When the mega-musical sensation Hamilton hit the Hobby Center last month, some Houstonians may have recognized a familiar face on stage. Westfield High School graduate John Devereaux is in the show’s ensemble, and he is thrilled to be home.
“It’s such a dream!” he said. “[Being] on that stage where I sat in the audience as a 12-year-old, and that’s where it literally all started for me.”
It all started with a performance of another mega-musical: Disney’s The Lion King. The production’s epic scale, and the fact that an African American kid was playing the role of Simba, had an effect on the young Devereaux. But it didn’t immediately click that his destiny was to be in the theater. He just thought that it looked like fun, and he someday wanted to do something that would make people feel the way he felt in that theater.
However, shortly after that performance, during his junior year, he was cast in Westfield High’s production of Bed, Breakfast and Broadway, a tale about the staff of a struggling bed and breakfast who mistake a janitor for a Broadway producer.
“I played an actor who fell out of a first-floor window,” Devereaux said. “And something just clicked. It felt right.”
The self-confessed bookworm who’d also played a lot of sports suddenly found a new playground for his talents, although he still wasn’t convinced that making a living as an actor was for him. He’d go on to Texas Christian University, where he picked up theater as a minor.
“And that turned into a B.A., which turned into a BFA in acting,” he said. “People in my program believed in my talent and they believed in me. When I graduated, I had the tools, the experience and the confidence to go out and do this.”
Following his graduation in 2012, he left Texas for Los Angeles. It was the city where he thought that he’d lay down roots. But he kept getting booked for out-of-town acting gigs—like the 20th-anniversary national tour of Rent, the Jonathan Larson hit that updates the story of La Boheme. Spending time on the road with the show enabled Devereaux to not only see the country, which he loved but also hone his craft.
And then the biggest show in the world came along.
When it premiered in 2015, Hamilton lit up Broadway as if nothing had in years—possibly since Rent. The blending of historical fact and the melodies of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B, coupled with its casting of actors of color in the roles of dead white dudes, created a sensation. The brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights (2005), Hamilton is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, and is based on the biography by Ron Chernow.
“When I first heard about it, history and hip hop together, it didn’t make sense in my mind,” Devereaux said. “And then I saw it.”
His awe over that experience matches the enthusiasm that by now is a Hamilton hallmark among the show’s devoted fan base. Devereaux wasn’t alone in his confusion over the show. Everyone from Chernow himself to President Barack Obama is on record in some way or another thinking that the idea of a hip hop musical about a founding father was, well, bizarre.For Devereaux, being part of a historic production is a dream come true. As a member of the show’s ensemble, he’s on stage every night. But he also covers the roles of George Washington, King George III and the dual-cast Hercules Mulligan/James Madison. That means should the actor playing any of those roles have a vacation or be sick, Devereaux must be ready to go on. On opening night in Houston, he was singing the role of King George.
“The ensemble is an extension of the main characters’ thoughts and desires,” he explained. “We’re physical manifestations of what the characters are going through.”
Essential to the telling of the Hamilton story, the ensemble serves as everything from Hamilton’s mother, to fellow drinkers in a tavern, to guests at Hamilton’s wedding, to members of Washington’s army and more. Ensemble members weave about the stage, bringing life to the story in a way that supports and uplifts the show’s main characters.
“There’s a rush to being a cover,” he said. “There’s this moment of, oh, shoot, I’m going on!”
That excitement is matched by being able to do the show here in Houston. Devereaux was set to perform here in July 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to that. When the tour was rescheduled, Devereaux was elated to see other Texas cities on the list, allowing him the opportunity to perform in a number of places where he has roots. In addition to his home of Houston, he’ll also perform in Fort Worth, special to him because it’s a chance for his TCU professors and friends to see his work. He’s both pumped and proud to share his journey.
Hamilton was always conceived as what Miranda called the story of America then, told by the America of today. Written into the show’s DNA is the idea that Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton and the rest are performed by people of color. That’s generated controversy and critical acclaim. But Hamilton met all of it head-on. And in collaboration with the actors, the show’s creators challenged themselves to address those issues. The result is that audiences that have seen the show before might notice some differences in its presentation.
“We sat down and just hashed out what our viewpoints were individually, as artists, and what it felt like, and what the implications of someone watching this, and how are they are going to take it and who is responsible for that interpretation?” Devereaux said.
“It’s the people who are in the show, the people who are the creators. And we have to take accountability. As America changes, that story inevitably is going to be told differently.”
Devereaux knows that he’s part of something special.
“Being able to be surrounded by these remarkably talented individuals every night, I feel like I get better by osmosis,” he said. “I was somebody who didn’t think this was possible. If you’d told me when I was in college that I would be in the biggest show in the world, I don’t think I’d have believed you.”
Tickets for the closing weekend of Hamilton are available through March 20 and can be purchased here.