‘Hamilton’ actor got his dance start locally

HOWLAND — Seth Stewart guesses he heard “no” 100 times for every “yes” in his professional career.

“My career is an iceberg,” he said. “Under the surface are at least 500 noes. Above the water is, like, five yeses. I always tell people don’t worry about the noes. You’re only trying to get the yeses.”

Stewart’s yeses are mighty impressive.

He was part of the original cast for the massive Tony Award-winning hit “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Starting in the ensemble, Stewart ultimately succeeded Daveed Diggs in the dual role of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Before that, he appeared in “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit, “In the Heights,” and made his Broadway debut in a revival of “Sweet Charity.” He also spent a year traveling the world as a dancer on Madonna’s 2004 “Re-Invention” tour.

Stewart, 33, grew up in Kent, but he studied dance starting at age 10 at James Dance & Performing Arts Center, which is bringing him back for an interview and musical theater workshop on Nov. 19 at Packard Music Hall. A portion of the proceeds from the event will fund educational opportunities for area dance students.

“It’s less abut my successes and more about inspiring kids and parents to know what is possible, especially being from Ohio,” Stewart said. “It will be the how-tos of what has gotten me there and other people who are successful. I don’t want them to have this false dream, but I also want to inspire them at the same time.”

Linda James, founder of the dance school, said she knew Stewart was special at a young age.

“He would be given advice, and he would always listen,” she said. “He wouldn’t always take the advice, but he always listened.”

He listened when he was encouraged to take ballet, and Stewart admitted it played a pivotal role in his development. He listened when he was encouraged to take a partial scholarship to study at Fordham University and with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company instead of going on the road as a dancer with a non-Equity tour of “Fosse: The Musical.”

Even though he dropped out after two years, Stewart said, “I’m so glad I went. I just wanted to be a performer right away, but it was one of the best decisions of my career. The training was so much better.”

James described Stewart as a performer who loved the spotlight, and he agreed.

In talking about the difference in going from the ensemble to a lead role in “Hamilton,” he said, “In the ensemble, I was part of the world. It was fun to be the paint, but I love being the paint brush. Give me front and center every time.”

His experience with “In the Heights” helped him land the ensemble role in “Hamilton,” but it was a challenge to move up to Lafayette / Jefferson.

“It’s not the norm for any Broadway show to have an ensemble (member) take over a Tony Award-winning role,” he said.

While he met resistance, he continued to come in early and work on the part, eventually winning the director’s confidence.

“I just didn’t take no for an answer,” he said. “I just had to beat out the competition, and I had to believe in myself.”

Stewart said he realized “Hamilton” was going to be a cultural phenomenon during its Off-Broadway run.

“We were in a 300-seat theater with multiple celebrities there nightly,” he said. “None of the actors did it because of the hype. The hype came after. We did it because we were creating something that’s never been done before and that’s the most important thing in the arts.”

Stewart now is trying to break into film and television and is hearing “no” again. He’s back to taking acting classes and working to create his own opportunities by writing several screenplays. He and friend created a T-shirt line called Change the World, and he’s working on a documentary called “Ohio Changes the World,” focusing on artists, environmentalists and other Ohio professionals working to create positive change.

He’s also learned not to let his career affect how he feels.

“Success doesn’t equal happiness. Happiness equals happiness,” he said. “If you let your happiness be defined by your career, you’re going to run into a wall.”

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