Jonathan Groff plays the villainous British despot King George III in the Broadway smash Hamilton, the hip-hop history musical which has captivated the world’s theatergoers (and those wishing to be theatergoers, if only they could get tickets).
Groff joined the cast halfway through its original Off Broadway run, and proceeded to move with the show when it transferred to Broadway last summer. As a once-spectator and now-cast member, he bore witness to both perspectives of the biggest Broadway hit this side of Oz and Salt Lake City. For EW’s special year-end issue, Groff explained life on the inside of the Hamilton revolution:
I thought I was just going to do Hamilton with my friends, like, for fun; I didn’t realize that I was stepping into an historic piece of theater.
I’m onstage for nine minutes, so I watch the show a lot. Three times a week I sneak into the audience. The thing that was probably the most fascinating was that the album didn’t come out until after Labor Day, but we started previews in the middle of July, and the lights would go down at the beginning of the show, and people would start screaming with excitement like it was a rock concert. No one had even really heard the music before. But people were freaking out because they were in such anticipation of what they were about to see, which is just so unheard of in the theater.
There was such a sense of event around the show, even as we were in previews. I mean, President Obama came to the fifth preview of the show — the fifth preview! We hadn’t even opened yet, and the President was in the audience at our second Saturday matinee.
We had heard like three days before that he was going to be in the audience with his daughters. They said there’s going to be really heavy security, and just to be aware. The Friday night before he came to see the show, everyone that had bought tickets to the show received an email saying, basically, “Please show up to the performance of Hamilton tomorrow as though it was airport security.” The Secret Service basically showed up at 5 a.m. and cased the entire theater top to bottom — opened every drawer, looked in every compartment, went through every passageway. Even on the set, backstage, the dressing rooms, the audience, the refrigerator, the roof — everything, literally, everything.
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We showed up like three hours before and brought lunch, and they gave us the security airport pat-down and then we were on lockdown in the theater until the President got there. They closed down 46th street completely. There were 50 Secret Service in the building, snipers all over the streets and on the buildings across the street from the theater. They closed down 46th street while we were doing the performance. Les Miserables, which is the next-door neighbor to our show, and Finding Neverland, which is across the street, held their audiences in the theater after their shows were over. No one could leave until the President had left 46th street. We thought, like, “Oh, we’re not going to get to meet him because if he comes backstage, that’s longer that they have to hold down the street.” But right before the show began, they were like, “He’s coming back at intermission.”
When he came backstage and talked to the cast, he said, “A lot of people make really great things, and they never get recognized. You guys should really enjoy the fact that you’ve made something great and it’s being embraced from the very beginning.”
He told me I had a beautiful voice! Which was really nice! He shook everyone’s hand. He was so generous. And when Michelle Obama came when we were Off-Broadway, and it was the same thing. They came with so much love and respect and generosity. It was unbelievable.
The only two times that the entire company has been onstage and you could hear a pin drop was for Obama… and Beyonce. Usually, celebrities come backstage and everyone’s talking and it’s loud, but we were in awed silence as they went around and shook hands.
I was just freaking out that Beyonce was there to begin with. Because that was my No. 1 person that, if you could dream up anyone who could come and see the show, who would it be? I’m obsessed with her. I’m a deep, deep Beyonce fan. And Beyonce and Jay Z came together.
So when I walked down to the stage, everyone just sort of rushed to the stage to meet Beyonce, so I was like, “Okay, that’s cool, I probably won’t get to, like, shake her hand, but as long as I can, like, breathe the same air, it’s fine.”
And I was watching her talk to everyone and there was this open window, so I just walked over to her and was like, “Hi, I’m Jonathan.” And she was like, “Were you the king?” I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “You were f—ing incredible!”
She told me that she was going to steal my walk, and proceeded to do an impersonation of the walk that I do when I enter the stage. There’s a turntable onstage where the dancers are spinning around, and I never get to be on the turntable. And so she imitated my walk and she was like, “And then when you turn to exit, and your head stays forward but your body turns out but you keep looking at us, you were your own turntable!”
I have such deep regret because there are so many things that I want to say to Beyonce. Beyonce is such a life-changing kind of person. But she was so effusive that I just turned red. I just started laughing. I didn’t know what to say.
And then she sort of looked me up and down and just said, “I saw everything.” And that’s when the ground opened up and I fell into my grave and died. A tombstone went up and it said, “Cause of death: Beyonce.” That was just the end.