DeMarius Copes may be about to become a superstar.
But Copes, 26, said it wouldn’t have been possible without the kindness and support of folks in Birmingham, folks who made it possible for a kid from Fairfield to land right smack dab in the middle of the spotlight.
“I grew up in a single-parent household with a sister, and my mom allowed us to do all the things we wanted to do, like all the sports and band, but the theater world was really not active on my side of town,” Copes said. “The hub of theater in Birmingham is about 30 minutes away, and when I didn’t have funds or transportation or anything to get there, so many people helped. I have to say thank you to so many people for letting me explore the arts without looking down on me in my situation at the time.”
Copes’ situation didn’t slow him down, and he thanks little choices along the way for getting him to where he is.
Consider this: Copes met a friend in the JCCEO Yes Ambassadors, a theatrical youth group, who introduced him to Roy Hudson, who was directing the Virginia Samford Theatre’s Students Take a Role at the Samford program and cast Copes in “Ragtime.” From there, Copes studied under Hudson at Shades Valley High School, a magnet school with a top-notch theater program. There, Copes was introduced to Red Mountain Theatre Company and executive director Keith Cromwell, who cast Copes in “Hairspray.” … You get the picture.
“Had I not done ‘Ragtime,’ I wouldn’t have gone to Shades Valley, and had I not gone to Shades Valley, I wouldn’t have gone to Red Mountain,” Copes said. At RMTC, he also appeared in “Legally Blonde,” choreographed by Robin Lewis, who would later talk Copes into attending Rider University in New Jersey. Which brought Copes close enough to New York that he started auditioning and landed the national tour of “Newsies.” And … that led to the “The Prom” musical in Atlanta, which was directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who cast Copes when “Mean Girls,” which he was putting together with Tina Fey, started in Washington and then went to New York.
And that’s how Copes made his way to Broadway. He still vividly recalls the opening night in 2018.
“Because of the movie and Tina Fey and Casey Nicholaw, this was not like your average Broadway opening night,” Copes said. “There were TV stars, movie stars, everyone was there. It was also one of the only nights that you see everyone in a theater dressed to the nines. Everyone looked like $4 million.”
The show was a hit, earning 12 Tony nominations in the process – and earning Copes a friend in Fey.
“It’s always refreshing when you work with someone who could be one thing but they’re not,” he said. “She’s 100% so lovely and takes so much time to get to know everyone she’s working with. She texts me from time to time. We’re on a first-name basis.”
Copes left “Mean Girls” the summer of last year, joining the national tour of “Hamilton.”
“Hamilton” was in Toronto in March when the company got the email they had been dreading.
“We were open a day after Broadway closed, and the next day we woke up to an email to come to the theater,” Copes said. “They put us on a two-week hold. Then it kept getting pushed back. And pushed back.”
By the middle of May, Copes decided to leave Toronto and go to Las Vegas, where he quarantined with friends before making his way to Los Angeles.
And it’s there where those friends talked Copes into sending in audition tapes for what had become a virtual audition for the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie.
“I never went into a room to audition,” Copes said. “I did it all in my apartment with basketball shorts on and no shoes. … The role is a new character that anybody could have played. There’s no archetype for what this person should be. You send in a thing and say, ‘Well, here goes nothing.’”
Copes had seen friends in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway and was a fan of the show about a high schooler who tells a lie that spins out of control thanks to the power of social media.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of it, and it’s kind of insane that not only am I doing it, but I get to do a new character that no one’s met,” Copes said. “Oliver is one of the high school students, good friends with Zoe Murphy, who is Evan’s love interest. He is queer, which is cool. We talk a lot about representation, and it’s really cool to be the one who is representing right now. I never see any high school Black, gay characters on TV who aren’t being ostracized for being Black, and I’m excited that I get to create that visual for somebody who is like me.”
Production on “Dear Evan Hansen” is scheduled to start in October in Atlanta and finish sometime around Thanksgiving. After that, Copes will see what happens, but he’d be glad to return to the ensemble of “Hamilton.”
“Who knows what this film project will do for me and my career,” Copes said. “I have no doubt it will be amazing things, but I’m also very proud and happy of where I am. I’ve worked hard to get there, and I also cherish and value the people who do the same thing I do. I’ve always been one of those people who sees the light on every single person who creates the thing and not just the person whose name is above the title.”
Copes is back in Birmingham before heading to Atlanta, and said his childhood friends are noticing his success.
“My friends don’t really know Broadway, but a Hollywood picture is a whole other level,” Copes said with a laugh. “They’re impressed, and I say, ‘Hey, I’ve been nailing my career for seven years.’”