Arts & Culture

From Nipomo to NYC: How Joanna Jones landed a big role in Broadway hit ‘Hamilton’

“Hamilton: An American Musical” cast member Joanna Jones poses for a picture in costume. She grew up in San Luis Obispo County.
“Hamilton: An American Musical” cast member Joanna Jones poses for a picture in costume. She grew up in San Luis Obispo County.

As the curtain fell on a 2015 performance of “Hamilton: An American Musical” on Broadway, Joanna Jones started weeping.

“Seeing a story about the founding fathers of America being told by people that look like me was really cool,” said Jones, who identifies as biracial.

“That’s the kind of material that I want to be working on,” she recalls thinking. “That’s the kind of show that makes me want to do musical theater.”

Two years later, Jones, 27, has gone from watching “Hamilton” to starring in the revolutionary musical about Alexander Hamilton. The Nipomo High School graduate, who made her acting debut on the Great White Way in September, said she’s still in shock.

“It’s a dream come true. I can hardly believe it myself at times,” she said with a chuckle.

Jones’ introduction to musical theater was a 1995 production of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

As she watched cast members sing and dance under the stars at Solvang Festival Theater, “Something came over me and exhilarated me,” recalled Jones, who grew up in Nipomo and Shell Beach. “It was just the energy onstage. I had never really seen that before.”

Jones developed a taste for community theater in junior high school and refined that passion as part of the Nipomo High drama program led by Robyn Metchik, who also taught “Baywatch” star Zac Efron.

It was a Nipomo High production of “Aida” that transformed the singer from a light lyric soprano to a Broadway-style belter. She remembers hiding in her closet and screaming until she struck on the right vocal technique.

“It was really exhilarating and life-changing, finding this whole new pocket of my voice,” Jones said, explaining that the discovery opened up new roles. “It was just so exciting.”

“Because I had so many opportunities to be involved in shows” at San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre — formerly San Luis Obispo Little Theatre — and PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria, Jones said, “I got a sense of a really good work ethic. ... I had to be really challenged and break out of my shell.”

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Joanna Jones, center, appears with The Backbeats on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” in 2010. The performer, who grew up in San Luis Obispo County, is starring in “Hamilton: An American Musical” on Broadway. Harper Smith NBC

After graduating from Nipomo High in 2008, Jones studied musical theater at UCLA. That’s where she experienced her first big brush with fame — performing with a capella group The Backbeats on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” in 2010.

Jones graduated from UCLA early in order to perform in a 2012 production of the Michael Jackson musical “Thriller Live” on London’s West End.” Back in the states, she cycled through a series of shows — appearing in “Hair” at the Hollywood Bowl and playing a bobby-soxer on NBC’s “Hairspray Live!”

Jones also spent three and half years working with Hollywood’s For the Record, singing in musical tribute “shows that allowed me to explore my own voice and be confident in my body,” she said. “That has given me the most preparation and confidence for Broadway.”

In fact, Jones nearly made it to Broadway with a musical about seniors who dream of becoming NBA dancers, but the New York run of “Half Time” had to be postponed.

“I was in a point in my career where I was like, ‘I’m not sure there is a place for me in musical theater,’ ” recalled Jones, who, as a woman of color, has faced even fiercer competition for roles in the industry. (Her mom, who’s white, is from England, and her dad is a black Spanish speaker from Panama; they live in Grover Beach.)

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Lexi Lawson, Alysha Deslorieux and Mandy Gonzalez appear in a scene from “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Joanna Jones, who grew up in San Luis Obispo County, recently joined the cast of the hit Broadway show, replacing Deslorieux in the dual role of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. Joan Marcus

Then came the opportunity to appear in “Hamilton,” which in 2016 took home a whopping 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, plus a Grammy Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Jones has known Leslie Odom Jr., who won a Tony for his role as Aaron Burr in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton,” since college.

“The show is so beautifully and wonderfully done that it’s chilling,” she said.

Given her passion for “Hamilton,” it’s easy to understand Jones’ reaction to learning she would be joining the musical’s Broadway cast after a months-long audition process. (“Hamilton” is also playing in Chicago and Los Angeles, opening in London in early December.)

When Jones got the offer Aug. 6, “I was in the kitchen making coffee,” she recalled. “I had to put the coffee down because my hand started shaking. I was really in shock (as) a wave of realization of what was happening came over me.” Nearly two months later, on Sept. 23, she made her Broadway debut.

Jones plays two roles in “Hamilton”: Peggy Schuyler, the rule-abiding younger sister of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, and Maria Reynolds, the married woman whose affair with Hamilton helped lead to his political downfall.

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Javier Muñoz appears in a scene from “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Joanna Jones, who grew up in San Luis Obispo County, recently joined the cast of the hit Broadway show. Joan Marcus

“I have to make a total 180 between Act One and Act Two,” Jones said. While Peggy is “an upper-class, innocent young girl” who’s “so fun and easy to love,” she explained, “Maria Reynolds is basically the complete opposite — an uneducated, manipulative vixen woman. She’s a homewrecker.”

Stepping on stage at New York City’s Richard Rodgers Theatre for the first time “felt so right,” Jones said. “It also felt like I had made it into this super cool, super secret club. I wasn’t even nervous. I was just happy.”

When she’s not singing sultry R&B in an 18th-century gown in “Hamilton,” Jones is pouring energy into her career as a recording artist. In addition to collaborating with dance/electronic artist Unlike Plutotheir cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” has more than 7.5 million views on YouTube— she’s working on an EP she plans to release later this year.

Jones isn’t sure what the future holds for her after “Hamilton.” She’d like to eventually move back to the West Coast — “I’m a Cali girl at heart,” she said — but she’s thrilled right now to be on Broadway.

“I’m surrounded by such greatness,” she said, “and being able to be onstage watching the action unfold is so rewarding. It really is.”

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