History is happening

A starry salute to 20 years of NJPAC, with James Monroe Iglehart of Hamilton


Hamilton’s James Monroe Iglehart has a history with NJPAC.


While performing in the Arts Center’s Spotlight Gala back in 2015, he unleashed the staccato rapping skills that he would employ 18 months later for his dual role as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway juggernaut. Then, this past January, he returned in How the Heck Did I Get Here?, a solo evening of cabaret in the Arts Center’s Chase Room.


The Jersey-based baritone is turning up again to help celebrate NJPAC’s 20th anniversary season on Saturday, September 23, when the Women’s Association of NJPAC presents Spotlight Gala 2017. Titled [email protected], the performance portion of the benefit evening gathers many artist-friends of NJPAC on the Prudential Hall stage: Along with Iglehart, who will open with a song written for the occasion, appearances will be made by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera; American Songbook ambassador Michael Feinstein; singers India and Cécile McLorin Salvant; tap master Savion Glover; Xian Zhang and musicians of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and GRAMMY®-winning bassist Christian McBride with his Big Band. Don Katz, Founder and CEO of Audible, will be presented with the inaugural Founders Award.


What’s even better is you don’t have to be a Gala guest to buy a ticket to the 90-minute, 7pm performance.


“I think our real history is that we all have a strong connection to NJPAC. Every time I go there I feel at home,” says Iglehart of his Gala cast mates, adding, “And I know where everything is.”


With his gleaming pate, dimples and solid six-foot frame, Iglehart looks like a star quarterback blessed with the effortless athleticism of Astaire. “Something about the big guy dancing makes casting directors go freakin’ nuts,” he once confessed to Broadway.com.


Stopping the show isn’t a common occurrence in breathlessly-paced Broadway musicals, but Iglehart made a habit of it during his nearly three-year run as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. (He did pause long enough to pick up his best featured musical actor Tony Award in 2014, and tossed off a little get-jiggy-with-it happy dance before exiting the Radio City Music Hall stage.)


“Friend Like Me,” the eight-minute number that brought down the house eight times a week, was a natural progression from “Big Love,” a splashy solo from his first take-notice Broadway role, Bobby Dupree in 2009’s Memphis.


Aladdin is an ensemble piece, but for me, as the Genie, the only person I spoke to was Aladdin because no one else is supposed to know the character exists,” says Iglehart, who has a smile in his voice and likes to use the word “fun” frequently when describing his activities on and off stage. “So it was funny, it was like, ‘I’m in an ensemble but I talk to you the entire show, except for the last two scenes.’ Everybody else got to be in the ensemble except me.”


Iglehart gets to double his fun in Hamilton: An American Musical, which he joined in April. His characters are strong axles in a large, familial cast that’s accustomed to a rotation of actors who “fit in like an awesome puzzle piece.”


“With this show, if everybody doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do, it just doesn’t work. So everybody has to be on their game every night – and it’s really fun,” he observes.


The roles of Lafayette and Jefferson are sharp contrasts, Iglehart explains: “(Lafayette) is young, strong and impetuous, wanting to help out so much, and (Jefferson) is very laid-back, older, seasoned, and definitely on the conceited side.” To nail a French accent that wouldn’t overwhelm the clarity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap lyrics, he immersed himself in French cinema, YouTube videos and Looney Tunes episodes with Pepé Le Pew.


Iglehart’s mother was a longtime high school music teacher in California, so the arts were elemental to his education. Hamilton gave him the opportunity to revisit his years as a choirboy, a time steeped in the sounds of gospel, when he’s in Jefferson’s spotlight moment, “What’d I Miss.”


“That song can be spoke-sung or it can be really sung-sung, and I took the latter … so it’s got a little bit more of a soul and R&B feel to it than when my man Daveed played it,” says Iglehart, referring to his friend Daveed Diggs, who won a Tony for his portrayal.


He, Diggs and Miranda are members of Freestyle Love Supreme, an improvisational rap crew whose performance calendar has diminished as its stars’ careers ascended.


“When we first started, we were all struggling actors. We’re doing pretty well right now,” says Iglehart, who lives in a West New York high-rise and commutes by ferry. “So in order for us to get together to do a show, everybody’s schedules have to match up.


“Being in that group definitely helped me to be seen in the city and that was a cool thing. … People could see you on stage in Memphis and then see you in Freestyle Love Supreme and go, ‘Oh, wait, he does something totally different.’”


Tony- and Emmy-winning orchestrator Bill Sherman, another FLS alum, is music director for Iglehart’s cabaret evenings, which the singer hopes to resume with a new production “once I get settled.” In the meantime, the actor plans to spend more non-performance days motoring around New Jersey and basking in the open space – “there’s grass, there’s trees, it’s not a concrete jungle” – of one of the country’s most densely populated states.


“I still have the freedom to get on an eight-minute boat ride and go to New York City and then come back. I like the quiet of Jersey,” Iglehart remarks.


“I have a panoramic view of the New York skyline from my apartment and I can see my favorite building, the Empire State Building, so when it lights up at night, when I get home, I can look at it and just kind of relax, over the water.”


Tickets to [email protected] are $50 and may be purchased online at njpac.org, at the box office at One Center Street in downtown Newark, or by calling 1-888-GO-NJPAC (466-5722).

Sept. 5, 2017