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NEW YORK, N.Y. — It’s a wintry evening in New York City, and Champaign-raised Jonathan Butler-Duplessis is getting his first “Hamilton” rehearsal as Aaron Burr at the historic Richard Rodgers Theatre.

To his left, a seemingly familiar figure walks in. Except Butler-Duplessis is new here, fresh out of a decade-plus in the Chicago theater scene. He shouldn’t recognize anyone.

Turns out it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the decorated performer and playwright behind the world-famous musical, stopping by to munch on a slice of pizza before seeing another show.

“They asked me if I wanted to redo the scene. I said start ‘Wait for It’ right now,” Butler-Duplessis said. “I may never get another chance to sing a whole song in front of Lin-Manuel.”

After singing Burr’s acclaimed bari-tenor solo for the author, he walked off-stage and chatted with Miranda about the differences between Chicago and New York pizza.

“He had the nerve to come in eating Detroit-style,” Butler-Duplessis said. “Which was like, come on now.”

The last two months have been one big out-of-body experience for Butler-Duplessis. After spending 12 years making his name in the Chicago theater circuit, the Unit 4-to-University of Illinois product isn’t throwing away his first Broadway shot.

On Thursday, atop the same stage where “Hamilton” became the most famous show of the century, he’ll debut as Burr, one of the rap-musical’s most iconic roles.

Forgive him if he needs to pinch himself a couple times.

“You’re in full costume, you’re pointing the gun at Hamilton, the stage is rotating, everyone’s kicking their legs up and doing exactly what they’ve been doing for years, and you’re like, ‘Yo, is this me?’” Butler-Duplessis said. “This isn’t the regional production; this isn’t a really good version that’s being done at a college or a concert.

“No, this is the real deal. This is where Leslie Odom Jr. stood. This is where Lin-Manuel was standing.”

If there’s one thing Butler-Duplessis is proudest of, looking back at his journey — from a nameless, up-and-coming, then award-winning Chicago actor — it’s that he didn’t skip any steps.

“If I wrote a seminar, it’d be something like ‘No Shortcuts.’ Because that’s how my career has been. I took every step very meticulously, and learned the lessons of each level,” he said. “If I hadn’t done any of the steps, I wouldn’t feel as good right now.”

‘No diva-ness in him’A young Butler-Duplessis got his education nearly running through the gamut of local schools, from Dr. Howard Elementary, to Franklin Middle, to Central High, then Parkland and the University of Illinois.

Staying in C-U was never his intent, he said, but it’s how life worked out. He grew up in the now-razed Bradley-McKinley public housing, where “there weren’t a bunch of opportunities” lying around.

“You did what was around you,” he said.

He got his first taste for performing in church productions, then was cast in the Station Theatre’s rendition of “Macbeth,” playing the Lord Banquo’s son, Fleance.

Butler-Duplessis found friends and a creative home in Franklin Middle School’s choir programs, and later in Central’s musical theater productions, including a freshman-year role as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“I was absolutely nobody. But I wanted to be Judas so bad that I basically transformed my voice practicing to be Judas. And I still sing like that,” he said.

He made a brief stop at Bible College in Missouri, but returned to C-U when it wasn’t working out. After a couple years at Parkland, he tried out for the University of Illinois acting program.

Butler-Duplessis sang from “Jesus Christ Superstar” and performed a “terrible” monologue from Othello, he said — “no one would ever look at me and say ‘oh, that’s a warlord that has been brought back to rule a country.’ That’s not me; I’m adorable.” — but it clearly flew with the program.

“The reason I came to them, I figured I can sing well enough I’ll probably get into something, but I don’t know how to act,” he said.

UI Professor Lisa Dixon, chair of the acting program, first met Butler-Duplessis at this fledgling stage.

“I kind of always knew he was going to be something good,” Dixon said. “He was one of those actors that was curious. You can teach a lot of things, but you can’t teach curiosity.”

She heard one of her favorite stories about the hometown kid secondhand: While the rest of his classmates traveled for spring break, he stayed in town to clean buses at the MTD bus yard and make some extra cash.

“I thought, that’s the kind of guy that’s not giving up,” Dixon said. “And he’s a joy to work with. That’s part of why he succeeded — there’s no diva-ness in him.”

Trained in the classics, from Shakespeare to Chekhov, he graduated with a BFA in 2010. His first gig out of college was an internship at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, earning $50 a week.

The pay was low, but Butler-Duplessis valued the experience. All he did was theater, free from much of the grunt work many theater internships entailed.

A few Chicago shows helped the actor find his professional footing. He was cast in “In the Heights” at the Paramount Theatre, another Lin-Manuel Miranda show, and then the “game-changer”: Playing crustacean Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid.”

“As long as I’m remembered in Chicago, I’ll be Sebastian,” he said.

“The Little Mermaid” is referred to in the business as a “problem show.” The lead character, Ariel, can’t dance in the first act or sing in the second act. The cast spends the show jumping between stage interpretations of land and sea.

“We just simplified it. We trusted the actors to make those physical motions. We didn’t gimmick it to death,” he said.

Under director Amber Mak, the show drew big attention in Chicago’s award cycles, leading to Butler-Duplessis’ first nomination: the 2017 Joseph Jefferson Equity Award for Supporting Actor in a Musical.

He ended up winning the award, but for a separate performance, for his work in “Parade” at the Writer’s Theatre.

“Two nominations? I didn’t think I was going to win for that reason,” he said. “It was pretty nuts.”

‘Gutsy and scrappy’Like every triple-threat actor in Chicago, Butler-Duplessis said, he’s auditioned for “Hamilton” for many, many years.

“It was one of those things that I had put behind me. I just figured, for whatever reason, it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “It was for someone else — someone younger, somebody taller, somebody with cooler hair.”

His agent let him know of an opening in the Broadway ensemble late last year. He was lukewarm to it initially, but sent in his audition anyway. It’s fun to rap the musical’s iconic songs, he said.

He got his call back and COVID-19 at the same time. Butler-Duplessis filmed his Zoom follow-up crunched up in a corner of his apartment, trying his best to hit the notes with his wife, Kathleen, sitting in the other room.

It became a “really gutsy and scrappy performance,” Butler-Duplessis said. “Having COVID and the adversity made me not want to lose. It was like, now I’m fighting for something.”

The showrunners later flew him out to New York to audition for a variety of the musical’s most iconic parts. He’s part of the ensemble, the show’s background characters, but ready to fill bigger roles as the show moves on.

Butler-Duplessis found out he’d be making his Broadway debut as Aaron Burr just four days ago.

“Sometimes they like to see, ‘OK, what you got?’ I think that’s what this one is about.”

For now, he’s the new kid on the block. The majority of his castmates have been working on “Hamilton” for years, and some of them are fascinated with his fresh, creative approach to the show, he said.

“They’re so supportive and wonderful and self-assured, because we’re where we want to be. Everyone has gotten the validation that they’re looking for, so we’re not fighting for those things anymore,” Butler-Duplessis said.

The actor likes to stick his head back in to Champaign-Urbana every once in a while, mainly to visit family and assure UI acting students that everything’s going to work out fine.

To him, his life and career can symbolize what’s possible to young kids who used to be in his position.

“I was destined to be a Broadway singer, but I thought I was going to be a basketball player for the first 12 years of my life,” he said. “There are a bunch of things you can be, and you can go and do and be all of these things — it doesn’t have to be the four or five things you get told.

“I want the next version of me to be whatever he wants to be.”

He feels “very lucky” to be in his position, after feeling the investments of time from mentors and teachers in town. Now, Butler-Duplessis wants to return the favor.

“You can take the talents you are given, you can work on them, refine them, and you can make a happy life off them,” he said. “It can look a million different ways and you’ll be as happy as you’ve ever dreamed of.”

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).