But in a show with no shortage of breakout performances — seven actors are up for Tonys — Diggs’ own favorite is that of Okieriete Onaodowan, the West Orange-raised performer who also plays a dual role: the swaggering spy Hercules Mulligan (“Busta Rhymes meets Donald O'Connor,” read the casting notice) in the first act, and the professorial detail man James Madison in the second.
“He is so transformative,” Diggs says. “As Hercules Mulligan, he has such a huge presence, and then as James Madison, he just disappears.”
As if on cue, Onaodowan, 28, the son of Nigerian immigrants, quietly emerges from backstage, hands thrust in the pockets of his pinstriped pants, a cap over his close-cropped hair. Six feet tall and broad-chested — he’s a former football player — he is more Mulligan than Madison in real-life. But he says he takes his greatest joy in embodying both men over the course the show.
“I don’t want to be anyone but me, but as a versatile as possible,” he says a little while later, polishing off a platter of smoked alligator in puff pastry, a glistening slab of pork belly and a mountain of short ribs and cheese grits at a Theater District restaurant. (There’s a reason he’s known as the Incredible Oak.)
“I want to exercise all my muscles. I want to do plays. I want to do everything.”
He’s well on his way. Since snagging and helping develop the double role in “Hamilton” before the show’s Off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater last year, he has beatboxed at the White House, traveled to Israel for the Forbes 30 Under 30 summit, and posed for photos with fans ranging from Usher to Bill Gates to Louis C.K. to his own idol Dave Chappelle.
And just recently he was asked to play Kristoff in a lab version of the upcoming stage adaptation Disney’s “Frozen,” as sure a thing as possible on Broadway. It doesn’t ensure him the role in the musical, scheduled to hit Broadway in 2018, but it’s certainly a sign that Onaodowan has arrived after years as a struggling actor.
“He just needed to perform,” says Craig Champagne, his West Orange High School English teacher and mentor who has kept in touch since Onaodowan’s graduation in 2005. “I don’t mean that in terms of ego. You have to eat, sleep, drink, have sex. He needed to perform.”
Echoing, perhaps unconsciously, the show’s signature call to arms “I am not throwing away my shot,” Champagne adds, “I don’t think he could imagine his life not doing it, that this was it. You get one chance.”
Onaodowan came on board in 2014 for a lab before the show’s Off-Broadway run; he was so outside the “Hamilton” circle that he had an entire conversation with Lacamoire believing he was Miranda.
While Miranda & Co. had strong ideas for Mulligan, their James Madison was less defined — and Onaodowan relished developing the character. “It’s great to have that freedom,” he says. “It feels good to create, and to actually have input, and your choices are your choices. My walk is my walk because that’s what motivated me to move.”