January 11 is Alexander Hamilton’s birthday. In lieu of a 261-candled cake, we’re celebrating with a weeklong series that explores the production and significance of the Founding Father’s eponymous Broadway musical.
The character of King George III appears in Hamilton for just nine minutes — and spends only six minutes and 45 seconds of that time actually singing. (The other two minutes and change are devoted to activities like strutting and doing a scene-stealing dance during “The Reynolds Pamphlet.”) Yet despite George’s appearances being brief, he’s become one of the most-beloved characters in the show.
And unlike most roles in Hamilton, three different actors have already played George, each putting their own spin on the character. First up was Brian d’Arcy James, who performed in the early shows at the Public Theater but left to pursue a leading role in Something Rotten, where he can currently be seen. Jonathan Groff ascended to the throne next, and when he had to take a break to film the Looking movie, Andrew Rannells, of Girls fame, stepped in. Here, the trio explain what it’s like to play George, how they developed their own interpretations, and how heavy the head wearing the crown actually is.
ON BECOMING ROYALTY
Brian d’Arcy James: “Director Thomas Kail approached me in January of 2013 about doing an informal sit-down of what was then called The Hamilton Mixtape. I think I played a variety of characters — I definitely sang ‘Farmer Refuted,’ along with voicing George. In 2014, he called again and said, ‘We’re doing a workshop in May — can you do it?’ I was traveling at the time, so I couldn’t do the whole thing, but he said, ‘Just come in at the end. We’ll have fun.’ I thought, Great — it’ll be another one of those really informal things. But when I got to rehearsal, which was in New York in May of 2014, I saw acrobatic dancing and major setpieces. I thought, Oh man, this is the real deal.”
Jonathan Groff: “I knew Lin and Tommy from the time I was doing Spring Awakening, and Lin was doing In the Heights. Lin is so charismatic and intoxicating, so we connected and became friends. When Brian’s show, Something Rotten, was getting fast-tracked to Broadway, I was in L.A., and they asked me to come. I said yes without ever having heard any of the music. It was before the show even opened. I was just like, ‘Yeah — two months at the Public! I love the Public!’ And then I came in and saw the show, and was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Andrew Rannells: “The first time I met Lin, it was around In the Heights time. I was doing Jersey Boys, and you see people around. We became friendly. Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call this summer asking if I would step in for Jonathan, who’s a friend of mine. Five weeks to walk into the biggest hit on Broadway, it was a no-brainer. I hadn’t even seen the show, but I still said yes because I had heard only the most incredible things. And I got to see it the following week. That was my only ‘in’ for house seats.”
ON THE PHYSICALITY OF THE ROLE
D’Arcy James: “The costume had a great effect on the character. The cape and the crown weigh quite a bit, the heels are quite dramatic, and you’re wearing stockings and a garter. There are a lot of things that can go wrong! I wasn’t so concerned with the nature of the physical walk, but I was concerned about tempo. I wanted there to be a huge shift in the tempo of how this guy moves, and that he could turn up the tempo whenever he wanted to: When it comes to his speed or anger or volume, he’s going to decide when it happens. There’s something that’s kind of inherently menacing in that.”
Groff: “The walking was just kind of a feeling: being the king, walking onstage, and being received by the audience. The crown was so heavy at first: When I first put it on, I couldn’t tip my head back or to the side, or I’d fall over. A lot of the physicality was defined in the beginning by trying to hold my balance. That was sort of the beginning of it, walking with the glide walk. Then it became an attitude thing.”
Rannells: “I’m going to be honest: I could not nail Jonathan’s walk. I was like, I’m not going to attempt to do that! I did my version, but Jonathan has special skills. I did play around with a couple little physical choices, like the exits, and when George gets to do a little freestyle dance with Aaron Burr. They let me adjust my buttons in the second number.”
ON PUTTING A PERSONAL STAMP ON THE CHARACTER
D’Arcy James: “There’s one line where George sings, ‘They say our love is crazy and it can’t go on.’ While singing in the shower, I found myself doing this little Beatles thing, like, ‘They say our love is crazy and it can’t go on-on-on-on’ — a little flourish, like an English horn that you’d hear in a Beatles song. I remember drawing up the courage to ask Lin if I could do that during previews. He said, ‘Sure!’ I always loved that — not because it was me putting a stamp on it, but because it came about organically from the way I felt for the song. It fit into the genre, the style, and the homage to the British Invasion sound they were going off. Then, naturally, Paul McCartney saw the show maybe three days after I left. That stung.”
Groff: “It was interesting. In doing Spring Awakening, we had a lot of replacement characters come in. Some people come in and they’re determined to make it their own immediately, and their desire interferes with everyone else and the rhythm of the show. So when I replaced Brian, I did exactly what he did for the first week or two, out of respect for what came before. As the weeks progressed, I naturally found the things that make the role unique to me. The Off Broadway run ended up being two months of rehearsal before an audience, which was great. I really only had one day of actual rehearsal.”
Rannells: “I’ve been such a huge fan of Brian’s and Jonathan’s, and while the role was up for a little bit of interpretation, it’s so well-crafted that you’re able to feel very safe with the material. It’s one of those nice moments, as an actor, when you don’t feel like you have to work hard to change anything, or to overcome problems in the score or the script. It’s a beautifully crafted role. There wasn’t a lot that I had to discover because it was all presented so clearly. Jonathan gave me a couple of practical tips, like the crown is uncomfortable and very heavy. Things that no one would know unless you were in that costume. Mostly, it was super fun for Jonathan and I to get to hang out so much, and get paid for it. If you ever get to hang out with your friends for money, I highly recommend it.”
ON KING GEORGE’S PSYCHOLOGY
D’Arcy James: “It’s a great character that’s magnanimous yet controlling. He’s greedy and malicious — all through a smile. Every sentence is filled with complete contradictions and really ripe subtexts. That’s Lin’s writing — not to mention the historical facts — but Lin is able to capture, in a very catchy way, the many, many contradictions of this very powerful person. The way George is set up is so perfectly designed to be a great relief, and a 180 shift in perspective. You are given these magnificent powers of attention. The songs are so catchy and slyly comedic, and on top of it, you have Paul Tazewell’s costume, which is a statement itself. Even before you say a word, the visual of the character is so extreme that it’s like switching languages in the middle of a paragraph.”
Rannells: “It’s so fun to have this entire arc of someone going insane, but over the course of nine minutes. King George's first appearance is obviously very exciting, but that last one, after Washington steps down, is great because you get to show the most erratic side of this guy.”
Groff: “My favorite part is subtly tapping into the madness. The little line, ‘When you’re gone, I’ll go mad’ — I love that Lin’s trying to keep it subtle. The underlying theme is that this person actually goes crazy at the end of his life, but it also speaks to the madness of being a scorned lover. It’s that Basic Instinct sort of psychosis, but played under the guise of a simple, unemotional, British passive-aggressive energy. I hold that madness underneath all of it, and find ways to show it ever so slightly. It changes night to night — there’s a little laugh I’ll put in, or I’ll scream really loud for two bars, or I’ll remain as still as possible. You feel like at any moment, he’s going to flip his shit.”
ON BEING ALONE ONSTAGE
Rannells: “It was very different from anything I’ve ever experienced while performing before. You feel like you’re just dropped into the middle of this machine, and you don’t have a lot of opportunities to save yourself, so you’ve just got three shots to make the audience love you. It was really exciting, very stressful, so much fun, and a little lonely, because you don’t get to play with anybody. It’s a different kind of stress.
The first Broadway show I did was Hairspray, and [director] Jack O’Brien always said, ‘No matter what happens during the show, you always have the finale to win them back.’ But when you’re playing a part like King George, you have such limited opportunities to get them to love you and laugh. You’ve got to nail it. I had a really rough night my first week there. I forgot lyrics onstage. My friend Nikki James, who I did Book of Mormon with, happened to be there that night, so I have a witness. She assured me that it was only three or four seconds of silence, but it was enough to stop my heart. I’ll never quite recover from it.”
Groff: “Part of the fun of doing theater is the collaboration with the other actors, so this becomes a relationship with the audience, which is unique and special in its own way. My whole thing from the beginning is to keep from feeling lonely, I’ve found that any possible moment I can look anyone in the eye, ever, has become so deeply meaningful to me. I’m exiting and looking at eight people as I walk off the stage, trying to do that.”
D’Arcy James: “I liked how they designed a couple of moments where there was more interaction. In ‘The Reynolds Pamphlet,’ when King George comes down and there’s a fun little moment when you see him dance, that didn’t exist until previews. [Choreographer] Andy [Blankenbuehler] was redesigning something, and he said, ‘You should do something funny here,’ and that’s how it came to be. It was maybe an indication of his insanity to come, or his recklessness.”
ON LEAVING THE SHOW
D’Arcy James: “It was difficult to decide to walk away. Something Rotten was slated to go to Seattle, and I knew that I was going to be doing Hamilton at the Public for that time. Then Something Rotten decided to come to Broadway much earlier than expected. That was a show I wanted to do — a leading role, a show I loved — so what I decided, making a Sophie’s choice, was that I’d have to do Something Rotten. But if there was any grace in the world, the Hamilton team would allow me to do the beginning shows at the Public and then move on. They fielded that request, and quite frankly, they had to think about that. There were a couple of days where I thought, Close but no cigar, that would have been amazing. Then it worked out. If you get a tube of toothpaste full of luck in life, I used all of it. I got the best of everything. It was a remarkable confluence of events, and I’m grateful to Lin. I know it’s not great to have one of your Jenga pieces taken out before you build the tower.”
Groff: “In Spring Awakening, I never got to take a vacation. I had never really stepped away from something and then come back to it. I didn’t know what that would be like. Five weeks is not a long time, but it’s a chunk of time. The biggest difference was that there was a new crown, and it was less heavy. It was such a revelation that I could slightly move my head. But it was great to leave and come back. When you’re doing eight shows a week, you get really in it — everything starts to move in slow motion because you do the same thing every day. To step away from it and work on something else, so that you’re forced to not think about the show, it gave me fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.”
ON THE KING GEORGE FRATERNITY
D’Arcy James: “When I left the show I wanted to do something special, so I created a ritual, which I hope will continue through the length of this production, and any other production that occurs. It’s called the Order of Garter, and it’s done if there’s a new king that comes into the show. As Hamilton fans will note, all kings wore garters around their calves, and it was the order of their familial lines. I wrote up this sketch where all of the characters named George in the show would come in and be present for the ascension of the new king and the passing of the garter. It’s all set to a song called ‘Electric Bird’ by Sia. You have to do it like a groom placing a garter on a bride’s thigh. Chris Jackson came up with this — he said, ‘You should be King George the Third the First, and Jonathan will be King George the Third the Second, and it will go on and on.’ We did it with Jonathan, and then to my great, great happiness, they did it when Jonathan left, and Andrew took over. It’s awesome! It’s another way of saying, ‘I was here.’”
Rannells: “Brian and Jonathan and the whole cast came out onstage, and they did a skit to give me the garter. It was hilarious. That’s a very special part of Broadway shows. There are these silly traditions and bits, and it just makes your whole job so much more fun and special. It’s a camaraderie unlike anything else. They very generously left the door open for me to come back, if that ever should come up. I certainly would not rule it out, because it was such a great experience. I’ll just sit tight.”
Groff: “My contract goes until July, so I think I’ll just be here until then. But the character works no matter who plays George. It’s such a testament to the writing that King George is such a fan favorite. Lin writes and writes, and every character has so much to say, but with George, Lin also gets to show off how much he can say with very little. Originally I signed on for two months, but I fell in love with it so much. You would think, God, how many times can you do nine minutes and find it interesting? It’s not even like you get to look at anyone onstage. It speaks to the character, and the audience’s reaction to him. The nine minutes are so impactful, and so the inverse of what Lin’s doing with all the other parts."
ON THAT HAM4HAM:
Groff: “That was the best. My big pitch was, when I come back from San Francisco, can I play Angelica, and can Renée play the king? That was basically my audition for the role of Angelica, and I didn’t get it.”
Rannells: “It wasn’t until Brian, Jonathan, and I did that Ham4Ham that I realized how much people really dig the king. Lin asked us, and of course we were like, ‘Duh.’ It was a great personal introduction to just how supportive and rabid the fanbase is for the show — they went nuts.”
D’Arcy James: “Who knew that my most, no pun intended, crowning achievement would be lip-syncing a song on the curbside of 42nd Street?”