Singer and actor Lawrence Hamilton, who starred on Broadway and on tour in “Ragtime” and other musicals, died Thursday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York of complications from surgery, said his sister, Evelyn Hall. He was 59.
In “Ragtime,” based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, Hamilton played the leading role of Coalhouse Walker, an African American in the early 20th century who endures a number of tragedies, including racist attacks. “It’s a very emotional journey I go on every night, the gamut of emotions from happiness to total rage and outrage,” Hamilton told the Los Angeles Times in 2000 when the show came to the Orange County Performing Arts Center. “It’s a hard road to travel, but I love it.”
Other Broadway shows in which he appeared included “Jelly’s Last Jam” and a revival of “The Wiz.”
Hamilton was born in the small town of Ashdown, Ark., in 1954. He took piano lessons from a woman who had been a friend of the king of ragtime composers, Scott Joplin. The lessons were supposed to concentrate on classical works, but Hamilton would beg her to play a bit of ragtime. “I would say, ‘Please, play one of those things for me,’” he said in the Times interview, “and she would go to town.”
The summer jobs he worked during high school — including one in a poultry plant — made the life of a performer seem far away. “Trucks would pull up with these stinky chickens and turkeys,” Hamilton told the Associated Press in 2002. “I had to grab them by the legs. My knuckles would swell up. I told my dad, ‘I’m a pianist. Look at my hands. I can’t do this.’”
He earned a music degree at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., and then got a job performing at Walt Disney World. After a talent manager spotted him, he auditioned for the Broadway show “Timbuktu,” starring Eartha Kitt, and won a small part.
In addition to appearing on stage, he was chosen by opera star Jessye Norman to be musical director of a televised AIDS benefit. He also spent three years on the road as a vocal and dance coach to the boy band New Kids on the Block.
Hamilton, who had homes in New York and Little Rock, Ark., had recently starred in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, N.C.
At the play’s last curtain call March 23, Hamilton sang for the cast a piano rendition of “For All We Know” by Donny Hathaway, which begins with “For all we know, we may never meet again.”
“That was a couple of weeks ago, his last performance,” said Tom Quaintance, the troupe’s artistic director.
“God has blessed this little boy,” Hamilton said in the Associated Press interview, “who used to bale hay and pull chickens out of a crate.”