James Monroe Iglehart on Hamilton, Karaoke, and His Favorite Books
James Monroe Iglehart is Mental Floss’s kind of person: He loves books, collects toys, enjoys classic cartoons, and is a fan of all things feline. The actor says his two cats, Hissy and Zoe, are queens of the apartment he shares with his wife Dawn. Zoe, for example, won’t drink tap water, because when she was young, Iglehart gave her cold bottled water every day. “Fast forward 14 years,” he says, “and this is how the cat owns us: I have to put water [from the Brita pitcher] into the bottle, put the cap on. Walk in front of the damn cat, open up the bottle of water so she can see it. And then she’ll be like ‘Oh, now I can drink it.’ Boss of the house. Total queen.” You can tell by the way he's laughing that he's totally fine with that fact.
Of course, cats weren’t all we talked about with Iglehart. After three years playing the Genie in Broadway's Aladdin, he took over the dual roles of Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton last month. Iglehart spoke to Mental Floss about researching the men behind the characters, his dream Broadway roles, and how karaoke changed his life.
How did you get involved in Hamilton?
I have known [creator] Lin-Manuel Miranda, [director] Tommy Kail, [music director] Alex Lacamoire, and [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuehler for many years. I’m part of a group called Freestyle Love Supreme with Lin, Chris Jackson [the original George Washington], and Daveed Diggs [the original Lafayette/Jefferson], and Tommy is the director.
When Lin and those guys were in In the Heights, I went over to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and said, “What you working on?” Lin said, “A mixtape about the life of Alexander Hamilton.” I was like, “Oh, cool … Why would you do that?” and he broke it down, like, he’s got all these beats for all these forefathers, and it would be really cool to make them like rap battles, like Biggie and Pac. And I was like, “Actually that sounds pretty cool. I’m always ready to get myself into something. If you need a brother let me know.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”
A couple of years later we do this concert at Lincoln Center and I get a call, and he says, “I wrote this part Hercules Mulligan to be like Busta, and I want you to do it.” Half of the concert was showing Lin’s love of hip-hop and the other half was showing this new project, The Hamilton Mixtape. That same night [director and choreographer] Casey Nicholaw was in the audience and said, “Hey, we’re starting Aladdin again.” And I went off to do Aladdin because that was the job, and I had this dream, and I wanted to do it.
I watched Hamilton blow up to this juggernaut thing, and three years in they called and said, “Hey, you’ve been with Aladdin for a while. What do you think about stepping back into the Hamilton family?” and I was like, “That sounds like fun.”
I auditioned with “Guns and Ships,” “Washington On Your Side,” “Dear Theodosia,” and “Alexander Hamilton.” They gave me a stack of music to learn in a week, and I quickly learned it and walked in and did it. And that’s how it happened.
How did you prep for the role? Did you look into the lives of Jefferson and Lafayette at all?
I did a little bit of research. I Googled the Marquis de Lafayette, because he’s the one I really didn’t know about. He was 19, and he asked the French to send him to America. He was badass in France. For him to come over here and to have people go, “Yeah, whatever.” Franklin went, “No, this dude is someone you should look at.” And when he saw Franklin’s name on it, Washington was like, “You’re with me.”
I also did some studying on Thomas Jefferson. What I think is great about Thomas Jefferson is the fact that he just didn’t want to be involved in anything. He’s like, “If I can just stay here on my farm and kick it I will. Wait, you need me to come in? OK, fine.” You just assume that every one of our forefathers wanted to get this country going. Some of them were just like, “Come on, England ain’t bad. Do we really have to fight?”
It’s funny. Thomas Jefferson is known for this one written thing, and of course the Louisiana Purchase. But when it comes to writing, being prolific, Hamilton’s got him beat.
It’s literally like—this is going to get me killed—there’s a Michael Jackson album and then there’s that vault that Prince has. So Michael has Thriller, yes, wonderful. But Prince is like, “Yeah, but I got 15,000 albums in here, and you’ve only heard 100 of them. And each one of my albums may not be a number one hit, but each one is a damn classic. My musicianship has influenced rockers, not just R&B people.”
It’s very similar to Thomas Jefferson. Tom comes in with this attitude of like, “Yo, I wrote this paper. I’m the baddest man in the world,” and Hamilton is like, “Man, I’ve built a financial empire. Don’t start with me.”
It was fun studying these guys, and seeing the realness of it, and trying to bring a little bit of that swagger in a short amount of time. Because you could make a musical about Burr, about Lafayette, about Jefferson. But how do you bring that kind of swagger into this, especially after Daveed has created such a great moment—what do you do? So I said, OK, let me bring a little bit of my swagger with what I know, and see what happens. And so far, so good.
What has been like the hardest part of it to master? The French accent?
The French accent is not the hardest, it’s not the speed of the lyrics, it’s not the show—it is the stairs. There are stairs going up, and then there are stairs going down. And there’s stairs going down onstage, stairs going off. What you don’t see are the two sets of stairs behind. So my first act as Marquis de Lafayette, I walk up the steps, I walk down the back steps, I dip the jacket, walk back on, walk up the steps again, walk down the steps. There’s one song I walk up the steps four times. Between “Helpless” and “Satisfied” I walk up the steps six times, because we have to rewind. My calves were like, “What are you doing?”
I mean, I did a cartwheel eight times a week and tap danced in Aladdin. But on this show, I cussed—I was like, “What’s up with this Stairmaster show you guys built?” I said, “I understand why everybody looks the way they do in this show. It ain’t got nothing to do with the dancing, it’s the damn steps.”
Who do you like playing better?
I love the Marquis de Lafayette, but I love Thomas Jefferson. What’s funny is, it’s a history story so there aren’t any heroes and there aren’t any villains. But when you’re building a musical, you have to have a hero. Hamilton is the hero. And if he has an arch-nemesis, in my opinion it isn’t Burr—it’s Thomas Jefferson. Because Burr is kind of an afterthought to both Thomas Jefferson and to Hamilton, and that’s what pisses Burr off.
I get to play all the good guys all the time. It's fun to play a guy who’s, quote unquote, “the villain of the story.” I get to just come at Hamilton and needle him the whole second act, and it’s just so wonderful. I’ve gotten to do it with all the different Hamiltons, and I find different ways to get on their nerves. And I know I’m going to lose, and because I know I’m going to lose it’s that much more fun to just do sh** to them.
To get to do a song like “What’d I Miss?” every night—it’s a fantastic introduction. You don’t see Jefferson the whole first act. And the beginning of the second act is all about him. I’m the only one in this bright-ass color, I get to walk down the steps. And because they know I move well they gave my Jefferson a few dance steps that Daveed didn’t do. So I’m sliding, and turning, and doing a bunch of other stuff, which pisses Hamilton off even more. So when the guys playing Hamilton see me doing all this stuff, they’re all like, “Oh, now we have to attack.” And so I’m enjoying Thomas that much more.
Do you have a favorite song? For me, it’s “Wait for It.”
I love “Wait for It,” but my tune was—it wasn’t the whole tune. There’s one moment in “Washington on Your Side” that I could play on repeat over and over again. It’s where they say, “We won’t be invisible / We won’t be denied / Still…” That still, I could play that over and over and over again. I love singing that, because you’re in harmony, harmony, harmony, harmony … and all of a sudden, one note.
It is just—it’s terrible to use this cliché, but it’s just music to my ears. It feels so damned good in your earphones to hear, “... Still …” When I sat through the first time at the opening, I was like, “Lin, I hate you so much for that moment, it’s so cool.” Because there was no reason for them to do that. It was awesome.
Now we’ve come to the portion of the interview where I ask questions that have nothing to do with anything you’re promoting—they’re just fun. First: I hear you have quite the toy collection. Which toy is your favorite?
My favorite is going to be one that most people don’t think is going to be my favorite, because I’m a huge Batman fan. But my favorite toys are Tomax and Xamot, the brothers in GI Joe. And they are my favorite because—and this will be the last time I tell the story—when I was a kid I had them. We were on our way to Florida, and my father told me to share them with my little brother, and I said, “Dad, if I give him this he’s going to lose it.”
And sometimes parents just don’t want to argue. He said, “Stop being stingy, just play with your brother.” So I let him hold one of the action figures. We’re young kids on a plane, so of course we fell asleep. We get off the plane—my brother’s asleep—get in a cab, and go to the hotel, and I ask my brother, “Yo, where’s the other twin?” “I don’t know.” He’s got an attitude. I look at my dad: “Hey, where’s the twin?” “Son, I don’t know, your brother has it.” I search through my brother’s bag, and this fool has left the damn thing on the plane!
I’m 11 years old, and I look at my dad. I know you can’t look at a parent and go, “Hey, I told you so.” So it was either: Do I get smacked in the face for telling my father he was wrong, or do I just hold this grudge for 20 years? Guess which one I did. [laughs]
I told this story at every single cookout for 20 years. And my best friend finally found a reprint of the damn twins, and he told me, “Here’s the twins. Don’t ever tell that story again.” I put them up in my house, they are my favorite toy, and to this day my brother, who is almost 40, is not allowed to touch them.
Is there one toy that you want that you don’t have that you’re on the hunt for?
I collect African American action figures, so whenever I see one I’m always trying to collect one. I’m currently looking for a certain Static Shock from DC. And I like to collect African American professional wrestlers, when new ones come out, so I’ve got many. There’s not a toy that I don’t have—all the ones I’ve always wanted, I’ve always found and got. So now it’s about finding new things.
There’s certain people who—and I always stay away from these people—they can’t wait to be an adult. You hear them talk about it as kids. “I can’t wait to be an adult.” I loved being a kid. And being an actor, having that childlike personality helps. I think in the world of entertainment, you have to keep that kid-like quality or you’re just going to choke somebody. You meet too many a**holes, so you have to keep that kid in you that goes, “It’s fun,” so you don’t blow somebody up. The toy thing kind of helps.
If you could only listen to one soundtrack of a musical for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
That is hard. It breaks down to these four: Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Little Shop of Horrors, or The Music Man. … I don’t know every song on Music Man, so Music Man has to go. So it leaves Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney, and Dreamgirls.
One for the rest of my life, for the rest of my life ... Little Shop of Horrors, that has to go.
Dreamgirls or Sweeney Todd, for the rest of my life ...
It’s probably going to be Sweeney Todd. I love Dreamgirls, I do. But Sweeney Todd is my favorite all-time musical. What I love about it is how it makes you root for a guy who’s doing something absolutely horrendous. He’s killing people. These people don’t know Sweeney. They went upstairs for a shave, and he’s killing them! And you’re like, “That’s great, he’s going to get the judge one day!” It doesn’t hit you that what he’s doing is wrong until he looks down and sees it’s Lucy. And then you go, “Holy crap, he killed his wife!” That’s where everything seems to snap. It’s one of the greatest moments, because it happens to everyone who sees it.
Trust me, if I could keep four soundtracks with me, those would be the four. But if I only could have one, Sweeney Todd would be the one.
Sweeney is so good. But you know what’s a very good karaoke song is “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop.
Karaoke is actually how I got my confidence up in college. When you got to college you realized how good you weren’t, because all of a sudden you weren’t the big fish in the high school choir anymore. You were there with some people who had skills and you were like, “Oh my God, I have to do something.” Then a friend of mine sent me to karaoke.
I thought it was the dumbest thing ever. All of a sudden, this little Latin dude gets up and starts singing Al Green, and he sounded just like Al Green. And I was like, “Who the hell are you, and how do you do that?” And he’s like, “I go to karaoke every week. You should come by, you sing really well.” So every Saturday for a year I would travel to wherever he was and do it.
I got my propers in, because when you’re singing with a bunch of drunk people, no one’s judging you, so you just start experimenting. So I started riffing, hitting high notes, going low. And when I got back to the musical season I went in to audition, and they were like, “What happened to your voice?” I was like, “I’m not going to lie to you, I did karaoke.” They thought I was joking, but getting up and singing in front of different people every single night got me ready for this type of life.
Karaoke changed your life!
Karaoke changed my life, no joke. That’s the honest to God truth.
I love that. OK, here’s another tough one. If you could only read one comic for the rest of your life, which one is it?
Honestly, I can’t make a choice. But if I’m going to make a choice, it’s always the first one you can think of. There’s a comic book called Mad Love. It’s basically the behind-the-scenes story of Harley Quinn. I have it in my Hamilton dressing room—it travels with me. She is one of the coolest characters ever created in the Batman universe.
Here’s a controversial question that’s been in the news a lot lately. Pineapple on pizza: yes or no?
For my wife, yes. For me, every now and then, but not really. My wife's favorite pizza is—I probably shouldn’t say this—is a grilled chicken and cheese and pineapple pizza.
I always find it funny when people get upset about what people eat. You say, “I’ll have pineapple on my pizza,” and here’s some dude who goes, “That’s not pizza.” First of all, I don’t live with you. Two, why does your opinion about what I eat matter? Why can’t we both have a meal without you telling me that you don’t like that I’m eating? You don’t get to be the judge of pizza.
What’s your favorite book?
Wow, that’s hard, too. I love all the Harry Potter books. I am a huge, huge fan of Laurell K. Hamilton—she writes the Anita Blake novels. I love that woman.
But there’s a book that I’ve read over and over and over again. It’s inspirational, it’s a cautionary tale, and it’s an autobiography. It is Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor. He’s my favorite comic, and he is absolutely fearless in this book. He tells it from two sides: Mudbone, this famous character he created, kind of narrates the beginning of each chapter, then [Pryor] tells the rest of the story. And he did some horrible, crazy, terrible, nutty things.
What ended up killing him had nothing to do with drugs, nothing to do with womanizing, nothing to do with drinking—he got MS. Here’s a man who was the fastest talker, fastest mind in comedy, and his body decides to go off on him, and that’s what did him in. And he writes about that in the book. There’s this voice, he thinks it’s Death, is chasing him the whole book. At the end, he goes: I’m a comedian, the biggest joke was on me.
Of all the books that I’ve read—and I have read the Harry Potter set at least 12, 14 times—I’ve read Pryor Convictions at least, I kid you not, 30 times.
My favorite Harry Potter is six. Which one is yours?
Prisoner of Azkaban. I love the fact that Voldemort wasn’t the villain, technically. And I also love the great twist of Peter Pettigrew, I love [Harry] finding out where the Marauder’s Map comes from, I love the character of Mooney. And I love that Sirius Black loves Harry so much. But also because of when he was caught and when he was put in Azkaban, he never fully grew up—so through the rest of the series you see this guy who’s still trying to relive the days of being in the Order of the Phoenix, being with James and the Marauders, and that’s not what life is right now. I fell in love with Sirius Black. I have a Sirius Black wand, I have a Snape wand, I have my own wand, and I have Lucius Malfoy’s wand complete with cane.
Last question! What’s your dream role?
There are two on Broadway: Harold Hill from The Music Man and Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I sang Oogie Boogie’s song to Danny Elfman at D23, and I had so much fun. It would also be the best gig on Broadway, because I would get the most applause for doing less work than anybody else! Watch that movie. Oogie Boogie is there three times, and he’s got the best song in the whole damn thing.
Harold Hill I have loved since I was a kid. It’s something about the way Robert Preston played that part. The arrogance to walk into a town that someone has told you doesn’t want you there. And you know you’re into the town with a lie to take these people’s money. I love it.
And then he says—and I used to say this when I was a kid—“I don’t want the girl who is the pure and innocent female.” I always wanted the girl who’s had a life, because she’s the one that’s going to be the most interesting. My wife is like that. My wife had a life, and she’s the most brilliant female I’ve ever met. And in Music Man, Harold Hill sings “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” and he’s like, “I want the girl who’s lived a little bit so we actually have something to talk about.” So when I saw the character in my teenage years—my teacher showed it to us in an English class for some reason—I was like, “That’s the part.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.