Attorneys Serving The Community’s 31st Annual Luncheon Scored A Summer Hit With Junior Players And “Hamilton”‘s Christopher Jackson

Inside the Hilton Anatole’s Carpenter Ballroom, organizers and VIP guests were starting to arrive before 11 a.m. on Friday, June 23. Even the most “been-there, done-that” boldfacer had a look of anticipation. In an adjacent room, fewer than a handful of chairs were set up for an interview with the keynote speaker for the Attorneys Serving the Community’s 31st Annual Luncheon benefiting Junior Players.

KERA reporter Hady Mawajdeh had all his equipment set up as Tony Award-nominated and Grammy Award-winning Christopher Jackson arrived. It was obvious from his height and demeanor why he had scored a Tony nomination for his portrayal of George Washington in “Hamilton.” As Chris settled back in the chair, he proved even more so with his articulate responses to Hady’s questions. Highlights included:

Christopher Jackson and Hady Mawajdeh

  • Junior Players — “They (children) have the distinct perspective of seeing the world as it should be perhaps and as is. Who better to hold up that mirror than the children, especially organizations like the Junior Players, where you’ve got kids from all over the economic spectrum and who are learning what it means to communicate with and express themselves? It’s an organization that can provide a palette for that. There is no higher pursuit in our society than giving kids the opportunity to experience something like that.”
  • The first role —“I grew up with middle-child syndrome. So, acting was pretty much my only way to garner any kind of attention in the house… I participated in every Sunday service every week. So getting up in front of people was never really something I had a hard time with. Pretty much I was the ham. [Laughter]”
  • Career — “A career in the arts is not for everyone. But I would say that 90% of what I get to do is to have fun with my friends. Who doesn’t want to do that for a living? But the same could be said about someone who works in social sciences or teachers or engineers or astronomers. Once you find that passion and a way to it, that’s it right there… For me, it’s as much the pursuit of what I don’t know as it is seeing the finished product on the show or in the song.”
  • Hip Hop — “Hip Hop rap is probably the best form of modern-day storytelling and maybe the latest great, pure American art form… But it depends on what part of the country you come from. Hip hop is very regionalized and that happened very, very quickly toward the end of the ’90s, where every market, every group wanted to have their own sound and created their own sound. The same could be said for rock; the same could be said for gospel music. It’s a testament to how big our country is. And it’s a testament to the different kinds of cultures within our society and there’s room for all of that.”
  • Hamilton — “You’d be amazed how many people have come up to me said, ‘I’m a little nervous about the rap.’ But it’s much like Shakespeare. If you’ve ever seen a Shakespeare play, the first five minutes you have no idea of what’s going on. You don’t know what anybody is saying. You’re not accustomed to people speaking in iambic pentameter. And yet in that first five minutes your ear gets attuned to it and off you go.”
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda — “Lin has been regarded as a modern-day Shakespeare in the way he uses verse to communicate the story and I honestly believe that it certainly descends from that.”
  • Sesame Street — “The idea of writing for ‘Sesame Street’ was a dream come true.”

Peter Altabef, Kara Altenbaumer-Price, Christopher Jackson, Jennifer Altabef, Rosaura Cruz Webb and Beth Bedell

Christopher Jackson and Kathleen LaValle

Michael Holmes, Sophia Holmes and Cathleen Holmes

With that the interview ended at 11:10 a.m., as one of the organizers said, “He’s got a long line out there.” They were speaking of the people lined up along the Carpenter Ballroom wall for the meet-and-greet. Without hesitation, Chris posed for a photo with Hady and headed straight to the sponsor backdrop. Chris accommodated one and all including Co-Chairs Beth Bedell and Kara Altenbaumer-Price, Honorary Co-Chairs Jennifer and Peter Altabef, Junior Players Executive Director Rosaura Cruz Webb, and Kathleen LaValle with autographs, cellphone snaps and chats. Ten-year-old Sophia Holmes’ twin sister, Addison Holmes, couldn’t attend, but Sophia had brought along a “Hamilton” book for Chris to sign. After seeing, “Hamilton” in NYC, Sophia fessed up that Chris’ George Washington was her favorite character.

At 11:30 the doors to the Grand Ballroom opened for nearly 1,000 guests including Ellen Magnis, Joanna Clark, Angie Kadesky. Shelly Slater arrived to be prepped for the onstage chat. Had she met him? No, but she had seen him on YouTube.

The Junior Players arrived and approached the production platform rapping, “Hamilton.”

Jeremy Coca in vest surrounded by Junior Players

, who had been in the first Junior Players musical production three years before when he was attending Booker T. Washington, reported that he had seen Chris in “The Heights.”

Rosaura Cruz-Webb told how the night before, when they were setting up for the luncheon, Chris had come down from his room and chatted and charmed them all.

As the guests started to take their seats, Junior Players one at a time popped up throughout the room performing. Seamlessly, they grabbed everyone’s attention that the program was underway. Chris watched with a smile of admiration at the young performers pulling off a perfect launch for the day’s affair.

At 12:06 Shelly welcomed the group and introduced Kara, who was joined by Beth in presenting the ASC Friend of the Community Award to the Hilton Anatole Senior Catering Sales Manager Catherine New, who has orchestrated many of the area’s major fundraisers.

Beth Bedell, Catherine New and Kara Altenbaumer-Price

Following Rosaura’s telling how Junior Players had turned around her life as a young person, a video was shown with the audio ramped up and the house lights so dim that one guest had to use her cellphone flashlight to find her way out of the ballroom.

Lisette Sandoval

As the video ended, a young woman who had been seated at the far end of the head table took her place at the podium. Her name was Lisette Sandoval and she told how it hadn’t been that long ago that she had felt her destiny was to get pregnant by 15 and drop out of school. Instead her brother directed her to Junior Players, where her life took a different road. Lisette admitted that at one point suicide had been an option. What dashed that thought was news that she had been picked for the cast of “Taming of the Shrew.” She is now going to college on a scholarship.

Lisette was followed by Honorary Co-Chair Peter Altabef and a video of Renee Elise Goldsberry, who had originally been slated to be the keynote speaker. When she had to pull out due to scheduling, Renee arranged for Chris to sub in.

Chris started off by admitting, “Good afternoon, my name is Christopher Jackson and I am not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV. I don’t know any lawyer jokes. None of that would surprise or astound you…. I am an artist. A profession that is historically a few rungs lower than a garbage collector, but if all the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players, I beg your patience and indulgence today. I want to sincerely thank ASC for having me here today. Thank you very much. The fact that I have been sweating since I sat down here might be an indication that I am more than a little intimidated being in a room full of people who are clearly smarter than I am.”

Using his own journey from his childhood in Cairo, Illinois, he told of the turning point in his childhood when a teacher handed him a text from “The Crucible,” and invited him to join the speech team. “I don’t what it was that made me said yes, except that perhaps I was so desperate to distinguish myself in some way or the other. I quickly realized that this acting thing was different. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t concerned with what didn’t work. I wasn’t consumed with what I didn’t have. I began to see the world from a character’s perspective and that helped me to develop my own perspective. It was terrifying and exhilarating and it changed my life forever.”

At the age of 17, he moved to New York City to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. In 1997, he was hired to be the understudy for Simba in “The Lion King,” just an hour before the first rehearsal.   

He claimed that if it hadn’t been for that “key”—when he received “The Crucible”—he’d probably be selling caskets in Cairo. Chris was serious. “True story. My family owns a funeral home.”

Chris then praised and encouraged support for the Junior Players for their 55 years of providing a key for thousands and thousands of children “to emerge from utter darkness and seeing an entire galaxy.”

Christopher Jackson

Leaving the podium, he was joined in chairs on stage with Shelly to discuss

  • Getting the role of George Washington — “Lin allowed his imagination to run wild and he saw these characters (in “Hamilton”) in a different way. Lin is one of my best friends in the whole world. I knew very early on that he was on to something because I thought he was crazy. The story is that we were doing a performance of ‘In the Heights,’ and during one of the numbers… he had just come back from vacation and he kinda looked over at me and said, ‘Got the next thing.’ Okay, great! I said, ‘What is it?’ (He said,) ‘It’s about the treasury secretary.’ A few days later, our director Tommy Kail approached me and said, G-dubs!’ I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘George Washington… GW’ I thought, ‘Oh, great! We have shorthand. What does that mean?’ He said I was going to be George Washington. I said, ‘Great! I don’t know anything about George Washington. ‘
  • “Hamilton”’s first preview — “’Hamilton literally began at the White House. Lin was asked to perform a song about the American experience at the Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word. This was in 2009 and he didn’t want to do something from ‘In the Heights.” He was just getting an idea of what ‘Hamilton’ was going to be, so he wrote what would become our opening number and he performed it. Everybody including President Obama looked at him like, ‘What is wrong with him?’”
  • Bro-hug with the President — It was years later when the cast of “Hamilton” was invited to perform at the White House that following the performance, President Obama gave Christopher a “bro hug.” As Christopher recalled, “Moments like that aren’t supposed to happen to a young boy from Cairo. My grandmother, who marched and was a union organizer and civil rights organizer and a black entrepreneur when it was definitely hard to be that in the South, raised me to understand that nothing was impossible… Always be aware of limitations so you can know how to get past them. She raised me to that moment, but she didn’t dream that moment for me.”
  • As a parent — “I’m really at the point where I’m trying to get my kids to pick their shoes up. I’m trying to get them to handle some light chores. I mean, I don’t want them to live like ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ but they can take the trash once in a while and wash their hair. My kids are Neanderthals. I can’t show them how to feel…but I can show them about justice. And I can teach them about inequality and equality. And I can teach them about respect — all the things that I was given and we were all given when it comes to just wake up in the morning, put your shoes, look people in the eye, be honest, look out for someone who has less than you, take up for the kid who is being bullied, stand up for the weaker one of us. It is all of those principles that I was given and try to live by….”

While summer heat may shoo locals to cooler places, the ASC’s 31st Annual luncheon made staying in North Texas seem like the coolest place in the world, thanks to Chris and the Junior Players.

“Hamilton” Lyricist/Composer/Star Lin-Manuel Miranda Shared His Interest In Alexander Hamilton At The Nasher Salon Back In 2012

Back in March 2012 the Nasher Sculpture Center was still hosting its Nasher Salon. On this occasion they had a fellow from New York in. The crowd wasn’t as big as those for Kevin Bacon and Kristen Chenoweth, but those in attendance walked out with stars in their eyes knowing that they had seen something remarkable.

Luis Miranda and Lin-Manuel Miranda (File photo)

Luis Miranda and Lin-Manuel Miranda (File photo)

The speaker was a young fellow who had been accompanied to Dallas by his father, Luis Miranda. While he wasn’t a Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence OMG-stop-me-in-my tracks type, there was something about him even from a distance that sparkled with “extra special.”

The chap was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had just collected a Tony for his “In the Heights” production.

During his chat with SHN CEO Greg Holland, Lin mentioned that Alexander Hamilton had caught his eye. Seemed a bit strange for a hip-hopper like Lin to link with an American revolutionist Hamilton. He explained then that “after picking out the biggest, fattest biography he could find at Borders (remember Borders?), he’s working on The Hamilton Mixtape, a hip-hop album based on Hamilton’s life. According to Lin, Hamilton lived the American Dream before there was an America. Same fights they had then, we’re still having: size of government, etc., on Fox and MSNBC. Fights were bitter and personal. Sex/drugs/murder — hip hop.”

Fast forward: Today’s the hardest ticket to buy on Broadway is “Hamilton.” Yup, you guessed it. Lin not only wrote the lyrics, but he also composed the music and is currently starring in the musical.

BTW, you’ve got to see how Lin and Hamilton chorus celebrated the 40th anniversary of “A Chorus Line.”

If you can’t make it to NYC or wait until ticket availability in the fall of 2016, then enjoy Lin celebrating his marriage to Vanessa Nadal back in 2010. It’s simply joyous! BTW, the twosome added a son, Sebastian, to their productions in 2014.

MySweetMonday Music: November 3, 2014

The celebration of a marriage is the perfect way to kick off this week. So thank Lin-Manuel Miranda and his bride Vanessa for this one!

To life!

Nasher Salon’s Tony Award-Winner Lin-Manuel Miranda Hip Hopped Into Dallas With Charm And Supernova Energy

There are events that aren’t exactly top 10 on your wish list of things-to-do. And yet you just know that the group putting on the activity has always come through with mustn’t-miss-opportunities.

LIn-Manuel Miranda

Last Monday night was one of those occasion. That’s usually the dark night for MySweetCharity but the Nasher Sculpture Center was having Lin-Manuel Miranda in for its Nasher Salon. A guy named Lin-Manuel? Monday night? Hip-hopper? Oh, well.

Oh, well, indeed! Forget George Clooney. Vitamin B shots. Like a super nova, Lin energized every room he entered. Instead of handlers or restrictions, he had his dad with him and one of the best, most refreshing attitudes seen in these parts since Big Tex said “Howdy!”

Just in case Lin isn’t a familiar name in your world, he’s the Tony-winning wunderkind of Broadway for his “In the Heights” that opens at the Winspear Tuesday night. The Puerto Rican-American composer, rapper, lyricist and actor not only wrote the musical, he starred in it. He’s also appeared in “House” and worked with Stephen Sondheim on the revival of “West Side Story,” just to name an iota of his have-done-list. Oh, and in his spare time, he married Vanessa Nadal, who starred in the original “In the Heights” and created an incredibly popular video, “Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise.” (Editor’s note: Stop reading and check out the video. You’ll see why this young man is a treasure and you’ll have a better day.)

From Booker T. Washington students in the audience to Nancy Nasher, all were caught up in the Lin-tude.

Nancy Nasher and Luis Miranda

Speaking of Nancy, she reported that her daughter, who was a terrific Lin fan, couldn’t make it, so she was doing double duty. Joining her on the front row was Lin’s dad Luis Miranda, who beamed with pride about his son.

Greg Holland

But before the talk began with SHN CEO Greg Holland, the VIPs’ meet-and-greet took place with Nasher director Jeremy Strick telling folks how impressed he was with the “Youth and Beauty” exhibition at the neighboring Dallas Museum of Art the week before.

After Lin chatted and was photographed with one and all, it was time to go downstairs for the talk that opened with a video on “In the Heights” and Lin’s involvement.

Salon audience

While the room was not as jammed as those for Kevin Bacon and Kristin Chenoweth, the energy level and admiration was overwhelming.

Lin immediately won hearts when he goaded the Booker T. Washington students in the audience to shout out anytime BTW was mentioned. They complied enthusiastically.

Greg had done his homework, asking insightful questions about Lin’s life, both professionally and personally.

Highlights of the interview included:

  • “The feeling of home and where do you belong” is at the heart of In the Heights, the Tony-winning Best Musical which will play at the AT&T PAC March 13-25.
  • Lin talked about his “abuela” – older matriarch or babysitter type – who was a compulsive gambler. For her, he pulled the arms of slot machines three hours a day. He was the guy who did the Thriller moves (dancing) at parties.
  • Learned a lot about rapping from a school-bus driver.
  • Went to a great school. His sixth-grade play was a biggie for him—he played Conrad Birdie, a munchkin, Captain Hook, the son in Fiddler, was 12 years old, three feet tall. When the girls had to act like they liked him as Conrad B., he said, “I’m clearly doing this for the rest of my life!”
  • His group of “free-styler” pals (they rapped/sang, make up words on the spot) kept him creatively charged during the eight years it took to get Heights together.
  • Earlier, at age 4, he had used a Fisher-Price kiddy “tape recorder” to perform his own song: The Garbage Pail Kids are in Town.
  • He wrote two plays before he graduated from high school.
  • At 19 years old he wrote Heights in three weeks, on a feverish winter-break span. Then hard work and luck intervened. John Mailer, Norman’s son, became involved in producing it. There were at least five versions, and a number of songs were cut, before it got produced.
  • At first it was “characters in search of a story.” Then it came into focus, very organically. The Hispanics in it include Cubans (the oldest), then the Puerto Ricans, then the ones from the Dominican Republic. Without this diversity, “It would be like GCB starring Hasidic Jews; not an accurate reflection of my world!”
  • He’d spent very lonely summers in Puerto Rico. After the musical came out, he was famous in about a two-block area of New York City and on the A train, but, “then I go to Puerto Rico and I’m Usher!”
  • Giving advice, he said, “Do what you can, so you can do what you love.”
  • His dad ran a newspaper, so he reviewed restaurants, etc. Then his dad was a political consultant (Al Sharpton, Elliott Spitzer, etc.), so he helped make radio spots. His TV work (House, Modern Family, etc.) will always be the gravy.
  • House producer told him, “As soon as I knew we were sending House to an insane asylum in Season 6, I thought of you!”
  • He thinks of himself as a writer, mainly. For Bring It On: The Musical, the cheerleader musical, he brought in elements of All About Eve, one of his favorite movies. Performances in Des Moines and Dallas taught them a lot about shaping/editing the show.
  • He got involved with Alexander Hamilton after picking out the biggest, fattest biography he could find at Borders. He’s working on The Hamilton Mixtape, a hip-hop album based on Hamilton’s life. According to Lin, Hamilton lived the American Dream before there was an America. Same fights they had then, we’re still having: size of government, etc., on Fox and MSNBC. Fights were bitter and personal. Sex/drugs/murder—hip-hop.
  • For the Sopranos TV show, he said two words: “I dunno.” Was first TV gig he ever got. His Tony Award speech on YouTube got a lot of hits.

He then took questions from the audience that were written down on cards —

  • Questions: Oddest place wrote lyrics? On a paper plate. On a piano-lounge bar on the Queen Mary at 3 a.m.
  • Told the BTW kids to “think of the audition as the job, and the job as the gravy.” Winning a part has so little to do with your actual talent, he said. It’s also a class—you can learn a lot from the audition.

After asking two or three questions, Greg said he had more but they had run out of time. Lin took the remaining cards with the questions, got one of the BTW students to provide the beat, and answered the questions in free-form, hip-hop style.

Yes, you’ve got to watch those events that you’re not that fired up about. They’ll tend to be the ones that you’re so grateful you attended.

By the way, don’t miss the opportunity to see “In the Heights” at the Winspear. As part of the Lexus Broadway Series, it runs through Sunday, March 25.