As curtains rise on a reopened Broadway, performers with Boston roots are center stage.
Miguel Cervantes, who plays the title role in “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is an Emerson College alum who launched his career with SpeakEasy Stage Company and who has also appeared with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Nik Walker, who stars in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” at the Imperial Theatre, is a Boston native and Brookline High School graduate who got his start with Company One Theatre. Both are enormously grateful for the opportunity to be back onstage.
Masks, says Cervantes, can’t disguise the audiences’ enjoyment. “I have to strain my brain to remember people without masks,” he says. “I’m getting really good at reading the ‘smizes’ in the audience.”
Cervantes, who was cast as the understudy for the Broadway production of “Hamilton” in 2016, spent nearly four years in the title role in the Chicago production, and has now played Alexander Hamilton more than anyone else. While he admits there is an aspect of punching the clock when you’ve played a part for so long, he says it’s easy to get hyped up for a performance because the story of the Founding Fathers is so rooted in human emotion.
“These are flawed human beings,” he says, “ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances. I can ride that energy, have fun, and be engaged.”
Although he left Boston nearly two decades ago, Cervantes stays in touch with both Paul Daigneault, the founder and artistic director of SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Steve Maler, the founding artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Cervantes’s performance in SpeakEasy’s “Bat Boy: The Musical” in 2002 helped make that production a blockbuster for the company.
Although he says he’d love to perform on the Boston Common for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and though he had played Ariel in an online reading of “The Tempest” in 2020, the imminent reopening of “Hamilton” prevented him from appearing in the full production of the play on the Common this summer.
“I performed in a staged reading of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ with Steve,” Cervantes says, “and I’ve sung for SpeakEasy fund-raisers, but I’d love to have the opportunity to come back and do something in Boston.”
In the meantime, he says he’s ready to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton for as long as they’ll let him.
“I’m not the handsomest guy, and there are lots of other people who sing and act better than me,” he says. “I worked hard, but I was also in the right place at the right time, and I’m grateful for that. I’d be happy to be the Ted Neeley of ‘Hamilton,’“ he says, referring to the actor who has spent much of his career playing the title role in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Cervantes does have other interests, including golf — he invented a “golf gadget” called a Shucaddy — and he and his wife, Kelly, have a 9-year-old son. Two years ago the family lost their young daughter, Adelaide, who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy. The couple is active in CURE Epilepsy, a nonprofit that raises money for research. Kelly Cervantes is currently writing a book, hosts a podcast, and documents her family’s journey with heartfelt posts at www.kellycervantes.com/blog.
Onstage, says Cervantes, as in the outside world, “There is a feeling of insecurity every day, but I know there is a huge responsibility in performing this role in this show. I love this job, this role, this experience, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Nik Walker also feels the anxiety of the times, but says he appreciates the power of live performance more than ever.
“I am so moved by the audience and the community’s response,” he says. “Theater is my identity, and to lose that for so long was trying, but I was never alone and I am grateful for my wife, my family, friends.”
After performing as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” on Broadway and on tour starting in 2018, Walker joined the cast of “Ain’t Too Proud,” a jukebox musical that tells the story of the Motown supergroup the Temptations, just three weeks before the pandemic forced everything to a halt.
“It was a crazy time because for the last five weeks I was performing in ‘Hamilton,’ I was also in a six-hour-a-day dance ‘boot camp’ for ‘Ain’t Too Proud,’” he says. “And then everything stopped.”
The musical reopens on Broadway this weekend.
In “Ain’t Too Proud,” Walker plays Otis Williams, the only original member of the Temptations who remained with the group through the years, and who is the narrator of the story, which was based on Williams’s autobiography and adapted for the stage by Dominique Morisseau (her plays “Skeleton Crew” and “Pipeline” had recent Boston productions). The musical traces the turbulent times in which the Temptations performed while also showcasing their talent.
Walker says his Boston upbringing prepared him for this team effort in ways he can’t even measure.
“Bostonians are hard workers and pragmatists,” he says. “Even going back to the start of the American Revolution, they took things step by step. This is what needs to happen in this moment.”
He says he tried to adopt that attitude during the most stressful moments of the pandemic; he feels lucky New York University, his alma mater, reached out and offered him a teaching position (“I hope I gave those students something,” he says with a laugh). He also spent time collaborating with writing partners on screenplays in a variety of genres.
“I seem to be drawn to the story line of what happens when you take a bunch of people, put them in a room together, and shake them up,” he says.
He says the key to writing is to commit to being a student, which he says came from his high school teachers, including Summer L. Williams, Mark Abby VanDerzee, and Shawn LaCount, who also happen to be the cofounders of Company One. Walker was one of the co-creators, with Tory Bullock, of “ARTiculation,” a Company One production in 2008 that featured the voices of an ensemble of spoken-word poets. That same year he appeared in Company’s One’s production of “Assassins,” as the Balladeer.
“Broadway can be a very commercial space,” he says, “and can sometimes be reductive. But the ground where I learned about theater was in black boxes and 150-seat theaters in Boston with artists who made unique choices for some of the best plays I’ve seen.”
As his star rises, he laughs when asked if he wonders if he’ll eclipse the celebrity status of his mom, the Rev. Liz Walker, senior pastor at Roxbury Presbyterian Church and former WBZ-TV news anchor.
“My mom can never be eclipsed,” he says. “What my mom does, in building community, in caring for those most marginalized, is an approach I try to bring with me to make my industry safer and more equitable for audiences and each other. That’s the best way I can carry on my mom’s work.”
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.