It’s lights up on Hamilton at the Paramount. Aaron Burr, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and company stand in formation around the stage, wondering aloud about the play’s titular character, the “10-dollar founding father without a father.” This remains the favorite moment of the play for the actor who awaits his cue in the wings. In just a few beats, one of the most iconic characters put to stage in recent memory will step out to greet a Seattle audience lucky enough to snag opening night tickets. “The world is gonna know your name,” says Burr. Go time. “What’s your name, man?”
Joseph Morales was born in New Mexico but, with a father in the army, moved around a lot as a kid. On a high school trip to Medford, young Morales quickly fell in love with the seasonal plays the nearby Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced and decided to study theater at Southern Oregon University.
But, like Hamilton, Morales felt impatient about making a name for himself. Just a year into school, he dropped out and moved to New York to start auditioning. In 2010, he landed a big break: the lead in the first national tour of In the Heights, assuming the role of Usnavi from its creator—a promising playwright and actor named Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Morales got to know the fellow thespian with Puerto Rican heritage during New York rehearsals of In the Heights. At these sessions, Miranda offered peeks into his new musical, a hip-hop-inspired tribute to one of America’s often-overlooked founding fathers.
The phenomenon of Hamilton is well-documented history, from its 11 Tony awards to Michelle Obama declaring it the best piece of art she’s seen in her life. Most people who are able to score tickets walk in the theater with the lyrics memorized, thanks to the original cast’s hit album. People compare Manuel’s dexterous weaving of contemporary language (“It’s hard to have intercourse / Over four sets of corsets”) to the stylings of Shakespeare that endured four centuries to inspire Morales as a child.
Morales loved Miranda’s new work, saw the potential, but he did not get the sense at the time that the story of our nation’s hotheaded first treasury secretary would soon go on to become a defining cultural artifact of our time. Nor that Morales would eventually play the title role.
In 2016, Morales again followed in the footsteps of Miranda as the alternate lead in the Chicago production of Hamilton, taking on the now-famous persona for one performance a week. Now he assumes the lead role full time in the musical’s second national tour, which debuts in Seattle on February 6.
Five days into rehearsals in New York City, a time so hectic he could only spare a short phone conversation while grabbing dinner one Thursday night, Morales brimmed with excitement and showed no signs of Hamilton fatigue—the role, come the tour’s end and after his tenure in Chicago, will have defined his professional and creative life for the better part of two years.
The trick, Morales says, is to shepherd Miranda’s vision without doing an impression of his original performance. And that goes for the entire touring cast as well, some of them taking part in their first major production (the only Hamilton vets being Morales and Nik Walker as Aaron Burr). But in the end, Morales and the rest of the cast are stewards for Miranda’s seminal work of art. No audience, from St. Louis to Seattle, wants to see some new interpretation of the Hamilton and Burr dynamic.
And what a privilege it is, says Morales, to bring this monumental work of art to the hometowns of audiences across the country. It’s why, even after years of touring in national productions, he can’t wait to pack his bags (and his dog Duncan) and hit the road again. For 46 performances in Seattle, he gets to step into the spotlight by way of what is now considered one of the most knockout entrances in Broadway history. “What’s your name, man?” asks Burr. You know it already.