By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
When Jewish author Ron Chernow published his epic biography on Alexander Hamilton in 2003, he had no idea of the impact it would have on Broadway audiences more than a decade later. That’s because he could not have envisioned the effect his tome would have on Lin-Manuel Miranda, the visionary who composed and stars in the hip-hop musical Hamilton that won top off-Broadway honors last year.
It is a given that Miranda will be nominated for his role of Alexander Hamilton in addition to receiving nominations for his music, lyrics and book. Playing to sold-out houses for months in advance, Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway and shows little sign of slowing.
Previously, Miranda was Tony-nominated for his role of Usnami in In the Heights, the hip-hop Latin musical set in New York for which he wrote the book and music. In the Heights landed him four Tony Awards including Best Musical of 2009. He was also nominated for several Tonys for his music and lyrics for “Bring It On,” a musical loosely based on the 2000 film of the same title that dealt with competitive cheerleading.
For one Jewish performer, Stephanie Crain Klemons, a Brooklyn-born, but nearly lifetime resident of New Jersey, Miranda’s rising star has meant gainful employment and tremendous opportunities on Broadway since 2008.
Klemons has been associated with Miranda’s rise in fame ever since she took a chance on auditioning for what became In the Heights in 2007. At the time she was on a national tour as a member of the ensemble and the understudy for the lead role of Shanti in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams.
“I was on the final leg of our tour and I saw a casting call for ‘In the Heights’ and I had heard of this show,” she explained during a busy holiday schedule last week. “Instead of flying out, I stayed in New York and sent my luggage off to Seattle.” That first audition went so well, she was called back from Seattle to New York twice more for additional callbacks.
It was an expensive and grueling process traveling from Seattle to New York with little time to spare between performances. However, it was fortuitous, because it was at this time that she became introduced to Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer who would soon become her mentor and collaborator.
She was booked as an ensemble performer in the original cast and was such an amazing dance talent that she was hired as the assistant dance captain, prominently featured expressively dancing on the cover of the Broadway cast recording.
When it was time for the touring show of In the Heights, Blankenbuehler’s associate choreographer was unavailable. Looking for someone else to take on that role, he approached Klemons.
She readily accepted. “It was truly incredible for me,” she recalled. Yet, it was a daunting task, since the dance captain must know every single part of every role and must be able to teach all the dance moves to the performers.
The two reworked the original choreography for the re-staging on the road tour. Klemons received her first credit as an associate choreographer and she and Blankenbuehler began working closer together on other projects.
Bring It On, which included very difficult choreography and cheerleading moves opened out of town in Atlanta and had what Klemons called the “perfect trifecta of injuries.” The lead broke her ankle and the understudy had to fill in. Also, an ensemble member got injured, so the swing was occupied with substituting for that role.
As a result, Klemons, who was associate choreographer, was the only person healthy enough to perform who knew all of the moves. When the show opened on Broadway, new performers were hired and Klemons returned to a behind-the-scenes role as associate choreographer.
Klemons continued to work with Blankenbuehler on an out-of-town project called Fly, a Peter Pan musical that he had choreographed, which ran for three months in Dallas during the summer of 2013.
During this period while still working on Fly, she reconnected with Tom Kitt, one half of the successful composing and writing team who had won a Pultizer Prize and numerous Tony Awards for their musical work exposing mental illness, Next to Normal.
Klemons had heard about a new project Kitt and partner Brian Yorkey were proposing that would feature Broadway stars Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, both of whom had first achieved fame as members of the ensemble of Rent. The musical that eventually took shape became the Tony-nominated If/Then.
Klemons sent in a video tape and auditioned for a role. “I flew in one day and got the job immediately,” Klemons said. “We opened in Washington, D.C. and played at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (on Broadway) for a year.”
Klemons was doing double duty during the run of If/Then, because by then she had been introduced to the Hamilton mix of several songs Miranda had originally composed about the first Secretary of the Treasury. Those original four songs grew into what became the nearly 50 songs that remain in the final rendition.
The technical term for what she participated in was a “lab,” as opposed to a workshop. Under union contracts, performers are paid more for working in a lab than in a workshop, but are not entitled to future royalties should the work achieve success on Broadway.
She has watched Miranda mature. “The thing I remember most was this young kid; he was a nobody,” she remembered. “We kind of watched him grow into a somebody.”
“Here was this guy,” she continued. “He had incredible passion and brilliance, but he was just a guy from Washington Heights, and we watched him grow into a phenomenon who would shift the paradigm of which I think we are only beginning to understand.”
She recalls working on In the Heights as the swing when she was called in to sing harmony forehead to forehead with Miranda. “When you’re standing there with the composer, there’s this palpable standard you have to uphold,” she said. “It was truly a magical experience.”
“It was interesting to watch him,” she mused about Miranda. “He’s totally grounded. He’s not dumb (about his success), but he’s also not different than he was before. He hasn’t changed.”
Klemons has been part of the process with drafting Hamilton into the smash that it has become for the last two years. As the associate choreographer for Hamilton, she is credited with the authorship of that part of the work. As the swing and dance captain, she is listed in the ensemble of players.
“I feel great and very happy with my career. It’s sort of a mixture of hard work and luck that I’ve experienced,” Klemons continued. “Success is a little bit of both.”
As the swing, she was recently called to perform on stage along side Miranda and other talented performers like Javier Muñoz and Christopher Jackson, whom she worked with in In the Heights, as well as standouts Leslie Odom, Jr. and Phillipa Soo.
“We all feel that the show is going to have life,” she acknowledged. Klemons also says she is favorably impressed with the way the show teaches history in a way that is accessible to all youth.
“I think the most important thing it (Hamilton) does is wipe away the barrier between how urban versus suburban and minorities versus majority youth all hear history,” she said.
Klemons and several other Jewish members of the cast of Hamilton have begun calling themselves the Hamil-Jews. David Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson, has a Jewish mother. Seth Stewart, an ensemble member and the director Tommy Kail have joined with Klemons during Jewish holidays to celebrate as only Broadway performers can between shows.
That connection to her Judaism is special to Klemons. “I’ve felt very connected through Hamilton and a lot of other recent media to my Jewish roots,” she explained. “As our Holocaust generation dwindles, the passing down of stories and traditions becomes both increasingly important and increasingly difficult. In Hamilton especially, there’s a resurgence of the desire to know where you come from and the path your immediate ancestors experienced.”
So what kinds of religious observance goes on with the Hamil-Jews? “We did a little apple/honey Rosh Hashanah prayer,” Klemons explained. Those that chose to fast on Yom Kippur supported each other, she said. “We did a Passover matzoh exchange. Everyone makes a dish and we help each other out.”
Klemons has described her Jewish background previously as having been part of a “Reformadox” upbringing. It was important to her mother that she be able to read from the Torah, she indicated. She also has taken part on an Aish HaTorah birthright mission to Israel in 2005 previous to her turning around careers from that of a genetic researcher to a Broadway performer and choreographer.
While still in college at Rutgers University, Klemons began her show business career working as a featured dancer and performer for an entertainment company, often performing at bar mitzvahs.
She graduated with two degrees – one in genetics and microbiology and the other in modern dance. She was even published in Oncology Journal in 2003 following research she conducted during clinical trials to find a cure for leukemia, the disease that had taken a close friend’s life.
She took a chance following her dreams of performing dance professionally, but that decision has turned out to have been quite satisfying, if not prophetic.
As associate choreographer, she will likely be a part of casting and setting at least the next three companies of Hamilton both in the U.S. and the London company. The first of those cities has been announced as Chicago.