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Return of the King: Brian d’Arcy James on coming back to Hamilton

Oceans rise, empires fall… and the first King George III tells EW what it’s like returning to his regal role

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The regal line of succession in the world of Hamilton got a heck of a lot more complicated the other week. That’s when Brian d’Arcy James put himself back under King George III’s crown — making him not only the first person to play the monarch in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical back when it debuted Off Broadway, but now the latest actor to play the character in its smash Broadway run.

What has it been like being king again? “It’s a thrill,” the actor told EW. “It’s like the Super Bowl every night because the expectations for everyone who’s coming to see it are so high and there’s so much fervor around it, it really is a different experience for me.”

And, yes, heavy is the head that wears the crown… because that crown is heavy. “It does take a few minutes to get used to wearing that big ol’ hat,” he laughed. “And you have to have it on properly so you can at least move your head a little bit here and there without fearing it falling off. So yes, it does affect you in a big way — which is good, I think. It gives you a regality, perhaps.”

Not much changed in terms of his songs or the way he plays the character, said d’Arcy James, who also appeared recently in Netflix’s buzzed-about series 13 Reasons Why. But what has changed is the feeling inside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the kind that comes after tremendous buzz, countless fans (celebrities and otherwise), and a slew of accolades. “The context is different because people were just starting to discover it [when I was in the show at the Public Theater] and sense it becoming what it has become back then, both in the cast and in the audience. And now, it’s undeniable, and it’s such a phenomenon and you can feel a different kind of vibe in the house when you start the show.”

He’s also performing alongside a different cast this time around, including Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart (the former Genie in Broadway’s Aladdin), who began his Hamilton run as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson on the same night d’Arcy James re-donned his King George robes.

“I’m in awe of this cast,” the three-time Tony nominee said. “I’ve been away from it long enough to have completely fresh eyes on the show and I’m just like anybody else. When I watched the show before I came back in, just to get primed to go back in, I was astounded by everyone’s performances. There’s such intricacy and there is such power and physicality coming from everybody in that cast that I have this great opportunity to just slide in [during] the show — I have my little things, my little surgical strikes if you will, and then I can just watch everybody do the extraordinary things they’re doing.”

And as the newly crowned (and also original) king across the sea, d’Arcy James was able to see the show’s success from off-stage, while still an integral part of the musical’s origin story. Asked to reflect on that arc, he said, “The first thing that comes to mind is a sense of pride in having been there. After that, there’s the sense of knowing the journey that cast took was so extraordinary and to watch it evolve from outside rather than inside is an interesting perspective — knowing what the work was, because the work didn’t change, and everybody’s putting all their effort into making the show as good as it can be. What changed was all of the people that would come and give it this air of being something different — a destination. Getting the stamp from senators and heads of state and icons in the entertainment industry, rock and roll legends, pop singers, all those people that were coming — the gravy, the gravy was fun to see and imagine what that was like. I got a little bit of that at the Public, and mind you, this is just the fun stuff. Because like I said, the work is the work, but the experience of sharing that with people that you admire and adore is a different thing altogether. And thankfully, that continues too. So I guess that’s my take on it was it was fun to watch my friends get to experience the biggest birthday party every night for however long they were there.”

Being the first King George also means d’Arcy James got to see the “heirs,” if you will, who followed: Jonathan Groff, Andrew Rannells, Rory O’Malley, and Taran Killam. How does he assess his successors? “They weren’t me, which was good! And I didn’t see Andrew do it and I didn’t see Rory do it, regretfully, but I did see Taran and Jonathan do it, and the great thing about the part is it allows for different interpretation,” he said. “You can hold the reins as tightly or as loosely as you want, and it works because, number one, the way it’s designed, it’s such a beautiful palate cleanser to stop the action a little bit and remind everyone there’s this guy across the sea who’s seemingly has control. But then in terms of the humor and the menace and the petulance, all the things you can apply to that role, there are different ways of playing that. I saw Jonathan and Taran do it and they were absolutely brilliant.”

“Honestly,” he added, “I felt like when I cam back I just wanted to keep the ball up in the air. I didn’t necessarily feel like it was mine because clearly, it’s not just mine — it belongs to many people. I just wanted to make people happy that the king was back, not necessarily that I was back.”

Brian d’Arcy James is starring in Hamilton now.