An extraordinary ‘Hamilton’ job
Every time and every place “Hamilton” gets performed in America, the name of actor Willie Smith III appears in the program. The Charlotte native may not be onstage. He may not even be in that city. But he’s always in the playbill, because of his extraordinary job: “universal swing.”
The Northwest School of the Arts grad will be listed again when the show comes to Charlotte Oct. 10. The hometown crowd, including parents Willie Smith Jr. and Germaine Patterson Smith, expect to see him here. But he could as easily be whirled off to Chicago or New York on 24 hours’ notice.
“My life is packed up in two big suitcases,” he said in a phone call before a Boston matinee. “There have been times when I have gotten off a plane, done two shows and turned right back around to go to another company. Is ‘spontaneity’ the right word?”
He has lived this way since joining “Hamilton” in winter 2017. But spontaneity has al- ways been the right word for Tre Smith, as he was dubbed (for “the third”) by his family.
After graduating from NWSA in 2005 and University of the
Arts in Philadelphia, he began a seven-year odyssey across the dance world, from ballet to contemporary movement. He performed, taught, did workshops where “they bring choreographers in for a week and give them bodies to play with.”
One of those, Broadway Dance Lab, came around while he taught at the Staten Island studio Brandy’s Dance Unique. The choreographer happened to be Andy Blankenbuehler, who had won one of the 11 Tony Awards for “Hamilton.”
“At the end, he asked, ‘Do you sing?’ I said ‘Yes, sir,’ and he said, ‘Take my e-mail.’ I sent him my headshot and resume, and the following Tuesday was my first time going in for ‘Hamilton.’ It took me a year to audition for the show – I went in 10 times – but nothing comes easy in life. You get told ‘No’ so many times in this business that you just have to get through to a ‘Yes.’
“I’ve only been in theater the last few years of my life: I did ‘Cabin in the Sky’ for City Center Encores (a series in New York) and ‘Dreamgirls’ in Dallas. My voice had been on a break, so I took voice lessons, and I got that ‘Hamilton’ phone call right after Thanksgiving 2016.”
His optimism comes from following his dad’s maxim: Do whatever makes your heart smile. (His sister, Brittani Amber Smith, practices medicine in Virginia.) Tre Smith says he has never deviated from that idea, and rare non-arts jobs – notably as a host in an Italian restaurant – convinced him he shouldn’t.
“I never had naysayers in my life,” he recalled. “My father took me to my first dance lesson and said, ‘If you have the grace, you can dance.’ I came from a community where I didn’t see AfricanAmerican dancers, especially males. So I would be the only one in a dance environment in a lot of places, and I knew I’d have to work extra hard.
“A dancer’s career is short-lived anyway, so it’s my job to make sure I’m getting the best out of all these worlds: a commercial, doing TV, theater. I just wanted to make it so badly.”
When “Hamilton” called, a friend congratulated him: “You have a
government job now.” Smith gets not only a secure paycheck but show perks such as massage therapists, chiropractors and physical therapists. In his early 30s, he needs them.
“A swing in this company covers six tracks (ensemble positions), and the universal swing gets called when one of those swings is out sick, injured or on vacation. I learned the show with the tour that was in San Francisco, then I was needed for the (open-ended) run in Chicago, then I went back to San Francisco, then I went to Broadway for a few weeks, then I went on tour. At some point, I’ll be in the company that’s starting in Puerto Rico.”
(Lin-Manuel Miranda is mostly of Puerto Rican descent. Tre Smith introduced himself to the “Hamilton” composerlyricist in Los Angeles on the tour: “He hugged me and said ‘Thank you. You have a hard job, and we really appreciate you.’ One of the most humble men I’ve met.”)
Smith never knows which track he’ll be called to cover, and the four current versions of the show aren’t identical: “They are blocked a little differently, or the choreography will be on a different count. The actors may all sit down on a different word. As a swing, you’re supposed to fit in, not look like the guy who doesn’t know the blocking.”
The show gives him time to do other projects. He danced in April in NBC-TV’s version of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” alongside fellow NWSA grad Abby Corrigan and Brandon Victor Dixon, who’d played Aaron Burr in the Broadway “Hamilton.” (Smith knew “Superstar” choreographer Camille A. Brown, because he worked in her dance company for five years.)
“It’s great to have ‘Hamilton’ as my bread and butter,” he said. “It can support me while I think about the things I want to do as an artist. I want to keep pushing the envelope and representing who I am.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
Charlotte native Tre Smith was in Easter Sunday’s live television broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” starring John Legend, center.