Daveed Diggs never imagined that Broadway had a place for him. The 33-year-old rapper and actor from Oakland, CA, had never worked in New York or even been in a professional musical. Then one day he received a call from writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail. Diggs now stars as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the groundbreaking Broadway musical Hamilton.
Portraying two pivotal characters in Hamilton, Diggs emits Miranda’s words with unfathomable speed and immense charisma, bringing an authentic rap voice to the Broadway stage. While rap and hip-hop aren't entirely new to Broadway — thanks, in part, to Miranda’s 2008 Tony-winning In the Heights — the manner in which this show integrates rap with other modern forms to tell the story of America’s founding fathers is innovative. One show-stopping moment in the musical even finds Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson hashing out their differences in a 1789 cabinet meeting via rap battle.
“Rap is such a useful tool for telling this story,” says Diggs. “It's very good at condensing information. The fact that rap has a strict meter and stays to a click means that you have to make your thoughts concise. By the end of the show, you've gone on a journey and learned so much [about so many] characters.” Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton provided the inspiration for the musical, similarly noted that Miranda's style enabled him to condense the first 40 pages of the book into a four-minute opening number.
The skills utilized by Diggs as part of his experimental hip-hop group clipping come into play in delivering such a massive tale with a virtuosic tongue. The ensemble emphasizes storytelling in what Diggs describes as “noisy, aggressive rap music.” An artist from that world might feel out of place in the theatre, but so far Diggs’ experience has been just the opposite.
“There is nothing in [Hamilton] that feels fake. [Miranda] is a really good rapper, by rapper’s standards, and he’s culturally connected to the music. From the beginning, I felt the show was authentic. I needed to be a part of it.” Diggs prepared devotedly from the day he was cast in an early Hamilton workshop, aiming to keep up with performers more experienced in Broadway-style singing. To this day, when asked his favorite part of the show to perform, he names not any of his own show-stopping numbers, but “Wait For It,” which Leslie Odom Jr. sings as Aaron Burr.
“Every night, singing backup for [Odom Jr.] during 'Wait For It' [makes me] feel like I'm living out a bizarre fantasy. I love how he sings that song, and [I know] I'd never get that job as his backup singer, outside of Broadway. 'Wait For It’ is such a beautiful song and the fact that I get to support it…”
Diggs trails off as a huge cheer erupts on 46th Street, outside his dressing room window. Hamilton's ticket lottery has become an event in itself, a chance for fans to win ten dollar tickets to the show with an average ticket price that hovers around $150, and a record-breaking advance sale of nearly $60 million. The Hamilton lottery boasts what they've dubbed “Ham4Ham,” where cast members team up with other actors to perform a special free show on the street for lottery entrants.
“The lottery is just one thing about this show that feels like it opens the doors and gives people access,” says Diggs. The show’s diverse casting inarguably does this as well, and he has experienced young people “from all walks of life, all different colors and shapes and sizes" who are eager to discuss the show, and to have a chance to audition for Hamilton someday.
“Being multiracial has allowed me to feel comfortable walking in all different circles,” he shares. Diggs is half white and Jewish, and half black. “It wasn’t hard for me to find common ground with [my characters], just because I don't happen to have the same skin tone.”
Not only does Hamilton employ a diverse cast to play America’s leaders, it has also welcomed America’s current leader — twice. Performing for President Barack Obama and the First Family blew Diggs away.
“Regardless of what your opinions about his policies are, the simple fact that we have a black president changed everything. It has made the world a bigger place.… There are kids who only know a world with a black American president.”
Obama’s support of the show seems destined to tie Hamilton to his presidency in the history books, just as John F. Kennedy's presidency is tied to Camelot. This idea of universal access, pervasive in both Obama’s ideals and in the content and execution of Hamilton on Broadway, seems likely to inspire a new generation of young people from all backgrounds to feel they have a place in politics and in art.
“Broadway is speaking to American stories right now—stories that are inclusive of all parts of America,” says Diggs. "I hope [the diversity we're seeing] in theatre starts ringing bells for executives in charge of [what gets produced] in all art forms.”
As for Diggs’ own career, he’s ecstatic to be where he is, and he still manages to find time to create his own new music. It seems that Broadway does indeed have a place for him. What’s surprised him about being on Broadway for the first time “is that it feels the same as it felt to do shows as a kid. It's like I’m in a school play, or putting on a play with my friends. Even though there are [higher stakes], the feelings are all the same: getting nervous, being part of [a team] where all you have out there is each other. It’s similar to [being on tour as a rapper] because you are always responsible for being aware of how everyone in the room is feeling at a given moment — and how [you can] massage that energy in a certain direction, for the good of the show.”