As a kid, Taylor Iman Jones saw “The Lion King” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre three times. She and her family once sat in the first row of the mezzanine where, during the opening number, a colorful “bird” broke off from its pole, flew from the stage and settled at Jones’ feet.
“I screamed — that thing could have landed anywhere, and it landed right in front of me,” she recalled excitedly, her expressions as vibrant as her iridescent makeup. “I wanted to keep it so badly, but then someone came up behind me and asked for it back. It was such a cool moment of real-life theater, like a glitch in the matrix of this big, spectacular show.”
We were chatting in the upper lobby of the Pantages, where “Hamilton” was scheduled to play an eight-month run. She had just packed up her place in New York City’s Washington Heights and, living in Los Angeles for the first time and without a car, moved into an apartment just steps away from the venue. Hours earlier, she had tested out the production’s turntable stage for the first time. Jones — billed as both the innocent Peggy Schuyler and the sultry Maria Reynolds — was the production’s only new cast member.
Days away from opening night, her biggest concern was delivering the song “Say No to This” for an audience of 2,700 people. “I have yet to do it to where I feel happy with myself, because I’m so nervous every single time I get to it,” she confessed. “It’s a very difficult show to do. The language is heightened and specific and rhythmic. It’s like doing Shakespeare on steroids. Other casts make it look easy, and being a newcomer, I want to make everyone proud.”
Mostly, she wanted to impress her parents, who are based in the Bay Area and hadn’t been able to witness any part of her meteoric rise in the New York theater scene over the last three years. They planned to fly down later, once the summer weather cooled off and she was plenty settled into the role. After the run, she was to relocate to Chicago to star in the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“It’s important for my mom to see me perform here, because she’s one who always drove me down and brought me here all those years ago,” she said, tears forming in her eyes.”Oh my God, I’m getting emotional. But that’s how it makes me feel. It’s extremely special to me. It’s a dream come true.”
Jones never made her “Hamilton” debut. To curb the spread of COVID-19, American theaters shut down on what would’ve been the production’s opening night and have remained dark for a year and counting — the ultimate glitch in the matrix.
Amid so many unknowns, the 29-year-old actress safely visited her retired parents in Fairfield, California, located between Sacramento and San Francisco. Her trips home became longer and longer, so she vacated her Hollywood Boulevard apartment in September (though she hadn’t really stayed there since July). She watched plenty of TV shows and movies while sheltering in place but has not yet watched “Hamilton” on Disney+.
“I actually love watching different casts of ‘Hamilton’ because every single person in every single role puts a spin on the story, every time,” she says over the phone from Fairfield. “But I was so, so close to just being able to do it. If I wasn’t, then I think I would’ve streamed it with everybody else and cried and loved it. It’s just too hard to watch something you want so much.”
Jones first auditioned for “Hamilton” upon moving to New York City in 2016, after consistently leading regional productions throughout the Bay Area and completing a national tour of “American Idiot” (when she first performed on the Pantages stage for a week).
Within two months of living there she had booked her first Broadway gig: an ensemble role in the “Groundhog Day” musical. “They had to tell me to stop wearing so much makeup, because we were playing very normal people,” recalls Jones, who loves makeup and beauty. “I was like, ‘Well, my character does YouTube tutorials in her basement.’”
She was then cast in a principal role in “Head Over Heels,” a new musical comedy propelled by the Go-Go’s hits. “She had this irresistible guilelessness, which I appreciated because you so often see performers who are terrific, but really it’s just a bag of tricks,” recalls director Michael Mayer, who ushered the Broadway breakthroughs of Sutton Foster and Jonathan Groff.
“Instead, she finds an authentic connection to the material, and remains extremely truthful about what she does or doesn’t know. And look, it was not an easy role, but she worked her ass off and delivered.”
After starring in the off-Broadway musical “Scotland, PA” and joining the Kennedy Center’s anniversary production of “The Who’s Tommy,” Jones nabbed the lead role in “The Devil Wears Prada,” originating the not-so-stylish assistant of a menacing magazine editor (to be played by Beth Leavel).
“As a Black girl, I’m already going to be different than what most people expect,” she said a year ago of updating Anne Hathaway’s role in the 2006 movie. “We want to tell the story we all love, but for the audience of today. Representation matters, and it’s cool that so many little girls are gonna be able to watch it and see themselves.”
While in “Hamilton,” Jones was set to sporadically travel to Chicago for “Prada” workshops. She had hoped to spend her days off in LA auditioning for TV shows and movies and checking out the local drag scene. But with both projects on pause from the pandemic, the actress went on unemployment, “but that runs out eventually.” And though she qualifies for health insurance, the toughest part is “whether or not you can even afford it if you haven’t been working this whole time.”
Jones keeps her frustrations at bay by staying busy: reading, meditating, taking dance classes and performing virtually from home. She’s also trying out self-taped auditions for the first time, submitting hundreds, but hasn’t yet booked anything through them. “I’m grateful that I now know how to mix and edit on some computer programs, and I got a bunch of equipment — ring lights, microphones, backdrops — to create with, even with COVID is over,” she says.
“But honestly, I am over it. I do not like being my own everything: doing my own costumes, makeup, hair, tech, lighting, camerawork, directing and producing, on top of acting. I’m making all of these decisions on my own, and while it’s helping me to be stronger in making these kinds of choices, the hope that you’re doing it all right is overwhelming, physically and mentally, and just makes me miss collaborating with people. And there is nothing worse than belting your face off to absolute silence.”Master classes — for Jeanna and Dani de Waal’s Broadway Weekends, Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Scott Oliver’s Actor Therapy and the Ballet School in Walnut Creek, California, among others — are her most gratifying gigs, and she wants to continue teaching classes remotely once theaters reopen. But the most unexpected benefit of the last year has been the rare opportunity to get to know her parents, as well as herself, better than ever before.
“Right now, I can’t do my job, I cannot do the thing I love the most,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do except for wait this time out — I can’t make anything go faster, I can’t go back to work sooner. What I can do is keep trying to keep my skills tight, and also take time to focus on things I haven’t been able to whenever I’m in a show. Like, I can sit and really listen to my mom tell me some story because I literally have nowhere else to be!
“We’re so often conditioned to define ourselves by our jobs, to plan our whole lives and identities around them,” she says. “But I am more than just an actor; I am a daughter, a dancer, a teacher. And with all this time to really be by ourselves, I do feel like a different person than I was a year ago.”
“Prada” has been rescheduled for summer 2022, and “Hamilton” is tentatively set to play at the Pantages in October — meaning that, if the country’s vaccine rollout continues as planned, Jones won’t be forced to choose between these two dream projects.
“The good thing is, whenever ‘Hamilton’ is back, the entire cast has to rehearse again because it’s been so long,” she says with a laugh. “Which I need because, last year, I had to learn it in only a few weeks, got to put on the costume for what felt like the greatest cosplay day o
f my life, and then literally never got to do it again!”
Though she left her “Hamilton” script in the Pantages dressing room, she will prepare to return in other important ways. “There’s like no makeup in ‘Hamilton,’ so I’m gonna wear as much makeup as I can without you seeing it, and I’m gonna keep going until they tell me to stop,” she says. “I’m trying to be contoured as Peggy, and I will probably try a subtle cat eye and a red lip for Mariah Reynolds.