VCU Theatre grad working backstage on ‘Hamilton’ shares inside look at Tony-award winning production
Last week PBS ran a behind-the-scenes look at the Broadway smash Hamilton, but thanks to VCU grad Chris Leary, we’ve got our own look behind the curtain of the biggest musical in a generation.
Leary (top image), a Hampton, VA, native who graduated with an acting degree from VCU in 2010, works as a dresser in the play’s wardrobe department. He’s worked on some big shows (Wicked, Rock of Ages, Book of Mormon and others) in his time in New York, but said nothing prepared him for the madness surrounding the 11-Tony Award Hamilton.
“The media surrounding the show was something I’ve never ever seen for anything in the Broadway community, not even remotely close,” Leary said over the phone from New York. “Even back to when Wicked was as crazy as it was or Book of Mormon, these shows have massive, massive followings. And obviously they’ve been around for decades in some cases, but nothing, nothing like what I’ve seen with Hamilton.”
At the show’s height, celebrity encounters and brand-sponsored parties were an almost nightly occurrence. The show was so big even the Obamas hosted the cast for a performance at the White House.
Leary with Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton
“For a solid six months, I don’t think any of us actually slept,” Leary said. “Every single night during the show we’d get a text from from the house manager, who gives us all the inside on who’s there like, ‘Oh, tonight Adele’s gonna be here. … We’ve got Kelly Clarkson and Harrison Ford and Alice Cooper.’”
Even Prince showed up just weeks before his death to sit alone in a private box with his sunglasses on. Then, after the show he invited everyone to a private concert at a Manhattan nightclub.
“It’s insane because after the show they come backstage and they want to meet you!” Leary said.
Leary started working on the show part-time in November. With a little luck, after leaving his job on the business-side of Wicked, he later came on full-time when someone in the wardrobe department left for Saturday Night Live. But he was actually at the August opening with a friend.
Having no idea what he was in for, he almost turned the invitation down.
“I was such an asshole. My friend Dana was like, ‘Do you wanna go to the opening night of this new show? It’s called Hamilton?’ … And I was like, ‘I don’t know, it’s my day off, I go to shows all the time. She said, ‘Just come.’ And of course halfway through the show I’m sitting there with tears running down my face like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Leary works mainly on the women’s wardrobe but said the show is almost entirely an ensemble effort, meaning he and others do a variety of things on a given night.
He was originally going to study dance at VCU, having started ballet classes at the age of seven. Right at the last minute he changed to theatre.
“I came to VCU to visit a friend of mine when I was still in high school and I was just completely taken by the city and the school itself,” Leary said. “The Arts program there is just so top notch. I loved it.”
As a part of the acting degree, students have to do a semester of stagecraft, learning other parts of producing a show. It was then that he discovered his other passion for costume design, and almost changed his focus again.
And while in Richmond, he took advantage of the local theatre scene, performing at the Barksdale Theatre (now Virginia Repertory) and volunteering as an usher at the Landmark (now Altria).
“My college experience was something that was so valuable for me. And Richmond is just a great city, I really love Richmond and I think that it’s a super conducive place to young artists who just want to figure out what their thing is.”
Leary’s been with Hamilton for about a year now, but has no immediate plans to change course. He said he’ll stop when he doesn’t love it anymore. For now, he’s still blown away by the experience and the show.
“The fact that I was even brought in to do anything here was a crazy thing, and then the fact that I ended up staying, I fully recognize how lucky and against the odds this was.”
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While history exists in the past, the impact of historical events on the present can be powerful, with systems and sentiments of yesteryear often setting up standards that persist today. While it is often said history is an invaluable tool for learning from past mistakes, any lessons to be learned only come from digging deep [...]April 23, 2017
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