By Isaac Hamlet, Des Moines Register
You don’t need to speak to “Hamilton” lead Pierre Jean Gonzalez to know the man works nonstop.
A graduate of Rutgers University, Gonzalez spent about a year-and-a-half as a standby for the parts of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and King George III with the Philip Touring Co. -— one of the three groups touring North America with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary musical “Hamilton.”
“They asked me to take over as Alexander Hamilton and I was supposed to debut on March 27 of 2020,” Gonzalez told the Des Moines Register. “So I took off two weeks beforehand… to decompress before I took it up.”
Of course, what delayed Gonzalez from taking the stage is a matter that will be covered in history books. But in the 18 months Gonzalez wasn’t performing as Hamilton, the actor didn’t stand still or lay in wait, instead, he began working at a rate that rivaled the zeal of the founding father he portrays on stage.
So, before you see “Hamilton” on the stage, get to know a little bit more about the man
‘My own personal Shakespeare’
Before getting to Gonzalez’s more recent achievement, it’s important to rewind back to about 2015, back when “Hamilton” was first exploding on Broadway.
“(What first excited me) was the music,” Gonzalez recalled of his early encounters with the show. “I grew up in the Bronx, I grew up around hip-hop. I remember listening to (‘Hamilton’) and thinking, ‘This is my music ‘… (and) it reminded me of Shakespeare too. It was like my own Shakespeare; it was like it was catered and made for me. I don’t know how to describe it. It was magical.”
The world went on to agree with him. The musical retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s story that blends hip-hop with the traditional musical structure went on to take home 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2016.
Though its time on Broadway was interrupted by the pandemic, Disney+ released a filmed recording of the original Broadway cast in 2020 and the musical returned to live Broadway performances last September.
Though he loves the whole show, Gonzalez’s favorite segment of “Hamilton” might surprise those familiar with it.
While the musical is filled with demanding raps, like “My Shot” near the top of the show, and clever rebuttals, like “Farmer Refuted,” which give the Hamilton actor chances to show off the character’s wit, Gonzalez’s favorite part is a dramatically fraught portion of the show’s second act.
“There’s this little section, from ‘We Know’ going into ‘Hurrican,’” said Gonzalez, describing a portion of the show where Hamilton’s rivals rally against him to bring past transgressions to light. “It’sthat ride, it’s just so human. It’s that simplest form of seeing someone be put in front of a challenge — and a lot of the time we as human beings create our own drama and make things worse for ourselves because of our pride. I think it’s just such a telling moment for the character.”
According to Gonzalez, he’s been able to go from believing he could never be the lead in a show the size of “Hamilton,” to performing a part that feels custom-made for him nightly.
“I get to dance, I get to sing, I get to rap, I get to story-tell, I get to emote,” he said. “The rise and fall of this character, what a ride to be able to have. Then at the end of the night, I look out and see thousands of people happy. We make people happy in a time where not a lot of happiness is everywhere.”
‘Using ‘Hamilton’ platform to do good’
Uniquely situated by virtue of his position as a “Hamilton” cast member, Gonzalez decided he wasn’t interested in remaining idle during the worst of the pandemic. He took the money he’d saved from his time as a standby, tagged members of the held-over “Hamilton” cast and crew, and decided to make movies.
Early on in the pandemic, Gonzalez and his fiancé, Cedric Leiba Jr., started DominiRican Productions, a film production company now in its second year.
One of their projects is “American Made,” a short film starring Gonzalez and Jared Dixon, who plays Burr in this company’s production of “Hamilton.” Tiffany Nichole Greene, the resident director for this company, directs the film that examines the U.S. prison-industrial complex’s perpetuation of slavery by depicting the story of two bookbinders at a correctional facility.
DominiRican released two other short films, “Release” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get Who?” Gonzalez’s and his production company want to highlight people of color on both sides of the camera.
“It all started off with me creating jobs for my friends, who are amazing artists, who are not given the opportunity because we’re all fighting over these two or three roles,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez’s goals in the film world are not so far-flung from “Hamilton”-creator Miranda’s own. With “Hamilton,” Miranda famously aimed to display the stories of “America then, told by America now,” and his previous Broadway hit, “In the Heights,” came about because Miranda looked at Broadway and didn’t see many desirable roles for Puerto Rican men.
In Gonzalez’s opinion, the worlds of stage and film are shifting in a direction he’s happy to see. Not only are productions like “Hamilton” being created for the stage, but he pointed to a particular example on television that he was elated to see.
“I watched ‘Bridgerton’ the other day and I was weeping,” he said. “That’s my favorite time period — and (as a child) I was thinking I would never play anyone in this world. And watching what (Regé-Jean Page) did, it makes me emotional now to see Black and brown people play these roles and be dukes and duchesses. That, for me, was a game-changer.”
As a gay, Latinx man from the Bronx, Gonzalez’s hope is that by playing “Hamilton” at night and doing DominiRican during the day, he can inspire others in the same way.
“Using this ‘Hamilton’ platform to do good, to inspire, to let the kids see themselves — you don’t know how many messages I get from not even just Latinx but trans, non-binary, people who see me with my flag representing them,” he said. “That’s how important it is just to see yourself be represented or see yourself be praised or see yourself be put into that leading character.”
“Hamilton” returns to the Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., with shows from May 17 through June 5. Tickets for the show are $59 to $229and can be purchased through desmoinesperformingarts.org.
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at [email protected] or 319-600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.