Tuesday, May 26

UCLA alumna makes Broadway debut, performs dual role in ‘Hamilton’

(April Ding/ Daily Bruin contributor)

Joanna Jones first went to see “Hamilton: An American Musical” in 2015, but she had no idea she would make her Broadway debut two years later as a member of the cast.

On Sept. 23, the UCLA alumna took over the dual role of Peggy, the kind-hearted youngest Schuyler sister in the show’s first act, and Maria Reynolds, Alexander Hamilton’s seductive mistress in the second act. Jones said “Hamilton” has provided her with an inclusive space to expand upon her theatrical training and further her theatrical career.

“It’s a dream come true of mine to be on Broadway,” Jones said. “And to have it be this show, which is the best show I had ever seen and something that had impacted me so much, to be welcomed into that circle … I was so humbled and honored.”

Jones first saw “Hamilton” after receiving tickets from Leslie Odom Jr., who played Aaron Burr in the show’s original cast. Jones met Odom Jr. in college through Nicolette Robinson, his wife and a fellow Awaken A Capella member.

“It was just so brilliant that the story of the birth of our nation and our founding fathers was being told through rap and ethnically charged music by people of color and ambiguous ethnicities,” Jones said. “That’s not something I had ever imagined was possible.”

When the “Hamilton” casting team came to Los Angeles in April, Jones auditioned for the double-casted role of Peggy and Maria. She later recorded herself singing three of the show’s featured female roles to demonstrate her vocal range. After months without hearing back from the casting team, Jones got a callback for the Broadway production in July, flew out to New York for a final audition and received an offer to join the Broadway production in August.

However, Jones only had four weeks to rehearse for the show. During that time, she met with dance captains to learn choreography, worked with music directors to practice her songs and watched performances from backstage to get a sense of the show.

Jones said it was challenging to prepare for the intense eight-show-per-week schedule, particularly on days when the cast did both a matinee and an evening show.

Alumna Joanna Jones plays two different roles in every "Hamilton" show. She said she tries to prepare for her second featured female role while she is changing costumes in between the two acts. (courtsey of Robert Stein Management)

Dan Belzer, one of Jones’ voice professors at UCLA, said he thinks Jones’ time in the UCLA theater program helped prepare her for the show and its intense schedule. While at UCLA, Jones was able to balance her schoolwork while also performing professionally, with the same amount of focus required of Broadway performers.

“The musical theater program is quite rigorous with all the vocal classes and lessons and the dance classes and acting classes – they hardly have a free moment,” Belzer said. “In that sense, it’s a really strenuous test as far as stamina, and that’s a big piece of doing an extended run with a Broadway show.”

Jones also had to prepare to play two wildly different characters in the same show. Marilyn Fox, who taught Jones acting at UCLA, said she thinks Jones’ quiet thoughtfulness and empathy shows through in her performances.

“All acting is based on truth, honesty – it allows an actor to find the truth inside someone else’s story,” Fox said. “But it’s personal, they mix it with their own personal understanding of life and it’s almost like it’s them and the character together into a new person, and I saw that in her work.”

Jones tapped into her own experience as a younger sister to play Peggy in the first act, channeling youthful joy and playfulness, and then used the time it took for her to change her costume for the second act to get into Maria’s seductive mindset, she said.

“Putting on that costume and the wig and makeup really makes me feel like (Maria),” Jones said. “I take a few minutes backstage to myself to really remind myself about the storytelling aspects, and just breathe into it and step into her before I step onstage.”

Now, after performing with the cast for almost a month, Jones said “Hamilton” has come to signify a broader sense of inclusion in musical theater. On the day of her first show, Jones took part in a cast tradition for new actors – before the show, the cast gathers in the theater’s basement and lays their hands on the new actor, praying for them and wishing them luck. Jones said the moment was incredibly powerful and made her feel like she was entering a new home rather than a job.

“To see people who look like me and sounded like me telling this amazing story on Broadway really inspired me,” Jones said. “It reminded me that that’s the kind of material that makes me do what I do, and I just try to every day on stage remind myself how the story is so important.”

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