Those last few weeks were interesting, in the sense that it was very evident that things were shifting and changing. There were some company meetings happening for pretty much every Broadway production to talk about the state of things and new rules that were set into place, like no guests backstage, no stage-dooring, and so on. But where the shows were concerned, everything was great. Everything was kind of just humming right along. I think that there was this feeling of uncertainty in the future of things and the unknown, but ultimately those last few weeks were very good.
Where were you when you heard everything was going to shut down?
I was actually in my apartment in New York and got a text from the Dear Evan Hansen cast group message that Broadway was shutting down effective at 5:00PM that day. We had actually had a great show the night before, a Wednesday night, and I was just getting ready to go to my vocal coach and have a session, which is the typical Thursday for me. But once I got that message, the whole world just kind of stopped. It literally felt like the entire world just stood still.
After hearing that, I pretty much rolled my sleeves up and called my team and told them I was going to go back home to L.A. and figure out what life's going to look like for me in the next little bit, because I need to stay busy to stay happy.
So what has quarantine life been like for you?
Quarantine has actually been fine. My quarantine cell consists of me, my fiancé Ellie and our dog. For my immediate family, who live very close to me, we committed to keeping things very simple and contained to make sure we all stay safe, happy and healthy. So, I have just been at home. I stream every day on Twitch from 7:00AM to 3:00PM PST. My gaming management company, Loaded, has kept me very busy with a lot of different things. I've also been fortunate enough to make appearances on different shows (including Rosie O’Donnell's special raising money for The Actors Fund and ABC’s Disney Family Sing-Along).
Your resume is eclectic to say the least, from winning Dancing With the Stars in 2017 and starring in To All The Boys to your turns in both Hamilton and then Dear Evan Hansen. What has been the wildest moment of your career so far?
I’m fortunate to have been in the industry for 16 years and do some really cool things and travel around the world, as well as some not-so- cool things that give you perspective. But the coolest thing I have done, very selfishly in my opinion, is singing for Disney World’s Happily Ever After.
If you’ve gone to the Magic Kingdom, before the park closes there’s this huge fireworks show that happens. I grew up in Alabama and on this kind of hidden bucket list I had, which I didn't even know was tangible, was to sing the music during the fireworks at the end of the night. I wound up getting the opportunity to do that! Now, regardless of how great, odd, weird, frustrating or mediocre my day is, I can think about the fact that on any given night [tens of thousands of] people in the main hub watching that show will hear my voice. It can be the backdrop to someone proposing to their significant other or announcing they’re pregnant. That, to me, is the coolest thing I’ve done in my career.
How do all the elements of your career — Broadway, film, music — inform each other?
It's all art and it all has the goal of filling people up and making them kind of suspend their reality or belief for a period of time, whether certain lyrics resonate with them or they’re watching a TV show and they feel connected to somebody, or if they’re watching my stream on Twitch and they want to feel like they’re hanging out with someone they can relate to. None of these things have to remain exclusive, which is why I love them all so much.
Overall, music has been the most informing part of my life for forever because it's the thing that makes me tick and makes me want to create the most. Certain songs will make me think of something that inspires the concept of a script or another record. They all coexist simultaneously and that’s the beauty of what we get to do.
You've taken on some pretty monumental roles originated by others — John Laurens/Philip in Hamilton; Marc Cohen in Fox’s Rent Live; and now the lead role in Dear Evan Hansen — and managed to make these memorable characters your own. How do you go about that?
The audience comes in expecting to see an amazing show — they don’t expect to see an exact replica of what created the hype in the first place. Especially where Broadway is concerned, the beauty is that you’re doing the show live every night for completely different and unique audiences that react differently night by night based on how they are feeling, the weather, what they ate that night, how tired they are or whatever the case may be. They’re not paying to come see this person on the album singing the songs the exact same way.
I am the first person of color to play Evan full time and I’m the first person of color on a massive stage to play Marc Cohen, which was a dream role for a long time. I’ve had thoughts and ideas about these people. You can look at Ben Platt or Anthony Rapp and see the timeless work that they delivered, but those roles were unique to them. It’s less about the art itself being intimidating and more about submitting yourself to it.
Before you'd won any of these roles, what was your original goal in show business?
I guess my very first goal was to work on Broadway. I started in theater three years before I made my first trip to L.A., but I fell in love with it all at the same time. But my ultimate goal in life since I was a kid was to just to be happy as I can. I just wanted to wake up every day and do what I love to do.