Conroe Brooks Exemplifies Value of Standby Performers in Kennedy Center’s “Hamilton”
August 8, 2022 @ 12:00pm
Last week, a national tour of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton” returned to the Kennedy Center to sold-out audiences, and it’s obvious that even after seven years, the Tony, Grammy and Olivier Award-winning musical is as popular as ever.
Boasting an amazing score that blends hip hop, jazz, R&B, and Broadway, the show tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton and his frenemy, Aaron Burr, as they work to shape a new nation.
It’s no secret that standbys, swings, and understudies have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic in theatre, and with a cast as large as “Hamilton,” their importance is even amplified.
Take Conroe Brooks, who has been part of the tour for more than four years, serving as the principal standby (or cover) for George Washington, King George, and the dual role of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.
“I’m off-stage until it’s time to be on stage, and that can be at any given moment,” Brooks says. “There’s a lot of us in the production, and usually there are two people who cover each role. I love this because I get to play four completely different guys, and while challenging, it’s really fun because I have to be different every time.”
In D.C., he’s already spent a few nights in the latter track and is scheduled to take a turn at both the other roles at some point during the show’s run at the Kennedy Center, which is slated to go until October 9.
“Depending on who I’m playing, I have to be intense, or the heart of the show when I’m Washington and singing these beautiful songs, or the comic relief of King George,” Brooks says. “The stress of it is you can never rest mentally because you never know when you might go on.”
But while he sometimes knows in advance what role he will be playing, part of being in his position is being available at a moment’s notice if someone can’t go on.
“People get sick, people go on vacation, and sometimes they just get tired, and we need to fill the role so we have a show,” Brooks says. “It’s really fun to challenge myself and be ready to do it sometimes learning just a half hour before the show starts.”
In order to switch from one role to another on different nights, Brooks must get himself in the mindset of that character beforehand, admitting there’s no way you can just forget the other stuff, so it presents some challenges.
For instance, he might hear a cue and his theatrical muscle memory might tell him he needs to go on, and he gets nervous that he may have missed something.
“That’s the stressful part of being a standby because you might get these mini-heart attacks,” he says. “It’s challenging to manage your mind to stay in the correct role.”
Although he did musical theatre in high school, he never really thought he could make it on Broadway until he saw Miranda’s first show, “In the Heights.” A Los Angeles native, Brooks was doing TV and films when he learned about “Hamilton” and knew this was the perfect show to give him that chance.
“I sent in a self-tape singing and rapping to the casting way back in 2016, and after about 13 auditions, lots of stress and emotions, and ups and downs, I finally booked it more than a year later,” he says.
As he goes from city to city on the tour, Brooks notices that the “Hamilton” juggernaut has not died down, as people are still as excited as ever to be in the room where it happens.
“We’re telling the story of the founding fathers, many years ago, and there have been many times when different lines in the show have become very relevant, where the audience reacts because of what’s going on the world politically,” he says. “I think everyone can relate to the story of trying to make a difference in the world. Plus, the music is amazing and very timeless. I’ve done over 1,000 shows, and I’m not tired of the music.”
He encourages everyone to come to the Kennedy Center and check out the show, whether they’ve never seen it or seen it multiple times.
“Hamilton” is its own beast of a musical like no other,” Brooks says. “Whether you love musicals or hate musicals, you’re going to like this show and the music. The songs are so brilliant, and there are so many great lines that touch your heart.”
“Hamilton” National Tour is playing through October 9 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets start at $59. Learn more and buy tickets here.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC;
kennedy-center.org // @kennedycenter