When pop songwriter Jackson Harris saw Jon Rua in 2013’s Hands on a Hardbody, he knew he needed to work with the actor before he became too huge a star. He began following Rua through social media, watching his work on YouTube and biding his time until the right project for collaboration.
Cut to 2015 when Harris finished writing “Dance with the Devil” with The Elev3n and wanted to make the music video a true “art piece” by infusing dance. He felt Rua’s energy matched his vision: “It’s masculine and fits my aesthetic, but also has an ability to tell a story and be emotional.”
On February 1, Harris released the music video, directed by Felix Penzarella and featuring choreography (and a performance) by Rua. The video tells the story of an elderly couple’s love, but flashes back to their younger selves (played by Rua and Emily Greenwall). “I wanted to capture the emotion that the beginning of the movie Up captured—the first five minutes where it’s just an old man and woman and you immediately know the story and there’s no speaking at all. I just loved that warmth and love testing the age of time.”
“[Broadway actors] are kind of the unsung heroes of the entertainment business, if you will, because they’re the people, to me, that can do it live and right in front of you, and there aren’t any smoke and mirrors,” says Harris. “Growing up in New York City, I always wanted to highlight that sort of talent.”
Looks like Harris caught Rua in the nick of time, as Rua is now in the ensemble of Hamilton, Broadway’s hottest show—maybe ever, and understudying the title role.
Though the theatre world knows Rua’s stage talents, he loves working with the camera. “The camera allows small nuances to resonate in a pedestrian fashion. [It] allowed me to be more sensitive, allowed me to take realistic generic scenarios and take that heightened emotion into them and physicalize it.”
Some may not have known Rua as a choreographer, but like his other talents, this was revealed slowly over time. “[When I was in] In the Heights … [the team] knew my dance ability, but they also saw I could act so I ended up taking the role of Sonny, which didn’t dance at all.” His acting chops also led him to understudy leading man, Usnavi, and later earned him a spot in Hands on a Hardbody. “There’s a lot of people who, ironically, only know me as a choreographer,” he says, “and there are some people who only know me as an actor.”
With many talents come many projects—and a crammed schedule. During the creation of “Dance with the Devil,” Rua says, “I would talk to Jackson and then I would go to the studio and create [the choreography] for about two, three hours and I’d go to the show or I’d have rehearsal as Hamilton. I went on for Hamilton my first time, [then] my second time and then a week later I shot this video—a 16-hour shoot—and then that week I was Hamilton again at the same time [as] doing a Magic Mike reading as an actor in it … and then [I] go back to choreographing. Yesterday, I taught at Broadway Dance Center, and then I came and ran through the musical, and this morning I had to do two self-tape [auditions] for TV.”
“My inevitable goal is to work consistently in the on-camera world as an actor—and I would certainly invite more Broadway experiences—but to consistently work as a choreographer at the same time because I believe that those two schedules would be much more healthy.”
This summer, Rua will choreograph the Muny’s production of Aida in St. Louis, but for now he clocks in daily at the Richard Rodgers Theatre where he has appeared a handful of times in the title role. The actor will never forget going on as Alexander for the first time. “Oh my God. It was thrilling. It was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s transcended so many things for me…. What it took to complete that, and get reaffirmations of all the hard work I’ve applied, and the things I’ve learned in regards to the craft, the things I’m learning in regards to being a hard-working individual…” he sighs.
“Hamilton is a really, really demanding demanding responsibility. For me, it felt like it was exactly what I was here to do. The emotional journey that [Hamilton] goes through is so cathartic and so inspiring.” As arduous as the role of Hamilton is, Rua emphasizes that his ensemble work tests his skills and grit each day. “On a weekly basis, if I were to do four shows in a row, I’m more tired doing my ensemble track than I was as Hamilton.”
Whether it’s through Hamilton or “Dance with the Devil,” Rua stands poised at the crossroads of different artistic genres and their audiences. It’s no secret Hamilton taps into a new demographic for Broadway, attracting rap and hip hop fans who wouldn’t typically pay attention to musical theatre. Vice versa, the show has musical fans tuning their ears to rap and hip hop. With “Dance with the Devil,” Rua and Harris’ separate audiences collide as the duo smashes the wall between musical theatre dance and contemporary movement, show tunes and pop tracks.
“True art reigns with me and Jackson,” says Rua. “What we got to do together really allowed each of us to be open to our art and not be subjected to [our audience’s] comfort or what they usually listen to.” Collaboration is not over for the pair. Harris talked of working on a Hamilton medley together or Rua interpreting more of his original work. It all fits into Rua’s plan.
“My ultimate goal is to be a working actor and a working choreographer. Not to compromise one or the other—there is no one or the other,” he says. “I’m going to do all of it.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.