- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - This time last year, Chris Lee had just submitted a video audition for the Chicago and touring casts of “Hamilton.”

“We all know how that works - nobody watches a video, right?” he jokes.

“But I thought, ‘What the heck?’ It would be cool. ‘Hamilton’ was my favorite musical. So I wrote a rap I thought was pretty funny. Its premise was ‘You don’t know me, but you should hire me,’ and I sang a Stevie Wonder song,” recalls the McCallie School graduate who, at that time, was just starting his junior year at Belmont University in Nashville.

“Hamilton” is, of course, the Tony Award-winning musical written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, who left the New York production of the musical last summer after announcements of a new production in Chicago and two North American tours had been released.

Lee had forgotten about his video by the time he got an email in March asking him to come to New York for a round of auditions. He read for the part of Hercules Mulligan, the tailor who is Alexander Hamilton’s friend, then returned to Nashville.

“The fact I got a callback was enough for me,” says the actor, who is listed as Chris De’Sean Lee in the “Hamilton” playbook.

But it wasn’t enough for the “Hamilton” team. They emailed Lee a few weeks later for a second callback with the full creative team. This time, Miranda sat in on auditions.

“They had me read for a bunch of characters. It was the most gratifying experience to see them react to how I interpreted the characters,” Lee says. “They also made me sing my Stevie Wonder song.”

The second week of June, a third email informed him that he had been cast in the dual roles of Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton” Chicago.

“It’s all a blur. I was in a Walmart. I know I ran around, screaming at people and scaring old ladies,” he laughingly describes.

Just take a moment to let that success story sink in.

Chris Lee is an unknown (then) 21-year-old, no formal musical theater training other than college classes, no big-stage experience - and suddenly he lands a major role in the hottest musical in the nation. It’s the type “discovery” story from which legends are made.

“I go to work every day feeling blessed,” says Lee, now 22 and living in Chicago. “I get onstage and remind myself how fortunate I am. People I’ve seen on TV and studied are now part of my world. It’s just unbelievable.”

Lew Cisto, the actor’s former choral instructor at McCallie, isn’t surprised by his success.

“Chris is a classic example of someone with innate ability. He was a great music theory student also and that combined with his natural ability, well, he just did great things,” says Cisto. “Once that light exploded, it went crazy at light speed. He was a guy with big energy, he never got tired.”

Started with a Dare

Lee was a boarding student from Atlanta who attended McCallie from ninth grade through graduation. He says his only interests were football and basketball, but his mother was a praise and worship leader in their church and he had grown up singing around the house.

“But never publicly,” he reiterates.

“Chris had never participated in any formal music groups or productions, so no one knew at that time what an incredible, gifted musician he would turn out to be,” says Jim Daughdrill, McCallie’s dean of admission.

“What was obvious from the first time you met him was that Chris was a special kid,” Daughdrill continues. “His smile lit up the room and his energy was infectious. It was clear to see every day when he was a student at McCallie, and it is clear now to everyone who sees him perform.”

During his freshman year at McCallie, a friend asked Lee to sing with him in the school talent show. The two won with their medley of pop hits through the decades.

“I didn’t think it was that impressive to people. But after seeing the girls scream and everyone wanting to be my friend after that, I thought ‘Alright ” Lee jokes.

Second semester of that freshman year, a friend dared him to audition for the spring musical, “Annie.”

“I did NOT want to,” he laughs. “I wasn’t a drama person. I went the audition just to take the dare, but I wasn’t serious about it. In fact, I remember acting like I was a radio personality just to be funny - and they loved it.”

He was cast as radio announcer Bert Healy. In following years, he was cast in “Hairspray” and played Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”

“Those were pivotal years for me, finding out who I was and who I wanted to be,” the actor says.

“I remember my mom telling me after ‘Hairspray’ at McCallie that I should pursue this. She said, ‘Do you know people get paid for this?’” he laughs.

After “Annie,” he quit sports to focus on music, signing up for anything music- or drama-related on campus. To encourage his talent, Lee’s grandmother gave him a keyboard for Christmas during his junior year at McCallie. He started deejaying parties his senior year and was in demand for events ranging from Sweet 16 parties to bar mitzvahs.

Daughdrill, who also was the faculty member supervising the dorm in which Lee lived, remembers the student’s dedication to his craft.

“Every night when I was on duty, I’d go by Chris’s room at lights out and he’d have most all the lights out but for one light on his keyboard,” Daughdrill recalls. “You couldn’t be mad at him. He was always singing, having fun playing around. It’s neat to see how that’s paid off.”

When he was in Chicago recently for a school fair, Daughdrill dropped by PrivateBank Theatre, where “Hamilton” is playing, to see his former student after a performance.

“Chris has great enthusiasm for everything. Even when he would walk to class here, everybody would say ‘Hi’ and it was like his enthusiasm was contagious. It was fun to see him after the show, signing autographs, and that same charm still there. He waited for the last fan to get through the line, signing autographs, taking pictures.”

Belmont to the Big Stage

By his senior year at McCallie, Lee had been accepted to every university to which he applied, among them New York University and Carnegie-Mellon. But his mother insisted he visit Belmont in Nashville.

“I wanted a big school to push me in the direction I wanted to go. I fought the idea because Belmont wasn’t New York,” says Lee. “But I went and got the same feeling I had when I stepped on McCallie’s campus. I just knew I was supposed to be there.”

Even though he had a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full academic scholarship to Belmont, he credits his grandmother’s keyboard “for getting me through college.”

“It’s how I made money. I played private parties. I formed a band and gigged around. I did studio work, accompanied people sometimes. I played for churches in Nashville and in Chattanooga, driving two hours one-way on Sunday mornings to play.”

The musical theater major says he was one of the first Belmont students to pursue theater in the community while balancing gigs and education.

“Once, I did three shows at one time: a Belmont show, student show and community theater,” he recalls. “I was always trying to do a lot with music or choreographing for some pop ensemble, singing background vocals. I had zero dance training, but I liked to dance. I had never had a voice lesson before going to Belmont.

“I got in school on either luck or talent,” he jokes.

But he admits his lack of formal training caused some self-doubt during rehearsals for “Hamilton.” Although the Chicago production uses the same choreography as the Broadway version, Lee says it is still left to actors to interpret their own style.

“Lin (Miranda) was at all the rehearsals and opening night. Anytime I asked him for advice, he’d say, ‘Dude, you’re killing it! You’re fine.’ It was gratifying to have his approval,” Lee says in perhaps the understatement of the year.

Lee is contracted for one year with “Hamilton” and, just like its Broadway counterpart, every night of the show has sold out for that year.

While Lee credits his teachers at McCallie for helping him discover his talent, he credits his mother for keeping him level-headed while he chased success.

“She is a single mom who had me at 17 and made lots of sacrifices for me and my brother,” he says. “On opening night she was there, beaming with pride. For me, that was the best part of the night, to know I did something that made her proud.”

___

Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com

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