As Aaron Burr in ‘Hamilton,’ Winchester’s Nick Christopher gets his shot
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nicholas Christopher knows what it feels like to be part of the action, to be in the room where it happens. But like Aaron Burr, the character he plays in the tour of “Hamilton” that arrives at the Opera House Tuesday for a two-month run, he also knows what it’s like to suddenly be on the outside looking in, to feel like he’s missing out on something seismic.
Indeed, before the hip-hop-infused musical about America’s Founding Fathers became a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon, Christopher was on the ground floor of its development. The creative team, including composer and book writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail, had asked the actor to be part of early readings and workshops of the show. “I was in ‘the room where it happened’ — before that song was even written,” says Christopher with a wry smile, referring to Burr’s showstopping number.
But when it came time for the world premiere of “Hamilton” at New York’s Public Theater in early 2015, Christopher (everyone calls him Nick) was not part of the cast. He’d been asked to understudy several of the key roles in the debut production, but he declined. “I was like, I can’t, for my soul. I want to be onstage. I don’t want to be off-stage hoping to go on,” says Christopher, 28, who grew up in Winchester and attended Matignon High School in Cambridge and Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick.
Instead, he played Smokey Robinson in the tour of “Motown: The Musical.” He also had two transcendent off-Broadway acting experiences that he’ll cherish forever — Ivo Van Hove’s experimental David Bowie musical “Lazarus,” which premiered just before the artist’s death, and “Whorl Inside a Loop,” featuring the personal narratives of prison inmates.
Still, Christopher’s doubts lingered as “Hamilton” captured the imaginations of audiences on Broadway and beyond. “It was a difficult two years of my life. There were a lot of late nights of like: Do I regret it? Could I go back? Did I miss my chance?” acknowledges the actor. “I’m watching my friends’ careers take off, and you see people like Jay-Z and Beyoncé going to the show. You’re like, ‘Wow, did I really give up an opportunity that could have been fruitful for me and my career?’ ”
But eventually Christopher wound up back in the “Hamilton” orbit. During the run-up to the Tony Awards in 2016, he covered the role of George Washington before taking over the character full time that November, succeeding Christopher Jackson. Since last January, he’s been playing Aaron Burr — the part that earned Leslie Odom Jr. a Tony — in the show’s national tour. “Getting to perform with ‘Hamilton’ on the Tonys was a highlight and brought everything together,” says the actor. “I learned that everybody has their own journey.”
Nattily dressed in a sharp navy suit inside a lavish lounge at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the nation’s capital, where “Hamilton” is wrapping up a three-month engagement, Christopher proves to be funny, thoughtful, and engaging in conversation.
When the opportunity arose to coheadline the “Hamilton” road company as Burr, Christopher couldn’t turn it down. After all, the tour would head to Massachusetts, where he had moved with his family from Bermuda when he was 7. He has never performed in Boston as a professional actor before. “I was like, ‘Aw, man! My mother would kill me if I said no to this!’ ” he says with a laugh.
Show business courses through Christopher’s blood. His father, Ed, is an actor, singer, and entertainer in Bermuda, and his older brother, Jonathan, is also a professional actor. “It was great to see my dad’s thirst to make people laugh and make people feel good,” he says.
His parents decided to move their three children — Nick, Jonathan, and Vanessa — to Massachusetts to give them a better life. Christopher grew up around his mother Theresa Donovan’s large Irish-Catholic family, but his father stayed behind in Bermuda, and it was difficult seeing him only once or twice a year sometimes. “I was kind of lonely when we first moved to Boston. So I think I was able to really escape into my imagination. I probably played dress-up until I was, you know, too old to play dress-up,” he says, letting out a chuckle.
As kids, he and his siblings were mentored as part of the North Shore Music Theatre’s now-defunct Youth Performance Academy. Christopher played Booker T. Washington in “Ragtime,” the Genie in “Aladdin,” and Mushu in “Mulan.” “Their education program changed my life,” he says. “[Program director] Marty Johnson made it his mission to make sure that I knew that I could do this for a living.”
Theater and performing gave him a purpose and an outlet for creative expression. It also may have saved him. “We saw a way to better ourselves,” he says. “My parents instilled in me the importance of dreaming. I had a lot of friends that kind of fell by the wayside, for lack of a better term, because they didn’t have a purpose. We couldn’t get into trouble or get into drugs because we had something bigger to chase.”
He went on to study at both Boston Conservatory and Juilliard, which he left to join the tour of Miranda’s breakthrough show “In the Heights.” He later performed in an off-Broadway revival of “Rent” and on Broadway in “Motown” and “Miss Saigon.” The idea of playing the ambitious, tightly wound Burr, friend-turned-rival of the show’s title character, was daunting at first. “I was scared,” he says. “He’s such a complex character.”
As the show progresses, Burr narrates Hamilton’s rise to power, his alliance with Washington, his feuds with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his eventual fall from grace. Burr’s own story arc is rich, from scrappy young revolutionary to striving and manipulative politico to the envious rival who dueled Hamilton to his death.
“What does it take for somebody who follows all the rules, who doesn’t want to make waves, who just wants to ‘talk less and smile more’ and make his way through life, to then in turn kill somebody? Because if that person can be driven to do that, then we all can be driven to do that. And to me that’s terrifying — to explore this character and dance on that line every night.”
The actor describes Burr as “that kid in class who reminds the teacher that an assignment is due,” he says. “Then he turns around and wonders why he doesn’t have any friends. But his attitude is, ‘OK, well, I don’t need friends. I’m on my own track.’”
Christopher felt that the part forced him outside his comfort zone to imagine a character very different from himself. “I’m not a very buttoned-up, put-together person. I’m kind of messy and scatterbrained. Young, scrappy, and hungry,” he says, with a smile. “But I’m playing the opposite kind of character. So if I have an impulse, I have to learn to not act on it, because that’s not Burr.”
Both director Kail and costar Austin Scott praise Christopher for his fearlessness and his ability onstage to be strong yet vulnerable, seductive yet ruthless.
“Stepping into a scene with him, you never really know where it’s going to go. It feels like there’s 10,000 different ways we could play it,” says Scott, who portrays Hamilton. “It takes a really strong actor with bravery and skill to be able to have the confidence to take risks, to trust the moment, and not just rely on what’s worked before.”
Presented by Broadway In Boston. At the Opera House, Boston, Sept. 18-Nov. 18. Tickets: limited availability; for details, go to www.BroadwayInBoston.com/HamiltonInformation.