The hit musical Hamilton is in town and the departments of Theatre and Music didn’t throw away their shot to get a few pro-tips from Edred Utomi who plays the titular character in the touring production.
Utomi dropped by VCUarts to take questions from a crowded room of students in the “Broadway Seminar” class, taught by Kikau Alvaro, assistant professor of musical theatre and movement. Students then performed a song of their choice, and Utomi coached them on singing, movement and acting.
Here’s a look at the advice he had for pursuing a career in acting, and how he landed the role of a lifetime.
On choosing acting as a profession
I am the son of Nigerian immigrants, and acting was not a profession. Being a lawyer is a profession. Being a doctor is a profession. And that’s where it ends. My freshman year of college, I went to the University of San Diego and I was trying to figure out how to break it to my parents that I wanted to be a professional actor.
And then the touring production of In the Heights came to San Diego in 2010. This was the defining moment in my life. I’d never seen people who looked like me on stage, people who sounded like me on stage. In my head, musical theater was like Oklahoma and this wasn’t like that. So, I had the talk with my parents and said, “I want to do theater and you guys are going to have to figure it out.”
Finding performance jobs in unlikely places
I had a lot of day jobs in San Diego. I tried to do as many performing jobs as possible, so I could still be in the world and still be working on my craft. Even working as a jester, it helped me improv. It taught me how to be quick on my feet. It helps me if I forget my lyrics. I was always thinking outside the box about what jobs I could do, because [acting is] a muscle and I didn’t want to be flexing a different muscle during the day while letting [my acting] muscle get weak.
Landing a role in Hamilton
In January 2018, I moved [to New York] and was like, “I’m going to be an actor. I’m going to live the struggle. I’m going to wake up at whatever o’clock, and go outside in the snow and stand in line to audition.” Then I got a new agent and he asked me, “Where do you want to be seen?” and I said, “Well, Hamilton.” He said, “Great, I think they’re actually casting right now.” He called and got me an audition three days later.
I originally started as a stand-by for Hamilton, Burr and Washington. My audition material was three songs from each of them. They said to come back on Tuesday and sing that, plus the extra songs they told me to learn, so it was about 15 songs total. I was obsessed with the show, but I had never learned the Hamilton parts. I had never learned “My Shot” or “Yorktown” so I spent all weekend singing them.
I think a lot of theater and art is what you bring to it as a person with life experiences. I grew up in America, but I grew up in a Nigerian household. What I bring to the character is a lot of thought about, how would an immigrant react to this situation? How would my dad react to this situation? How does what I saw my dad go through influence my perspective?
The story of Hamilton—and a lot of immigrants—is a rags to riches story. It’s that idea that you get one shot sometimes in life, and it’s unfortunate, but that’s real. My dad didn’t get a whole lot of opportunities and he had to make every single one count. I’m not drawn to the roles of the cocky guy who gets everything in life; I’m drawn to that story of somebody who has something to prove.
Performing Hamilton in Virginia
This welcome is like one we haven’t had in a very long time. We play a lot of cities that have a historical connection, but here, there’s such a connection to it. They’re cheering before I even walk out. They cheer when I say my name. They cheer when Washington comes out, which hasn’t happened in a while. We’ve had three shows now and they were all crazy. It’s fun to do it in a city like this.
Staying healthy on the road
I think any performer you ask, the main thing they will say is sleep. I don’t sleep very well during the night, so I usually build in time to take a nap. I think most people on our tour would say physical fitness also helps performance. I’ll run two or three miles before a show just to get my lungs warm, especially if it’s a show with a lot of fast rap.
The show is the most important thing I’ll do in a day, because I know people have been waiting years to see it, or this is their Christmas present, or graduation present, or whatever the case may be—and that’s my responsibility to do whatever I need to during the day to have a successful show.