So how does it feel to play the most notorious vice president in history?
“Really great, actually,” says Donald Webber Jr., a laugh spiking his rich voice.
The Southern California native stars as Aaron Burr in the mega-hit, cultural game-changer musical “Hamilton, which moves into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa Wednesday night, Sept. 28 through Oct. 16.
Burr is central to the action as the show’s narrator and deadly real-life Hamilton rival — “I’m the damn fool that shot him” as Webber sings in the galvanizing opening number.
Burr is one of a number of key roles the actor has filled in the best musical Tony Award-winner since joining the Broadway cast as an understudy in late 2016.
An unmatched phenomenon on the musical theater landscape, “Hamilton” can be an amazing roller-coaster ride for those in the show, leading to unexpected twists and turns off-stage, too.
For instance, Webber got to take his shot as Alexander Hamilton, the role originated by the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
That was in 2017 and on his second night in the title role, he and the cast were taking their bows … “And this woman comes running down the aisle and is pointing at me and I look out and, ‘Huh, I think that’s Mariska. Hargitay,’ who I had no idea was watching the show.
“She has seen the show a lot, apparently, and what I did that night landed for her. The next thing is she is telling me she wants me as her acting coach!”
Another “Hamilton” celebrity encounter led to a different opportunity.
“Ben Stiller was there, and this was huge in my world; He is my mother’s favorite actor.
“I get my picture taken with him and tell him how whenever my mom got all stirred up by what was going on in the news, she’d put on one of his movies and that would make her happy and she could relax and go to sleep.
“But the way he heard me say it, he thought it meant she felt his movies were boring! Great, right? But he was nice, said he admired my performance, and could he have my phone number since he was working on a show that might pan out.
“A couple years go by, I didn’t hear anything, that’s fine,” Webber says, pausing and almost chortling in disbelief. “But then I get a call and it’s for a role in (Stiller’s) ‘Severance’ for Apple+, and now the show ended up getting 14 Emmy nominations!
“I don’t think this happens as much to you in other musicals.”
Although perhaps at an early age it might have, had Webber’s audience included the right people.
A musical upbringing
Born in Inglewood, for family fun when he was growing up his father played piano and his mother sang. Family spare time was, and still is, built around music. As he has put it: “At reunions, that’s what we do: we sing, and we eat and then we sing some more.”
In the sixth grade Webber’s musical talents got him drafted into the school production of “The Wiz.” Not just to act, nor to do one number, but to sing every one of the male roles.
“Tin Man, Scarecrow, the Lion … the secret was out, I had a voice. The next year I was Nathan Detroit in ‘Guys and Dolls’ and after that it was a lead in ‘Dreamgirls.’ “
He continued acting while a student at St. Bernard High School in Playa Vista, and later taught acting classes there, teaching an avocation he completely respects (saying “someday I intend to teach again. It’s so inspiring, young people striving and learning.”).
In the early 2000s Webber had options, either turn professional or go to college.
“I went to USC, and I can’t say too much for what that place and my teachers gave me. Like, one teacher said: ‘Fail again, fail better.’ The lesson was to grow. You have to learn by trial, and achieve accomplishment, not by falling back on how you already are.”
Webber’s wide-ranging accolades for what he learned in college about both craft and show business include something surprising not just to an interviewer but, even now, to himself.
“Yoga! I mean, yoga? As an 18-year-old?
“What does this have to do with acting?” Webber recalls asking himself. “But I learned how to breathe for the first time, techniques I would use in the audition room and also in preparation for scenes if I felt the need.”
A family affair
Webber’s first professional stage roles were in road productions of “Motown: The Musical” and “Jersey Boys.” Easily the most significant for Webber was the “Motown” gig because also in the cast was a fledgling actress named Rebecca Covington.
The two met, married and grew professionally. Covington is now in the companion roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in this touring production of “Hamilton.”
While the other cast members on tour fly from city to city, Webber and Covington are literally on the road, driving with their son Donald Webber III — known in family lingo as “D3” — and a nanny who takes care of the year-and -a-half old when they are on stage.
“At this age anyone knows it’s about juggling work and home life. We are lucky to spend a lot of the daytime with him and then go off to work. Getting to be a family is great on the road.”
Among his Hamilton experiences that fit into the “great” category was taking on the Burr role opposite Miranda’s portrayal of Hamilton during an early 2019 run in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Miranda’s family roots are on the island. Other than New York stages, it’s the only place he’s performed the titular role live.
“Just being in Puerto Rico, the whole island is so excited to have him and the show there, it was a wonderful time. People on the ground you’d meet were beyond excited,” Webber says.
The actor’s reading stood up critically. A Chicago Tribune report from the ground at opening night in San Juan singled out Burr as “an exceptional performance,” noting “Webber’s cool, laconic energy was a fine foil for Miranda’s signature warmth.”
Beyond acclaim, Webber vividly recalls a songwriter-meets-performer’s-ego insight from Miranda himself.
“At one of our rehearsals I did the Burr number ‘Wait for It.’ And Miranda comes to me and says privately, ‘You know, every time I hear that song, I just go, “I really wrote myself out of the best song I’ve ever done.”
The upcoming performances in Costa Mesa are geographically the closest Webber has ever been on a big stage in a starring role near family and friends. Is he predicting a jam on the 405-freeway southbound on show nights?
“Oh, man, I have already received hundreds and hundreds of texts, DMs, emails, you name it.”
It is suggested to Webber that he might be the only one associated with “Hamilton” who could lose money on this appearance, covering tickets for everyone wanting to get in.
“Bring it on, family, bring it on,” he says with another hearty laugh. “That’s all I have to say.”
When: Wednesday through Oct. 16. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 pm Saturdays, 1 and 7 pm Sundays. Additional performance 1:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 29.
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
Information: 949-556-2787; www.scfta.org
COVID-19 protocols: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry is no longer required at Segerstrom Center. Masks are not required, but strongly recommended.