BWW Interview: T. J. Newton of SPAMILTON at Peace Center's Gunter Theatre
You get SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY, the new comic musical that's brought laughs to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London. Now on a national tour, SPAMILTON brings its singing, dancing, comedy revolution to Greenville on December 17.
Variety says, "SPAMILTON simultaneously salutes and sends up Miranda and his signature musical." The New York Times called it, "smart, silly, and often convulsively funny." Whatever you call it, you're bound to have a great time watching it.
We recently spoke to T.J. Newton, who plays Lin-Manuel in the touring production. We asked him about his background and how he prepares for making musical mischief.
BWW: To start off, please tell me a little bit about yourself.
I'm originally from Buffalo, New York. Then I moved to New York City when I was 17 to study musical theater and I got my degree in Theatre Arts - musical theatre - and I've been hopping around the country...I've been very lucky to work a lot regionally. I've done WEST SIDE STORY, INTHE HEIGHTS, EVITA. All the shows that kind of fit me well. And then last winter, almost a year ago, I was in Pittsburgh playing Usnavi in IN THE HEIGHTS, which was Lin-Manuel Miranda's first show, and I got asked to come and audition for SPAMILTON. So I went in and about two callbacks later I ended up in Pittsburgh, doing the show at Pittsburgh CLO for four months. And then towards the end of my run there, they asked me to join the tour. So I'm fresh to the tour. This is actually only gonna be my third city.
Oh, really? Wow. I'm just gonna say, though, that you're definitely not fresh to the role.
Right. You're right. I've done over 100 performances already. So, yeah, I've been doing it for a while. I'm quite familiar with Lin and with the show, and it's a good time.
Well tell me a little bit about the show, because it seems like it's more than just a series of parody songs. There actually is a story line to it. Is that right?
Absolutely. I like to think of it as Lin-Manuel's quest to save Broadway. So, you know, he's looking at all these other shows that are happening in New York, and he's like, What can I do to make this better, what can I do? And he gets inspired by Hamilton and then the show kind of snowballs from there.
So it kind of loosely takes at least the structure of HAMILTON and substitutes Lin-Manuel's personal journey instead of Alexander Hamilton's, right?
Yes, exactly. And while HAMILTON is the base, we spoof many, many other musicals, from CATS to WICKED to LION KING. We touch on a lot of different shows. So even if you haven't seen HAMILTON, that's totally okay. You can still have a wonderful time at our show.
Very nice. So tell me what it's like to play Lin.
Well, it's funny because I don't necessarily think I look like him. But a lot of people that come to see the show - and even a lot of friends and family - say that I look like him. Especially when I have the wig on, because I actually have short black hair. My hair is actually a little blonde, too. But I wear a wig in the show, and in the full Hamilton costume people said I look very similar to him, so I really don't do too much work in terms of trying to impersonate him. The costume and the physical appearance do a lot of the work for me. But of course then Lin has a very distinct voice. So there are some some things that I tend to emulate when singing or rapping.
Oh, sure. How close do you think the costumes are to the stuff they use in HAMILTON? They sure look good from the pictures.
They're very close, very close.
That must be kind of a thrill.
Yes, absolutely. And I think often people will see pictures of me online, whether on social media or Facebook and people think that I am in HAMILTON, but I'm not - it just looks like it. If you don't know what I'm doing, you would think that I might be in the show, right?
What kind of challenges do you have to go through to do this? Is there a lot of dancing? The original is famous for its amazing dance work. How does this show compare?
Our show actually has only one act. It's about 75 minutes. And I think of it really as a marathon. Once it starts, it really does not stop at all. There are only five of us in the show, but we play over 50 characters. I'm quite lucky because I really don't have to do anything other than play Lin-Manuel. But the other four incredible cast members are running backstage. Every time they come offstage they do a costume change. They do a lot of work. So the show is super physical, and you definitely work up a sweat. So it's not as dance heavy as HAMILTON, but it is quite the marathon.
Wow. So for your numbers, are you primarily doing kind of Lin stuff, or do you get a chance to spoof some other performers?
I mainly do Lin stuff but we do a little spoof of MARY POPPINS that I'm involved in, because, of course, he did the movie, and we do an IN THE HEIGHTS number - but I don't want to give too much away...
Do you think having personally been in IN THE HEIGHTS helps bring any extra nuance to this? I know it's comedy, but I feel like you probably do try to create a character.
Oh 100%, because especially in our direction of the show, it wasn't so much like, "look at the audience and wink." It's very much like we're telling a story. And I'm very serious, like, I'm gonna come on stage and I'm gonna change Broadway. This is my moment. So I don't necessarily look at it as slapstick, even though my character can be a little goofy. But playing Usnavi definitely did help. Because it helped me get the groove and the style that Lin has, and it helped me translate that to our show.
He's very distinct as a performer.
Oh absolutely. He uses his hands a lot, which is something that I've grown accustomed to - even with IN THE HEIGHTS, and with SPAMILTON - and just the way he shapes his mouth. I do try and pick up on the stuff that he is well known for. A lot of people say that I have his smile, which I don't necessarily see. But I know people have told me that I smile just like him. So, yeah.
Have you seen HAMILTON?
I've seen HAMILTON three times. I actually saw it downtown at The Public Theater, which is where it was before it went to Broadway. And I paid I think $20. I had been a big fan of Lin from IN THE HEIGHTS, so I knew that HAMILTON was gonna be something special. So I went down and got a $20 ticket because you could still get them cheap before the word got out. And then I've seen the show on Broadway and I got to see the Chicago company.
So you've got a deep base of the actual show to rely on when you're doing this parody.
Oh, definitely. And actually, it's something that I've struggled with a little because we have the same music as HAMILTON but the lyrics are different. So when I was learning the show, my brain, you just hear - well, imagine listening to your favorite song and then you're asked to sing completely new lyrics to it. So my brain would just switch to HAMILTON. And there were moments in rehearsal when they'd be like "stop, you're doing HAMILTON" and then we have to go back and I had to do the correct lyrics because they're close enough and the rhythms are the same for the most part. So knowing HAMILTON helped, but it also hurt a little. Actually, when I'm doing SPAMILTON I don't allow myself to listen to HAMILTON at all, because it really messes up my brain.
So tell me about the staging and the set.
It's pretty simple. We have a brick wall and a giant SPAMILTON poster. And that is pretty much our entire set. But we have many, many props backstage, There are so many props, because we're spoofing so many different things. So we need many props and costumes. There's a lot of stuff that happens.
SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY will play a limited three-week engagement in the Peace Center's Gunter Theatre, Dec. 17, 2019 - Jan. 5, 2020. A performance schedule is available at peacecenter.org.
Tickets are $57 and may be purchased by calling 864.467.3000 or 800.888.7768, in person at the Peace Center Box Office or online at peacecenter.org. Service fees will apply to phone and online sales.
For more information about the Peace Center and its upcoming events, visit peacecenter.org.
Photo © Matt Polk