favorite movie of the MCU is absolutely "Civil War." I think it's the best, most complete film that they've made. Maybe up until "Endgame," because that was pretty special. Honestly, the time I've enjoyed myself the most is a tie between "Thor: Ragnarok" and the first "Guardians of the Galaxy." Those were just such fun movies, and that's always nice as well. But in terms of the best movie, hands down it's "Civil War."
You've now been in "Hamilton" for years. Do you ever sit and think, "Is this the best things will ever be? Will my career ever top this?"
It's funny; the guy who's playing our king right now is my friend Neil – he's been in the show longer than I have – and we were literally just having this conversation last night.
I love theater, and I've always loved musicals – but I was a Shakespeare major. I wasn't trying to do musicals. And when I found "Hamilton," for the first time, I was like, "Oh my god, it's a musical you can truly act in." There's outliers like "Sweeney Todd" and stuff like that, but this is an actor's musical. It is old text and old words – and that is so rare. And on top of that, Lin and Tommy and Alex (Lacamoire, musical director) and Andy (Blankenbuehler, choreographer), it's one of the best, kindest, most welcoming creative teams in the world. Our bosses are really good bosses. And, not for nothing, the salary ain't bad either. So this is such a hard job to beat.
I'm always a firm believer in the best is yet to come. You have to keep believing that; don't try to find the peak of your life, just keep progressing and enjoying your life instead of charting it. But I also do recognize that this is such a rarity. I've been in this business for 15 years, and I don't ever want to be that dude who's condescending telling people what they don't want to hear or need to hear, but when some of our younger cast members come to me, I say, "Look, it's not normally like this." They can't afford it to be. Most musicals and most shows don't do this well, don't have this following, don't have these resources.
That's a big thing that I always to say when I get the chance to talk to audience members: Please know that we know how special this is. We know how hard people worked and saved to get to see this show. We do not take it lightly at all. We know what a special moment this is, and as ambassadors of the show, we are so genuinely happy to bring the show to you.
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