Neither Wayne Brady himself nor the megahit musical he’s currently starring in, Hamilton, need much in the way of introduction. The Emmy-winning performer has played Aaron Burr in the Chicago production of the show since January 17, and he knows he’ll be “heartsore” when he says goodbye.
“I connected as a fan from the first time I saw it, I connected with the story, I connected with this bit of history that I didn't know played out like such an amazing drama,” he says. As a lifelong theatre fan and performer, playing a part like Aaron Burr is a dream. He’s been imagining being on stage since age six, when he saw West Side Story for the first time. It’s one of Brady’s earliest memories and, though he’s played roles like Lola in the Cyndi Lauper-scored Kinky Boots and Tom Collins in Rent, Brady grew up on “oldies, but goodies” like South Pacific, Oklahoma, and Brigadoon.
“I remember jumping up and down in my bedroom, on my twin bed, trying to copy the opening dance number from On the Town, where they’re jumping off the ship and going to shore,” he says, recalling how his mother would yell as he leapt around, knocking things over as he danced.
Brady has proven himself to be a versatile performer; he brings with him an arsenal of skills, which he continued to develop working in the world of improv comedy. Still, theatre has always been a part of his life. “I’ve always been a theatrical performer, it’s where I got started. It’s what I do, I just haven’t gotten to do it as often as I’d like.
“It’s unique, each person has a special thing that makes them shine...my particular skill set is formidable because it’s natural for me, if that makes sense,” Brady says, and different roles require different parts from his toolkit. “Everyone's process is different but for Lola, I believe it was more of an outside-in type of preparation, whereas Burr is a little more inside-out,” he says. As a complex historical figure, playing Burr is a challenge Brady embraces. “I looked at a guy who wanted nothing more in life than to succeed.... I think he was very misunderstood, and I can empathize with that as a performer,” he says. “I bring a charm and likability to Burr, combined with the skills needed to sing and rap and just live as the guy. If he’s a little more likable at the end to the audience, it really makes the end that much more tragic.”
There’s no doubt Brady will remain a presence onstage. “I’m not a visitor,” he affirms. “Like any person who does this, you have to live and breathe it. I was just like the kids on Glee, with my own dreams and inspirations.” He loves the art form, and expressed deep concern that institutions like PBS and the NEA may be in jeopardy. “I really hope we don’t lose PBS,” says Brady. “I can honestly say without their work and the work of the NEA, I don’t know if I would’ve grabbed on to performing the way I did as a child. It introduced me to a whole big world.” Losing out on talents like Brady’s is one reason of many to hope for a future where theatre remains a visible presence in our country, and continues to inspire a new generation of performers hoping to be the next to step out onto the stage.