A string of pearl-like lights invites guests to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, a stone-walled throwback of a venue named for one half of the most successful duo in the history of the American stage. Rodgers and his longtime writing partner, Oscar Hammerstein, produced much of our contemporary canon, from “Oklahoma!” to “The King and I” to “The Sound of Music.” Tonight, one of the latest additions to that canon — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” — will take the stage.
And with half an hour until curtain, the line to get inside stretches from the building’s 46th Street facade all the way through an adjacent parking garage, with the very last of it spilling onto 45th. A young woman turns the corner into the garage and, upon seeing that the line wraps around the building, shrieks and smiles. Tonight, even this would-be annoyance looks beautiful.
Somewhere inside, Thayne Jasperson squeezes into a pair of knee-high leather boots right about now. With veins bulging from his arms and a face that looks far younger than his 41 years (riding a bicycle 100 blocks to and from the theater every day can have that effect), he’s been here since the beginning, since the show’s first workshop in January 2014, since its Broadway debut a year later, and throughout its rapid evolution into a stage-transcending cultural phenomenon. His main role is Samuel Seabury, a British loyalist who picks a (brief) fight with Alexander Hamilton, but Jasperson maintains a constant presence as part of the show’s ensemble. He sings, he dances and he acts — all skills born of his childhood in the West.
Originally from Provo, he moved to Wyoming at six months old and, by the time he was eight or nine, had taken up piano, musicals and even clog dancing. “All of my friends made fun of me, saying it was for girls,” he says with a sting you can still feel all these years later. He quit for a while, aside from mandated school musical performances and the occasional song at church. But he came back to theater full time around his 21st birthday.
He found work in a Jackson Hole Playhouse production of “Oklahoma!” then as a member of Salt Lake-based Odyssey Dance Theatre. He appeared in the 2006 Disney Channel movie “High School Musical,” competed in 2008’s season of “So You Think You Can Dance” and made his Broadway debut in 2012’s “Newsies” before impressing the casting directors of “Hamilton” with renditions of “Dear Theodosia” and “Washington on Your Side.” The role he earned was small, but he clung to it. Even before the pandemic shuttered Broadway, he was already the only original cast member left.
The same forces that called him back to perform now call to the audience, with holiday travel offering many outside the New York metro area their first chance to revisit Broadway theater since late 2019. The pandemic ensures that attendance will still feel different — but perhaps not different enough to matter.
Back outside, workers in lime-green jackets instruct the people in line to have their IDs and vaccine cards ready. Both are prerequisites for entry, a reminder that the 15-month shutdown is still fresh.
“Hamilton” has only been open since September, “The Book of Mormon” since November and many other Broadway staples, like “Dear Evan Hansen,” remain closed. The ones that have reopened remain precarious; within a week, Disney’s “Aladdin” reopened, shut down, opened again and shut down again after discovering breakthrough COVID-19 cases among the cast.
The next curtain, Jasperson knows, isn’t guaranteed — despite him and the rest of the cast undergoing testing three times per week and wearing masks whenever they’re not onstage. New York itself follows a similar model, with pretty much every restaurant requiring proof of vaccination to get through the door.
Jasperson is already onstage snapping and dancing with the rest of the cast when the lights dim and the spotlight finds Alexander Hamilton at center stage. “Alexander Hamilton,” he sings, introducing himself to viewers. The audience cheers.
The show pauses. The actors stand frozen, waiting for the enthusiasm to temper. They know to pause; they’d practiced the pause. Because since the show reopened, this has been happening every night.
“It kind of took me back to the days when Lin was in the show,” Jasperson says. “He would always just have outrageous applause.”
This wasn’t the norm before the closure. Back then, Jasperson says, people would clap for Hamilton’s introduction, but “just a normal amount.”
What had become routine became uprooted in mid-March. The first inkling of trouble was when the cast was told after an otherwise-ordinary performance not to take pictures or sign autographs after the show, which is normally standard.
The next day, as Jasperson was getting dressed, he and the rest of the cast got an email telling them the day’s show was canceled. “Oh great,” Jasperson thought. Maybe they would be back for the weekend.
A few days became a few weeks became a few months or, as Jasperson puts it, “this elon- gated thing. And you know,” he adds with a laugh, “I was kind of excited.”
Broadway performers don’t get many breaks, so after a month of downtime in New York — including a brief bout with COVID-19 — Jasperson headed West to Utah, where he spent almost all of the pandemic.
“I love Utah,” he says. “I seriously think it’s the greatest place in the world.” He used his newfound freedom to teach choreography and hone his piano playing, eventually putting on solo performances.
As the lone remaining original cast member, he feels the weight of preserving the show’s original integrity and purpose. His efforts felt worthwhile on opening night.
“The audience was wild,” he says. “They just wanted to stand and clap after every number.”
Three weeks later, my seat neighbor at the show, 60-year-old Sue Blumenfeld, projects the same enthusiasm.
She’s in town from Chicago for a real estate convention, and she couldn’t resist the allure of “Hamilton.” The last performance she saw live, she tells me, was a Mumford and Sons concert in March 2019, and as a lifelong theatergoer (37 years strong, she’s proud to say), she felt overdue.
When I ask her before the show whether it finally feels real, now that she’s sitting in the velvety chair surrounded by the chatter of a full house, she offers an enthusiastic “Yeah!” as though, like me, she’s realizing that this is finally happening.
To be sure, Broadway still isn’t its full self. Right around the corner, at the discount same- day ticket booth in the heart of Times Square, a teller acknowledges that while it’s picking up, it’s not what it once was.
“It’s slowly coming back along with the shows,” she says before a long exhale. “I’m just glad to be back at all.”
Blumenfeld concurs. After Jasperson has donned his regal robe for his brief moment as Samuel Seabury and the intermission has arrived, she offers an observation: “It’s just wonderful,” she says. “Or maybe it’s just live theater.”
Jasperson waits in the orchestra conductor’s pit ahead of Act II. In moments like this one, in the still blackness of a curtain about to go up, he can’t help but feel blessed to be here, making his 9-year-old self proud.
“I’m so grateful to be able to do what I love as a career,” he says, “because not many people get to do that.”
That love starts with the craft; the mastery and precision and rigor required to perform at this level, day after day after day. But it also involves connecting with the audience. It’s tempting to view the audience-performer relationship as one way, but Jasperson doesn’t see it that way. “You feel their energy. It’s a mutual connection,” he says. “You get to see them feel.”
This is what Jasperson loves most about his job. He’s lost track of how many performances of “Hamilton” he’s done, but it’s well over 2,000, and seeing people connect with the material never loses its power. As the stage goes dark, then lights up for the post-show bows, that’s always where his mind goes after the gratitude and the sigh of relief for a job well done — to the faces in the crowd.
“It makes me feel honored that I get to be able to do something that they love and they’re inspired by,” he says. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”
Case in point: At the show’s conclusion, Blumenfeld turns to me with an admission. She and her husband lost their son. Seeing Hamilton and his wife grieve their own son’s loss, therefore, dredged up painful memories. But that just made the experience that much more powerful. “Just unbelievable,” she says as she departs into the anonymity of a crowded Manhattan night. Jasperson still shares that same sort of awe.
But he also isn’t sure how long he’ll keep going. Questions about whether he should still be here have surfaced more and more lately. He prefers to phrase them in religious terms.
“Am I on the journey that God has for me?” he asks. “Sometimes I wonder — was it to come back to do ‘Hamilton’? Or was it to stay in Utah and choreograph and sing in concerts?”
His future mirrors Broadway’s own — uncertain and certain at once. He doesn’t know if he’ll still be around this time next year. With the pandemic still present, no one knows what Broadway will look like in a year. But Jasperson knows he’ll still be working in the arts, and everyone knows Broadway will still be around in some capacity. In this way, his Broadway story is America’s Broadway story. “The Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma!” and other classics have endured for a reason.
Just as he will endure.