MSU Vocal Graduate Cast for Key Role

Jonathan Kirkland plays George Washington in Chicago company of Hamilton

Jonathan Kirkland (center) plays the role of George Washington in Chicago’s production of Hamilton. Photo © Joan Marcus 2016.
Jonathan Kirkland (far left) joins a stellar class of male roles cast in Hamilton. Photo © Joan Marcus 2016.
Tony nominee Joshua Henery plays the role of Aaron Burr. Photo © Joan Marcus 2016.
The full cast of Chicago’s Hamilton for the closing number. Photo © Joan Marcus 2016.

One brother excelled on the high school basketball court. The other played saxophone in the marching band. But for Jonathan Kirkland, the choice between athletics and music wasn’t easy. He simply loved both.

“I did the best I could until I had to decide,” says Kirkland. “It was always a tug of war.”

Eventually, music won out. Today, instead of stepping onto the basketball court, the 2010 graduate of the College of Music at Michigan State University is stepping onto the stage as a performing artist, currently performing with the Chicago Company of  “Hamilton.

Kirkland plays the role of George Washington in Broadway’s smash hit that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton—one of America’s founding fathers, a key player in the Revolutionary War, and the first treasury secretary of the U.S. The production’s score features an eclectic blend of hip-hop, rap, jazz, blues and R&B. The Chicago production officially began performances on September 27 and will run at the Private Bank Theatre in the downtown Loop area for at least a year.

“The greatest thing about this role is actually being a part of American history, and telling the story in a very unique way,” says Kirkland. “I feel a responsibility to honor his legacy, to honor the story that was written, and to honor the music that was composed.”

Kirkland admits that crossing over from the study of classical and opera music to musical theatre comes with challenges. But he says he’s prepared to take on anything because of the education and training he received through his bachelor of music performance degree from MSU.

WKAR Public Radio Interview with Jonathan Kirkland
Source: MSU grad and star in Chicago’s ‘Hamilton’ says musical offers hope to a divided country 

Raised in Southfield, Mich., by an athletic coach and an opera singer mother, Kirkland was encouraged to apply his athletic and vocal talents to studies at Michigan State. While he considered walking on to the basketball team, he opted instead to devote his full attention to the study of music under the guidance of Professor of Voice Richard Fracker, chair of the MSU Vocal Arts Area.

“What struck me about Jonathan was that it was clear he had immense talent from the very beginning,” says Fracker. “He had a wonderful voice—an instrument that was raw but clearly had great potential. It was easy to see that he had what it takes. Anybody who met him could see that right from the start.”

Kirkland says the honesty and patience of Fracker and music faculty like Professor of Voice Melanie Helton, director of the MSU Opera Theatre, taught him what it was like to commit himself to artistry. He says his program and studies also gave him the solid experience he would need to make it as a professional.

“We weren’t just doing one-act shows or operas at MSU,” Kirkland says. “We did full, three-hour operas. If you could do it there, handle your basic classes and still have some kind of life, you knew you were prepared when you got out into the real world.”

Helton traveled to Chicago to attend the opening night of “Hamilton” and to experience first-hand the success of her former student.

“As George Washington, Jon delivered on all the promise he showed as an MSU undergrad in operas such as ’The Marriage of Figaro,’ ‘Candide’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi,’” Helton says. “His performance was impeccable in all ways, and he was a major powerhouse on stage, easily holding his own with many more seasoned castmates.”

After “Hamilton,” Kirkland says he hopes to do more work in television, land a movie role, and continue to improve as an actor and singer. But for the time being, he is concentrating on what he calls the hardest work he’s ever done, and being a positive role model for African American youth.

“For me to step out on the stage and be capable of being part of something that changes the image and tells the truth about what African American people can do is very important to me,” Kirkland says. “It’s still surreal that I’m actually here, but this was the goal and expectation all along: that hard work would pay off.”

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