It’s easy to see why a role that encompasses only nine minutes of a two-hour-and-45-minute musical may seem rather small.
But like others who’ve portrayed King George III in “Hamilton,” Cleveland native Rory O’Malley embraces the character’s peevish attributes in mannerisms and lyrics that lead to thunderous applause and legions of fans.
The Broadway blockbuster about one of our formerly unsung Founding Fathers is at Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre through January 15. Beginning December 20, O’Malley, who grew up in Bay Village, will assume the part of the petulant, condescending Royal who promises his colonial subjects that “when push comes to shove, I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love,” before admonishing that “when your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.”
The actor loves every line of his soliloquies.
“This role is like being handed a beautiful sports car,” O’Malley, 41, says. “You just have to drive it nicely and make sure you don’t crash it. I definitely had to learn how to have the confidence to embody a King and command the stage in a way that’s unlike any other role I’ve ever had. I compare the part to being shot out of a cannon: You don’t have much time to build rapport with the audience. For a humble kid from the West Side, it took a little while for me to feel like I earned the right to wear the crown.”
His journey to the Great White Way began when, as a second-grader at Our Lady of Angels in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood, he was cast as St. Joseph in the school’s annual Christmas pageant.
“My aunt Peggy Ann was the director of the play,” O’Malley says with a smile. “Clearly, it’s all about who you know in this business.”
From there, it was on to Saint Ignatius High School, where he played leads that included Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” and The Narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” One of his most memorable roles was that of Colonel Nathan Jessup, which Jack Nicholson made famous in “A Few Good Men,” and O’Malley describes as being “as far from type as I’ve ever gotten.”
Upon graduating from St. Ignatius in 1999, he enrolled at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree before heading to Los Angeles. During his time out West, O’Malley worked with Garry Marshall and toured in 2006 as Richie Cunningham in the legendary producer’s musical “Happy Days,” based on the iconic TV series.
But Broadway was never far from his thoughts. O’Malley made his debut there at Circle in the Square Theatre in 2007 as an understudy to two of the contestants in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” When his agent called to tell him the originators of “South Park” were writing a new musical about Mormons and requesting he have a hand in developing it, the actor didn’t think twice about saying yes.
“For three years, I’d go from my temp job in the human resources department of a financial firm, which allowed me to afford living in New York, to working on the show,” he says.
His role as the repressed Elder McKinley in “The Book of Mormon,” with its rousing tap number “Turn It Off,” culminated in O’Malley receiving Tony and Drama Desk nominations in 2011.
“It was an extraordinary time for me,” he recalls. “All that I’m able to do now, especially being the King in ‘Hamilton’ is because of ‘The Book of Mormon.’”
On March 8, 2016, O’Malley was in the midst of rehearsing his part as business mogul Bill Gates for “Nerds,” a musical set to open at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre two weeks later. But those plans changed in a heartbeat: With no warning, the show’s investors decided to pull their financial support.
“It was a terrible, sad thing for all of us,” he recalls. “My agent called the next day and asked me how I’d feel about doing another Broadway show. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m too heartbroken,’ Then she told me it was to play the King in ‘Hamilton.’ I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’ ”
Serendipity had clearly stepped in. Jonathan Groff, who originated the role of King George III, had been tapped for a Netflix series. O’Malley soon found himself on stage with the entire original cast of the musical, including buddy and former Carnegie Mellon classmate Leslie Odom Jr., who’d win a Tony for his portrayal of Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr; and the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“When the Universe closes a door, it opens a window, and that was one of those moments for me,” says O’Malley, who portrayed George III on Broadway for a year before joining the cast of the national tour. “What makes ‘Hamilton’ unique is that it’s the story of America Then told by America Now. It’s so refreshing to see a real representation of America Now with people of different races from different parts of our country telling the story of our country’s founding.
“Those who’ve seen the show love it for different reasons,” he adds. “Some, like me, love the history. Others like the music or the extraordinary costumes or the way choreography is used to tell the story through movement. There are so many different entry points for anyone who likes theater or just wants to hear a good story or some great music.”
As O’Malley prepares to take the stage in Cleveland, he reflects on how much the second-largest performing arts center in the country means to him.
“I’ll never forget seeing “Les Misérables” at Playhouse Square when I was 10. My mom’s boss was a season subscriber, he gave her tickets, and it changed my life,” the actor recalls. “When I was a child, I didn’t know exactly where my place was. When I found theater, I found home.”
O’Malley, who lives in Los Angeles with husband Gerold Schroeder and their three-year-old son, has a succinct message for parents: “Bring your kids to live theater.”
It’s so important for children to see the world from different standpoints, not just from in front of a TV screen,” he says. “Whether on stage or in the audience, theater is a shared experience that builds rapport and a sense of community like no other.”