Q&A with Rick Negron of “Hamilton”: Behind the Crown of the “First Puerto Rican King”

Actor Rick Negron Speaks on Getting in the Mind of a ‘Lunatic King’, the Ripples of Hurricane Maria, and How Lin-Manuel Miranda Accelerated Diversity in the Performing Arts
Rick Negron plays the iconic King George III in “Hamilton”, playing at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from October 12-31, 2021. Photo Credit: © Joan Marcus

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Rick Negron is a multi-talented Puerto Rican performer who has been involved in some of the most beloved and popular shows throughout his 25-year career on Broadway, with his overall stage career going back to the age of ten. It was in Puerto Rico, spurred by his drama teacher mother, that Negron first took interest in the arts, eventually winding up dancing alongside Puerto Rican entertainment icons like Iris Chacón.

Now, after building his career in Broadway, Negron is on the West Coast taking on one of his most interesting roles to date, a king losing the New World to the Founding Fathers of the future United States. Or better known in history as King George III, the pseudo villain of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”.

The following is a conversation with Negron over his experiences working in performing arts, the diversity that has sprung up in Broadway over the years, and what it’s like to become the first Puerto Rican king of “Hamilton”.

Hello Rick, to start off, I wanted to ask you if you could you talk a little bit about your experience with the performing arts and your path to the stage?

Well, I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and my mom is an Irish American girl from Ohio, but her father was stationed in Puerto Rico. He was in the military, and she ended up going to Puerto Rico in the fifties and ended up going to University there and fell in love with the island and ended up marrying my Puerto Rican father and had a family there. But she taught school, and she was the drama teacher in school in Puerto Rico. So she pretty much was the one that that initiated the bug in me.

And at the age of ten, I started doing community theater, by the time I was in high school, I was doing all the school shows, and I was doing community theater. And I started dancing professionally for local TV in San Juan. One of the musicals I had done in community theater I had met a choreographer who had a dance school, and she got me interested in dancing. Before I knew it, I was dancing on TV with the likes of Iris Chacón, Nydia Caro, and these are all Puerto Rican TV stars from the 70s and 80s, which lets you know that I’ve been in the business for a really long time!

I graduated high school in Puerto Rico, decided to go to College in New York. I went to a Liberal arts College outside of New York City. It’s a small school called Sarah Lawrence, who had a really great theater and dance and music program. And then when I graduated College, I thought I wanted to be a professional dancer because they kind of groomed me for dance companies.

And so I was on scholarship at Bailey and then danced briefly as an apprentice with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But I realized that was not really my dream. It was sort of my College dance teachers’ dreams. My dream was to be on Broadway.

So I shifted and started auditioning for Broadway stuff. And before long I did an off-Broadway show. And then I got my Union card. I think the first Broadway show that I got was a show called “Leader of the Pack” and that was in 1985. The choreographing was directed by Michael Peters who choreographed “Beat It” and “Bad”, the Michael Jackson videos. And he was hot back in those days because those videos were very popular. This show did not have a lot of success, but it was my first Broadway show. I did a national tour of “West Side Story” and guess what, they hired the Puerto Rican to play a Jet!

Cut to many years as a dancer on Broadway and then doing some lead roles in “West Side Story” and then I moved to Los Angeles thinking, “I want to do lead roles.”

How did “Hamilton” come into your life, and how did you end up getting the part of King George III?

An old dancer friend of mine from the eighties who’s now a big director choreographer, his name is Sergio Trujillo, a Colombian…in 2005 called me and said, “I’m doing this workshop of this little musical called ‘In The Heights’ and I think you’d be right for the father.” And I said, “Okay, you know that it’s all the way in Connecticut, I live in Los Angeles.” And a workshop means it doesn’t pay any money. He goes, “Yeah, but you need to listen to the music.” I said, “Okay, send me the CD.” He sent it to me – the minute I heard Lin-Manuel’s “In The Heights” the first time, I said, “I gotta do this. I don’t care if I have to pay him!”

So I did a workshop of In The Heights in 2005, and I got to meet the whole gang who, as you know, later on and went on to do “Hamilton”. I didn’t get to originate the role on Broadway that was my friend Carlos Gomez, [who] had to leave “In The Heights” on Broadway about nine months or ten months into the run, he had lost his voice. He was having vocal issues. I took over for Carlos, and I played the role of the father on Broadway for two years. And I got to do Puerto Rico with the national tour, which was a real dream for me to go back home.

Cut to Lin’s success, and I became pretty good friends with Lin-Manuel and Thomas Kail, our director and Alex Lacamoire, the musical director and even Andy Blankenbuehler, who did both “In The Heights” and “Hamilton”. He and I did “West Side Story” many years ago as a dancer, so we’re old friends. And when “Hamilton” became a huge success, I texted Lin-Manuel and I said, “I would love to get involved either on one of your national of tours or in any way I can. And obviously, the only role that I’m really right for is the King, because everybody else is much younger.” And to his credit, he said, “Well, you have the King and George Washington. Those are the two older guys in the show.”

And I said, Absolutely. So they sent me the material and I auditioned for it, and I didn’t hear back. They put out two national tours and casting said, “Well, there were other guys that were in the process in line, understudies on the original production on Broadway who wanted to do the tours.” And I said, “I understand I’m the new man in this particular crowd.” And Luckily, I didn’t get the other two national tours because when this particular tour was put together and I finally did get it, it’s the one that opened in Puerto Rico with Lin-Manuel returning to the role of Hamilton.

And it just couldn’t have been better timing for me. Going back home to Puerto Rico, performing in the theater that’s four blocks away from the hospital that I was born at [and] six blocks away from the house that my grandfather built, that I grew up in. Just so much history and emotions and being back there doing that role in that show, the King, it was just a dream come true. And I got a lot of press thanks to Lin. He really pushed me forward, saying, “Hey, this is our first Puerto Rican King.” He coined that phrase, and so that’s my Instagram account @1stpuertoricanking. I started it just for “Hamilton”, and that’s an homage to Lin giving me the moniker.

And so, I’ve just been riding the wave after Puerto Rico. We were there for a month. We raised about $15 million for arts education in Puerto Rico, thanks to Lin-Manuel’s Flamboyan Foundation.

Also, I hadn’t been home since the hurricanes. It was a year and a half after the hurricane, and still there was blue tarps on some people’s roofs, [and] abandoned buildings. San Juan was doing better, you know, and businesses were coming back. But whenever I drive out into the countryside, places were still struggling, and that really brought it home. I did some stuff from afar, sending things and volunteering with some organizations to help after Maria to be on the ground and see firsthand, even a year and a half afterwards, it’s sobering, to say the least.

I wanted to ask about your character of King George III, and if you could give a perspective of what that role entails within “Hamilton”, as well as how you prepare to get in that character’s mindset.

I actually got to see Jonathan Groff play the role on Broadway. I happened to be in New York during previews before they opened, and because I’m family and I know everybody involved, I got tickets and my wife and I saw the show, and I thought he was fantastic. Just truly an incredible talent. And I thought, what a great take on that character, making him so foppish and almost on the border of insanity. But then when the role was handed to me, I thought, I’m going to do some serious research here and try to get to the bottom of who this guy really was.

And I did. And what I discovered was that King George is woefully misunderstood. He was a very good King. He was probably more involved than any king before him in politics and he was beloved by the British, his constituents, by his subjects. He was frugal, he was smart, he started the King’s Library. He studied science, he was into agriculture, he was known as “Farmer King”. He was loyal to his wife, they had twelve children, he never had mistresses, the family ate leftovers, pointing to his frugality, and he really didn’t start losing his mind, and it was a disease, porphyria, I think is what some historians think that he had. But he didn’t really start losing it until after the stress of losing the colonies. And when I read all that, I thought, “We can’t make this guy a two-dimensional guy.”

That’s the easy way out, to just make him a crazy mean despot or dictator or whatever. So I dug in deep and I started from a very small kernel of truth with him. I remember when they started rehearsals, our Associate Director, Patrick Vassel, said, “You know Rick, most guys come in and they have this outlandish larger than life take on him, and we have to pair them down. You’re coming in with something super real and super small, and we have to build you up.”

And I said, “Well, that that’s how I like to work. I like to work from the kernel of truth and then sort of expand and build on top of that, like lacquer, you just keep on putting layers and layers. And so when I was interviewed in Puerto Rico by The New Yorker Magazine, one of the greatest compliments, he said, “He plays him with a Trumpian flare,” which is great because I really wanted to show not just hints of lunacy, but I also wanted to show hints of danger.

This guy with a flick of a finger can decimate an entire population. But also, I wanted to show a little bit of empathy, too, a little bit of intelligence, not just some crazy lunatic.

I think I bring all of those things to the role, and I’m having so much fun trying to remold him every time I go out on stage and find new things, and I keep tweaking the character finding new things. I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half now or more, and I still have so much fun and literally he’s only on stage for about ten minutes.

But that first song is so well known and loved, and it’s a really wonderful song. His other two songs are basically the same melody, but different lyrics, but he definitely has an arch, which is great. He starts at one place, “I’m the King and you can’t leave me,” and it’s basically him saying that “This can’t be a breakup song because I’m the King.” ‘Til the end when he’s lost the colonies and he’s just flabbergasted by what’s going on, people leaving office and new presidents.

And then I have fun with him at the end because I think at the end, he’s having so much fun that you really see the lunacy try to start to come in, and that’s a lot of fun.

What was it like becoming a part of this highly regarded production that is predominantly people of color?

Well, when you think about musical theater, you think about these shows that are sort of ahead of their time. Big seismic shifts in how musical theater is done, the massive hits that have sort of changed musical theater. And there’s a bunch out there. “West Side Story” was like that. Nobody had ever seen a show with jazz music with a trombone in the pit.

Matter of fact, the year that “West Side Story” came out, “The Music Man”, won for best musical, “West Side Story” got mixed reviews. It was misunderstood. People just didn’t realize, “why are we watching a show about gangs? We can’t relate to it.”

The intelligentsia in New York just couldn’t relate to it. Now Spielberg’s movie coming out, the piece endures, and I think “Hamilton” is like that. It’s one of those big, monumental shifts in the way musical theater is thought about, not just with hip-hop, but also the brilliant way that the story is being told through the lens of a multiracial cast. I think that is one of the brilliant strokes of the show.

None of the roles are specific. We’ve had Asian kings, Black kings. Right now, we have an Asian Burr on Broadway. So to me, that’s an enormous shift because we had been underrepresented as Matthew Lopez, who just won the Tony Award for playwriting on Broadway. He mentioned in his acceptance speech, “We are 19% of the population but we are 2% represented on Broadway.” And that’s true for African-Americans and Asian-Americans.

So to have a show that champions that talent and the way that the show does, there are seven companies worldwide right now, so that’s a lot of employment for non-whites, but also Caucasians are not left out of mix! We have plenty of Caucasian actors and singers and dancers in the show. It’s just more opportunity for us where there was little [before].

I’m what the mexicanos say, I’m a bit ‘güerito’ because of my mom, so I can play both jets and Sharks, but for those who visibly don’t fit in both boxes, this is an incredible opportunity to be seen.

Overall, what do you hope that people take away from your version of King George and your performance in Hamilton?

Well, as much as I wish that they would find a little bit more compassion for him, it’s not put forward in the material that much, although I tried to give him a little bit of humanity. But what I hope that audiences take away is a better understanding of what the power dynamics are, what they were then and what they are now. So understanding our past and how this country was put together and the sacrifices that founding fathers made to create a more perfect Union, to get away from tyranny and to get away from fascism and all those things.

I think if I anything, I hope people walk away with a better understanding of what makes America great. And it’s none of the things that everybody thinks right off the bat. Really what makes us great is our ability to see everybody in the world as equal and to have compassion and empathy for everybody. And we are a collection of stories from all over the world.

That’s what America is about. We are a collection of immigrants. We get the job done. Everybody here is an immigrant. I’m sorry, the only ones that can say they’re “real Americans” are the Native Americans, and they have their own story. They have their own axe to grind with this country. And rightly so.

I think just having a better understanding of what made this beautiful experiment and the forces that were involved. I think it’s the greatest gift that I could give to audience members and of course they’re going to get entertained. For almost three hours. You can forget about the pandemic. You can forget about all the troubles at home. You can just dive into this world and be taken on a journey. It’s great.

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