THESPIAN ALUM Phillip Johnson-Richardson is on top of the world, and no wonder. Last summer, the 22-year-old joined the Chicago company ensemble of the sold-out musical phenomenon Hamilton. He plays various characters, but the big deal is: He’s understudying Hercules Mulligan, James Madison … and the man himself, Alexander Hamilton. In fact, Johnson-Richardson began his Chicago journey, center stage, in the title role. “The crazy thing was I actually learned Hamilton first, before I learned my ensemble track. I made my debut in Hamilton as Hamilton,” he said. “That was super epic!”

Just like that this actor from Charlotte, North Carolina, ended up playing the titular role in the show that’s changed the entire musical theatre game. Hamilton’s contemporary take on U.S. history is bringing new audiences to the theatre (when they can get a ticket). Aspiring actors have memorized the score and will perform their favorite sections at the drop of a hat. But the number of performers who actually have walked into the leading role remains small, and if you’re on that list, the larger arts contingent will pay attention to your career trajectory.

Phillip Johnson-Richardson (right, with Jamaal Fields-Green) in costume for the title role in the Chicago company of Hamilton.

Phillip Johnson-Richardson (right, with Jamaal Fields-Green) in costume for the title role in the Chicago company of Hamilton. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson-Richardson.

During his years in Thespian Troupe 5634 at Northwest School of the Arts, Johnson-Richardson was “on fire,” said his teacher Corey Mitchell. Mitchell, first recipient of the Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education and lead teacher in Northwest’s theatre arts program, is also the first name that comes up when Johnson-Richardson is asked about his mentors.

“I met Phillip when he came to Northwest as a freshman,” Mitchell said. “Through his career at the school, he appeared in every musical I directed, including ChicagoThe Music ManThe Wedding SingerWest Side StoryGodspellThe Color PurpleFootlooseOnce on This Island, and he was in some of the plays, too. I knew there was something special there, primarily because of his willingness to work. Tenacity can win out over talent. Phillip has the work ethic and the talent to back it up. It’s a great formula for success.”

Johnson-Richardson credits his high school program with giving him the tools to get into college. “We did the International Thespian Festival. When I think back about what my high school did, we were dope,” he chuckled. “I was doing play festivals, cabarets, and other performances outside of school. I acquired stamina. I learned how to pace myself.”

Despite his youth, Johnson-Richardson projects a Hamilton-sized self-command, which he earned through considerable trials. Part of his heartbreaking, heartwarming story is preserved in the 2017 documentary Purple Dreams, which follows high school actors preparing and performing The Color Purple at Northwest, one of the first high schools licensed to stage the show. Film director Joanne Hock chronicled Johnson-Richardson’s artistic journey from a boy whose family suddenly fell homeless and was sleeping on the floor of a relative’s garage, to a young artist with a steely resolve and an eye on the prize.

His stint in Hamilton comes on the heels of his graduation from Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music musical theatre program, one of the most respected in the country. “It was a hard four years,” said Johnson-Richardson, “but it was worth it, because the training was great, and you’re around amazingly talented people. The program pushed me to where I am today.”

Given the demands of a show like Hamilton, especially considering the understudy work on top of a regular track, Johnson-Richardson benefits from strong educational underpinnings that keep his instrument in shape. Today’s Broadway artists need solid vocal training to give them the necessary edge and resilience.

“I didn’t have vocal training until I went to college. I studied with a few different teachers, but the teacher I really credit with giving me my technique is Amy Johnson. She whipped me into shape. She did wonders for my voice,” he said.

Johnson explained, “CCM’s program is progressive in that the musical theatre students are matriculated into the program with our voice majors in their junior and senior years. Although my experience has been in grand opera, I started out as an actor, and my first real passion was musical theatre, the Golden Age musicals. I first saw Phillip performing as a freshman. His acting was fantastic, he was a wonderful dancer, and I thought, ‘I want to work with that kid. There’s really something there.’”

“Our training was classically based,” Johnson-Richardson said. “We spent time learning the songs from the Golden Age of musicals, lots of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but we also focused on the styles of singing that fit our voices naturally. For me that was the jazzy and more contemporary musicals. In Hamilton you have to be able to do everything. I’m doing tenor stuff, and I’m not really a tenor, but I have to sing tenor. And in the same performance I have to sing baritone. My training with Amy Johnson gave me the groundwork to do what I do.”

And Johnson provided a rigorous training in vocal technique. She said, “He would come in for a lesson first thing Monday morning after a long weekend of rehearsals and performances and say, ‘I don’t think we’ll be singing today,’ and I would say, ‘Well, guess what?’”

She added, “He could be the next Gordon MacRae, he has that kind of beautiful baritone voice, but that isn’t what the industry is asking for these days. We worked on the same vocalizations I would use with my classical students, to build a healthy foundation. He learned to be a singing athlete. It’s a joy to encourage students after a performance, but you always have to raise the bar. When I would tell Phillip what could have been better, his answer was always, ‘You’re right.’ There were never excuses. He was very clear about his goals. He knows who he is. He’s incredibly humble, and grateful.”

Before he graduated from CCM, Johnson-Richardson faced what every aspiring actor ultimately faces: the chicken-and-egg conundrum of agency representation. You need a job to get an agent, but you need an agent to get that job. For him, an agency came nearly in tandem with his big break. “In the summer between my junior and senior year of college I went to an EPA [Equity principal audition] in New York, because I wanted to get my face out there,” Johnson-Richardson said. “I thought my initial audition was terrible, because I was stressed out, but I got a callback from the Hamilton people for Aaron Burr. I went in and did some of the Burr stuff for them, and it went well. I had to go back to school, so they said they’d keep me on file.”

Once he caught the attention of the Hamilton casting team, it was a matter of the producers finding the right spot, in the right company, at the right time. “After I’d graduated, they called me into an audition for an immediate replacement in Chicago for an ensemble member and understudy for Hamilton and King George. I went in and did the Hamilton stuff, and they were adamant about considering me for that character. I didn’t feel King George was the best fit for me, and they were cool with that. Then I did a showcase in New York.” That’s where Johnson-Richardson met his agent. “Several agents approached me after the show. I chose my agency from a group of possibilities, because they saw me as I want to be seen as an actor. I signed with them because they believed in me.”

Meanwhile, the callbacks for Hamilton continued. “I remember I was doing this reading, and my agent saw the first act of the reading then told me at the intermission to call him when I got out because he had some news. When I called, he said we had an offer from Hamilton. After my agent did some negotiating, I got the formal offer in late May and had to be in Chicago to start rehearsals by June 5. It was a whirlwind, but I love it. I’m so grateful — so blessed.”

Johnson-Richardson is doing eight shows a week at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, and even for a young performer, that’s a backbreaking schedule. “I’m sleeping as much as I can,” he said. “I’m drinking so much water. At first I couldn’t figure out why I was so dry all the time, then I realized I was dehydrated. I’m trying to eat foods that will refuel my body. You don’t realize how much you do until you’re in the middle of a performance and get so lightheaded you wonder if you’re going to pass out. It is one of the hardest jobs ever. When people come and see Hamilton, they want to see Hamilton. They don’t want to see you up there doing something tired. They want to see you going full-out.”

Is there life after Hamilton? Johnson-Richardson has a lot of plans for his career. “TV and film, that’s always been the dream for me,” although he certainly isn’t ruling out future stage stints. His advice for young theatre hopefuls: “Never let anybody tell you not to do what you’re on this earth to do. If you know you’re here to do something artistic, don’t let anyone stop you, and don’t stop yourself. This is a hard career, and it can break you down, but the rewards are so great.”

This story appeared in the February 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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