A thespian alum just made the leap from dance major to Broadway performer. Zelig Williams, of Troupe 3940 at Dreher High School in Columbia, S.C., recently earned a spot in one of the most popular musicals in modern history: Hamilton.

The Pace University junior first auditioned for Hamilton as a college freshman and then again as a sophomore. Five months after this second audition, he was offered the ensemble role of Man Four. Since October, Williams has been performing eight shows a week at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Williams first caught the acting bug as a fourth-grader, when he played the mayor of Munchkin City in The Wizard of Oz. A couple years later, at Crayton Middle School, theatre teacher Jennifer Bjorn cast him as the cyclops in an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

“He made comical choices that were outstanding in that role,” says Bjorn, who remembers him as a “very creative, energetic, and talented” youth. “He was always a mover. In seventh grade, he played the jester in a medieval play, and every time I needed someone to add energy to the stage, I would turn to him and say, ‘We have to come up with something.’”

Williams went on to join ITS and serve as president of Dreher High School’s drama club, while playing roles such as Emmett in Legally Blonde and Danny Zuko in Grease. The camaraderie and enthusiasm he found in Troupe 3940 fed his zeal for the stage. “Everyone in the troupe wanted to do their best, and it made me want to do my best as well,” Williams says. “We were a close group that talked about our goals and dreams together.”

In addition to his collaborative spirit, Williams pulls on deep personal drive and discipline. He began technical dance classes at the young age of 12 at Southern Strutt dance studio, where he participated in competitions. He believes his dance training helped him clinch the part of Man Four, a role of demanding movement that reflects the emotions of the other characters in the musical, requiring a broad range of feelings, gestures, and expressions. This unconventional part requires him to be on stage for almost the entire show.

Williams’ rapid rise to success is no surprise to his middle school and high school teachers, who recall his work ethic, natural talent, and fluid creative energy. “Zelig has a contagious enthusiasm for acting,” says Dreher High School theatre teacher Jeanette Avray-Beck, who met Williams when he was a “wide-eyed, trusting, and beautiful soul” of 13 years. Avray-Beck believes that an innate sense of empathy and generosity fuels Williams’ acting. “As an actor, he brought out the best in everybody. He never thought he was better than anyone else,” she reflects.

Zelig Williams has lit up school stages for more than a decade.
Zelig Williams has lit up school stages for more than a decade. Photo courtesy of Zelig Williams.

Avray-Beck struggled to contain her excitement during Williams’ Hamilton auditions. “About a year ago, he texted me from college and said, ‘Guess what, I’ve been selected to do these workshops, and if all goes well I could end up in Hamilton!’ I couldn’t say anything for a long time, and then finally one day, he texted me ‘Guess what!’ He got the part!”

Williams credits theatre teachers like Avray-Beck and Bjorn for helping him hone his craft. “They taught us with a deep love for their art, and I think it impacted me in a way I couldn’t have ever imagined,” says Williams. “They allowed me to be who I am and always told me to go with my heart. Learning this from them helped me become more comfortable in my own skin and allowed me to have a stronger sense of self when I’d have an audition.”

His experience in Hamilton has further strengthened him, Williams says. “Every day I learn something new from the cast.” 

This story appeared in the April 2017 print issue of Dramatics.

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