Twenty years ago, the idea of portraying a short, white president in a major Broadway musical would never have occurred to Desmond Sean Wellington. But that was also before “Hamilton.”
In fact, soon after graduating from high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Wellington, who plays James Madison and Hercules Mulligan in the national touring production of “Hamilton,” opening Tuesday at Proctors, was just only beginning to explore the musical options in front of him.
“I had an engineering scholarship to the University of Arkansas, but after two years I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” said Wellington last week.
“I told my mom I didn’t want to finish school and I have to give her credit. She told me, ‘I don’t know what you want to do with your life, but you better take the opportunity to figure out what that is.’ She really gave me the push and the motivation to go in another direction.”
While Wellington had been singing in his church choir for much of his childhood, he wasn’t planning on music being his life’s profession.
“I was an excellent student, and my mom and my dad, he was military, wouldn’t have had it any other way,” said Wellington. “I had sung in the church choir, but acting just wasn’t a part of my experience. I saw a little of Broadway on TV, but I never imagined myself doing musical theater.”
Wellington did leave Little Rock and headed to Atlanta where he began working as a background singer for a variety of musical groups.
“That was a lot of fun and did some traveling, touring with a bunch of artists,” said Wellington. “It was something to do in my 20s, but I was still thinking, ‘well, that was a nice experience.’ I still didn’t think of doing it as a career.”
Then about 10 years ago, Wellington saw “Chicago.”
“It wasn’t until I was 30 when I saw my first Broadway show,” he said. “I saw ‘Chicago,’ and thought, ‘Oh my God, I would love to do that.’ A couple of my friends told me I should go audition. I was like, ‘yeah, OK, I can sing and dance and do all that stuff.’ ”
Wellington soon began doing regional theater, and then in 2017 saw a touring company of “Hamilton” in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t know how long it would take or where it would happen, but I told myself I was going to be in that show,” said Wellington. “I had done enough to just get my Equity card and then I saw ‘Hamilton.’ I realized that was the type of show I wanted to be in.”
He saw “Hamilton” in August of 2017 and less than three months later was cast in the national tour.
“Seeing Hamilton as a black man, and all these lead roles being played by black actors was just incredible,” said Wellington. “People who looked like me weren’t only in the ensemble or in the supporting roles. It changed my life. I auditioned, I joined the company as an understudy, and they just swept me away. I’ve been on the road ever since, and I’m coming up on my fifth anniversary with the show.”
Wellington was originally brought on board to serve as a standby, ready to jump into a number of roles at a moment’s notice, but then graduated into his current status playing Herculus in Act 1 and Madison in Act 2.
“In high school I really wouldn’t have cared to know anything about this dude,” said Wellington, laughing. “He was short, a politician and a statesman. I knew a little something about him. I knew he was president, but I really let the script get me into the character.”
“Hamilton” was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and first performed on Broadway in August of 2015. It earned a record 16 Tony Award nominations and won 11, including Best Musical. Miranda, who based his story on the 2004 Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, played the title role. Along with Hamilton and Madison, other historical figures who are portrayed in the musical include Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, while the female characters include Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler Church and Peggy Schuyler.
“To be a part of something like this, a fascinating story of our history told by an all-black cast is just amazing,” said Wellington. “And people are still fascinated by the story. They continue to come to the theater, three or four times, to see it again. It really is a dream come true to be involved in something like this show.”
Wellington also played Madison and Hercules in the touring production that came to Proctors last year. However, at some point in the next few months, he expects to wind up his five-year gig with “Hamilton” and look for something else to do.
“I am actually going to move to New York,” he said. “I never actually moved to the city because I was always on the road. All my mail still goes to my mom’s house. I have a car because if you grow up in the South we have cars. So I’m looking for an apartment across the river in New Jersey. I think that’s a little more car-friendly.”
Wellington isn’t exactly sure what they future holds, but he knows he’s in the right business.
“I’ve had a lot of on-the-job training the past five years,” he said. “My singing brought me to the table, but now I am an actor. That’s what I do. I’m living out this dream that I never even knew I had. I’m helping bring this history to art, bringing it to life. I feel very lucky.”
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Opens Tuesday, March 14, and runs through March 26; performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $229-$49
MORE INFO: Visit www.proctors.org or call (518) 346-6204