More than four years since its Broadway debut, "Hamilton" remains one of the biggest shows not just in the country its characters helped create, but around the globe. Thankfully, there is now a production much closer than the Big Apple, and, even better, it has a Bakersfield native in a starring role.
West High grad Darnell Abraham has recently stepped into the role of George Washington for the San Francisco production, running through January at the Orpheum Theatre.
"It's been quite a journey," Abraham said. "It's really exciting to be part of this show and step into one of the leading roles in California."
Previously a standby for George Washington, Aaron Burr and King George III, Abraham took over as Washington full time on Aug. 13. As in U.S. history in general, Washington plays a big role in the show. Washington was a mentor to Hamilton, who in turn was the then-General's right-hand man.
"It's a blessing," he said. "It's incredible to be a part of it, telling that story every night."
Growing up in southeast Bakersfield, Abraham, 33, was active in church choirs first at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, then at Valley Baptist Church. Going to school at Dr. Juliet Thorner Elementary School and Performing Arts Magnet Program laid the foundation for his talents in musical theater, Abraham said.
Abraham honed his skills in community theater around town before leaving Bakersfield at 18 for school. The day before he graduated from Azusa Pacific University, he married his wife, Wanda.
For nearly 10 years, Abraham and his wife have lived in New York City. Prior to booking "Hamilton," he was in "Next to Normal" in Texas, "The Color Purple" National Broadway Tour, two productions of "Ragtime" in the Northeast and "Festival of The Lion King" at Disney World.
Adding "Hamilton" to his list of credits was a long process. Abraham first went to an open call in the summer of 2016 and got an email in December of that year asking him to come back for another audition.
"I didn't hear anything back, so I figured, 'It's not going to happen.' That's how it is; you move on," he said. "I was closing 'The Color Purple' tour and got a phone call from my agent saying '"Hamilton" would like to see you.'"
In January, several callbacks and more than two years later, Abraham officially started the tour.
"That alone was good," Abraham said of booking the tour. Then his agent told him the tour included Puerto Rico, where Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of "Hamilton" and original star in the title role on Broadway, would be starring in the production.
"We were so excited," he said.
During six weeks of rehearsals, Abraham got the chance to work with Miranda, who more recently starred in "Mary Poppins Returns" and wrote and performed music for "Moana."
"I was (telling myself), 'OK, be normal, don't be weird,'" Abraham said of rehearsing with Miranda. "He's a great guy. It was a joy to work with him."
As a standby for three characters, Abraham had the unique task of knowing three distinct roles, with no expectation of going on stage regularly but needing to be ready at a moment's notice. Though standbys do still get rehearsal time, they don't have the benefit of being on stage, in costume and in front of an audience for further practice.
"Being a standby was pretty exciting," Abraham said. "You're wearing three hats. King George is so different from Aaron Burr, and Aaron Burr is so different from George Washington. I got to play around and explore the various layers there."
The first time Abraham played George Washington onstage was with a very important scene partner: Miranda himself, in the superstar-making title role. Though Abraham had worked with him in rehearsal before, sharing the stage was even more special.
"It was surreal," he said. "Quite frankly, I never thought I'd get the opportunity to work opposite of him. ... It was absolutely incredible. I'm just excited to be in 'Hamilton' but to play opposite the man who wrote the show was a dream come true."
Now, Abraham will get to play George Washington full time, taking over the role from Isaiah Johnson, whose last performance was Aug. 11.
"It's unbelievably exciting," Abraham said of officially taking on the role for the rest of the show's stay in San Francisco. "There's a weight to it now. There's a sense of enormous responsibility. Even when I was a standby, I wanted to make sure I honored the role. Now stepping into Washington, that doesn't change."
Like many people, both in and out of the theater world, Abraham was a fan of "Hamilton" before being cast in it. He and his wife saw it on Broadway early on, when tickets were nearly impossible to get.
"I was a huge fan of the show!" he said. "I was hooked. Seeing the show, I knew immediately, 'I don't know when, but I'm going to be in this show.'"
One reason Abraham was initially drawn to the musical and is proud to be a part of it is because of what it represents. He referenced the show's director, Thomas Kail, saying "Hamilton" is a story of "America then told by America now."
"For me to be a black guy playing George Washington, it's very unusual ... but it's also very intentional," Abraham said. "We live in a very diverse country, it's one of the beautiful things about our country. 'Hamilton' capitalizes on that. It celebrates the many faces of America."
With "Hamilton" in San Francisco, many of Abraham's family and friends have been able to come see him perform, some for the first time. He mentioned the many people from Bakersfield who helped him accomplish his dreams and is enjoying the chance to celebrate this moment with them.
"We've been in New York for just under 10 years, so to come back and celebrate years of sacrifice and hard work — we didn't do this by ourselves," Abraham said, referring also to his wife, who is in San Francisco with him. "What an opportunity to come back to California with a show like 'Hamilton' and celebrate together, because we did this."
Abraham encouraged anyone with the means to come and see the show in San Francisco. Not only is "Hamilton" worth the trip, he said, it's a chance to celebrate Bakersfield.
"Being here is also a tribute to my hometown, and I would love to share that."