When Desmond Sean Ellington first saw "Hamilton" in Los Angeles in August 2017, he was struck by how unlike "theater as usual" the whole production was.
There was no dramatic stage reveal. Instead of a traditional big chorus line as the first number, there was just one person singing. And the first line — delivered by Aaron Burr — ends in a question about how the poor, orphaned immigrant Alexander Hamilton could "grow up to be a hero and a scholar."
"I'm just like, this is blowing my mind because this is not how I'm envisioning theater to be," Ellington said. "By the end of the show, I had to pick up my face off the ground because it was literally just melted."
Fast forward two months and Ellington, a new actor at the time, was cast in the show as a "swing" in charge of covering multiple parts. And two years after that, he's playing Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the national tour appearing at Overture Center through Dec. 8.
Ellington joined fellow cast members Ta’Rea Campbell (Angelica Schuyler) and Neil Haskell (King George) at a Cap Times Talk Thursday moderated by theater critic Lindsay Christians.
Both Campbell and Haskell have numerous Broadway credits, with Campbell currently on her fourth national tour after compiling a resume that includes the role of Nala in "The Lion King" and the title character in "Aida." Haskell, a contemporary dancer, has appeared in "Cinderella," "9 to 5" and more.
And they both have different takeaways from their first "Hamilton" viewing experience — as well as the journey from viewer to performer in the musical.
Campbell, before being cast as Angelica, recalled that after her first time seeing "Hamilton," she had her sights set on playing a different Schuyler sister: Eliza, Hamilton's wife.
"I looked up on the stage and said, ‘God, I’m an Eliza’ and I just knew," she said to laughs from the audience.
While she was initially "crushed" not to get the role, she said she "couldn’t possibly imagine playing that part now because I feel so closely related to Angelica."
Meanwhile, Haskell said his first audition was April 2015 for the role of the male swing for the entire ensemble in the original Broadway cast. After performing different show choreography and making it through a voice audition, he was called later that same day and told he got the part.
He noted that through the audition process, he was never asked to rap — even though he came prepared with Eminem's "Till I Collapse."
"It was going to be awesome," he said. "They didn't ask me to do it."
Haskell has been with the show the longest of the trio, though his first performance with the current tour was in August. He said his role as King George is unique given that he's onstage by himself in three different chunks, with about 45 minutes between each.
That's a "stark difference" from playing Charles Lee in New York and being in the spotlight for two-and-a-half hours each performance with others around him, he said.
"When I’m backstage if I don’t know what to do, I might go watch in the wings but everybody else is still onstage so I don’t really get to talk and connect backstage with all the people, or even onstage with all the people because I’m onstage alone every night," he said, adding that "some nights I love it and some nights I want that connection."
Across the cast as a whole, Ellington and Campbell highlighted the importance of having people of color playing leading roles and the impact seeing that representation would have on young people in the audience.
Ellington said he will always remember, from his first time seeing the show, the actor who starred in the role he was interested in. And he noted kids seeing his performance in "Hamilton" could be experiencing the same thing.
"There’s somebody in the audience, a child, a person, and I will be that character or that role that they will always remember, that seed that's planted in some young child who’s going to be the next Hamilton or be in the next worldwide phenomenon musical, (and) I get to be part of paying it forward, planting those seeds of representation," he said.
Campbell, praising composer Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating a performance where the majority of characters are people of color, said the casting is "a reflection of how he maybe wants to see the world or how he believes it can be."
"Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant who came to this country and changed it and it’s important to know if you’re an audience member or if you’re a young person of color watching the show that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you too can do something great," she said.