By Pamela Jacobs.
Broadway’s Hamilton is like nothing you’ve ever seen—and is everything you’ve ever hoped for, or dreamed of, in theater. Set in the late 1700s, it’s as modern as anything on Broadway ever has been, and is relevant to every person, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. At the risk of sounding like I’m gushing—and it’s worth the risk—it is a perfect piece of art.
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton tells the story of one of the country’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, of whom most Americans know nothing more than that he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, and that his face is on the $10 bill. Through rap, hip hop, pop, and traditional theater music, the passion, romance, love, sex, ambition, and heartache of the country’s history-makers is brought brilliantly, astoundingly to life. Personally, I believe Lin-Manuel Miranda is the Shakespeare of our time, a man who is making history, not just writing about it.
Of course the most brilliant theatrical storytelling in the world is nothing without an equally brilliant cast. Creating Hamilton required the levels of talent and perfection from its cast that its writer possessed, and the cast certainly delivered.
Case in point: Renée Elise Goldsberry. No stranger to acting, singing, and stunning audiences with her beauty and extreme talent, Goldsberry’s performance as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, is flawless, powerful, evocative, and just plain wonderful.
Angelica Schuyler may be the role Goldsberry is getting the most attention for right now—but it’s certainly not her first or only time making theater audiences fall in love with her. She won awards for her performance in Shakespeare in the Park’s Two Gentlemen of Verona; she originated the role of Nettie in The Color Purple on Broadway; she was the last actress to play Mimi Marquez in Broadway’s Rent; and she charmed kids and adults alike as Nala in The Lion King on Broadway.
Goldsberry also honed her drama skills on One Life to Live for five years—for which she won several Daytime Emmy’s—and has graced the big and small screen in numerous other roles, including TV’s The Good Wife and The Following.
While this highly impressive, award-winning beauty might be entrenched in one of the biggest roles of her life, it’s certainly not the only important one. Because in addition to performing eight shows per week, recording a soundtrack, and speaking to people like me, Goldsberry is a wife and mother, and it’s clear from the smile on her face when she talks about her husband and two young children, that this is truly the role of her lifetime.
Basically, Renée Elise Goldsberry is superwoman—and her humility and generosity of spirit only make you love her more. It’s no wonder this woman is singing about history and creating it.
Pamela Jacobs: Hamilton is one of the biggest sensations to hit Broadway in decades. When you first started working on it, did you have any idea that it would be the massive hit it’s become?
Renée Elise Goldsberry: When I first heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s demo of the song I sing in the show, my jaw hit the floor—I thought ‘this is the mother lode.’ People send stuff all the time to prepare or audition for, but this was unlike anything I’d ever heard, and I couldn’t even take it in in a single hearing. I was like ‘wow, this is huge, this is it.’
I hadn’t even planned to participate at that point because I had just brought my daughter home from Africa—our second child is adopted—and I was on a self-imposed maternity leave; but just the way life works out, as soon as you say ‘I’m not leaving the house for two months,’ something comes along that you just can’t say no to.
I hadn’t heard any of the other songs yet—and my song is one of 50 amazingly miraculous songs and moments—it only took that one to know that it was going to be a huge hit. If I was in the audience and saw this, my mind would be blown.
PJ: Obviously the music is what you first heard, but it’s one of many brilliant aspects of the show. Are there other specifics that you can pinpoint as to why this show is so special and so beloved?
REG: It’s impossible to single out anything in the show, because you feel as if you’re cheating on some other aspect that’s just as impactful and emotional. It started with a story about somebody that we don’t know much about, shockingly—Alexander Hamilton—and the way Ron Chernow writes this biography is so much more than just what could be historical dates and facts. It’s about relationships and emotions; there’s a drama involved in this person’s life, and this biographer captured the drama. Lin is also a great storyteller, and he was blown away by the life of a person he thought he knew. To quote him, I think he said, ‘I can’t believe no one’s already written this.’
I think he spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the musical was that was already written about this. He couldn’t believe that he came across this particular story and no one had told it. I think that’s divine, because I don’t know of a better storyteller than Lin-Manuel Miranda; I don’t know of a more unique and important voice—his sensitivity to what’s the most human, what’s the most dramatic, and what’s the most universal in every person’s story.
On top of that, it’s really about the influence that comes out of him [Manuel]. He is what we all are—an amalgam of a million different voices and sounds we hear all the time because of the media now. Media now is iPods, iMusic, your playlist. In fact, the show was originally called ‘Hamilton Mixtape,’ which is almost more appropriate; the way you would make a playlist to capture all the particular things you want to convey.
PJ: Your character is an actual, historical character, not just a fictional character, so did you have to do a lot of research into her as a real person?
REG: I had the benefit of the work that had already been done in the biography, and some of the most dramatic parts of her life were there and manipulated by Lin. But really when you’re playing a character, it’s more of a soul searching of who you are than who that person is. Really you read about the character and see the decisions they’ve made, but you’re looking within yourself and the world around you to fulfill those moments in the richest way possible.
PJ: Is it different when you’re originating a role—you’re the first actor to play Angelica and breathing life into this character?
REG: I was the last to play Mimi in Rent, and that show was another important and landscape-changing gift to the world, and it was a great bookend experience for me. That character in many ways was the exact opposite of Angelica, but both extremely strong women who are living powerfully with the burden of their time. So I had the many, many women who played Mimi before me,
whose shoulders I stood on, but I’m Renée Goldsberry, not them, and I’m not going to just copy them—although you do have the advantage of seeing things other people do and saying ‘Oh, that’s fabulous,’ but the most you can give any role is whatever is most unique to you. So in that way, there isn’t much of a difference, originating a role or not. I’ll do what I’m going to do whether I’m the first or the hundredth playing the character.
PJ: You’ve done big screen, small screen, lots of theater and Broadway—do you have a favorite? Is Broadway the epitome?
REG: Theater, I’d say, not just Broadway. Broadway is what the world says it is; it’s the profile and the hope that the better a show does somewhere, it will make it to Broadway. A show is a success not because it is on Broadway, but because every high school, every regional theater wants to then do it. That’s the value of Broadway, it’s the force that sends it out into the world so it can be as far-reaching as possible.
Everything has its pluses and minuses; the minus in theater—and the plus—is that it exists in that moment and then it’s gone. It doesn’t matter how brilliant I was every single night before you come to the show, if it doesn’t work on the night you come, it didn’t matter. So what’s challenging about getting a lot of praise and acclaim [in theater] is you have to live up to that again every night and believe that the gift will come again to make it real in that moment.
It’s nice in film and television to have an honest, beautiful moment that’s captured and can live forever. When I leave the show [Hamilton], it’s over; I’ll have my stories and memories, but I do love that TV and film keeps giving.
But, what’s beautiful and amazing and wonderful about theater is probably it is the most satisfying, in terms of how much of yourself is demanded. The bar is so high, and you can’t compartmentalize what you’re doing, especially in a musical that’s this resonant and deep; there’s no part of who you are that isn’t called for and useful, and that’s very satisfying when you can pull it off. The other thing is the role the audience plays in creating a beautiful moment in theater; that’s at least 40% of what we’re experiencing onstage.
PJ: The show is so relevant today, socially, and politically. Are there certain themes that resonate especially with you?
REG: There are things to come to mind, politically, but really it’s the universal truths that are most relevant now and always, that move me the most. Forgiveness, love, the choices that a woman has to make—these are always relevant and interesting.
Whether it’s battling over immigration laws, the lines drawn between personal and political lives, controversies, conflicts—all these things that existed then are relevant and poignant now.
PJ: You’ve had quite a few distinguished people in the audience; you performed in front of the Obamas, for instance. Are you thinking about that while performing?
REG: I typically don’t want to know that a particular person is there, because I feel, in theory, I’m more free if I’m not wondering what they’re thinking. I want to know at the end, when I’m walking offstage—then I can be like ‘yay,’ or ‘oh well!’ [laughs].
In this case, of course we had to know he was going to be there because we had to make sure it was safe for him to be there. It had been a dream of mine—the idea of performing for a president, in particular that president. I remember when he first became president and went to see Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, I thought, ‘Oh my God, can you imagine what it’s like to be those actors?’ I thought it was the biggest thing that could happen to any performer doing any show ever, so the fact that it happened to me is an example of what God can do in your life in terms of dreams coming true.
As a company we were so excited about telling him this story, that honor and responsibility trumped nerves and anxiety. Everything else was insignificant to showing this particular story to a sitting president—and this sitting president. We had the honor of performing it for Michelle Obama first, which was also a dream come true. She came backstage after and she was as lovely and gracious and beautiful as I hope Angelica Schuyler could be—the perfect example of what this woman I’m playing would aspire to be.
We’ve had Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, de Blasio, Bloomberg. Oh, and the Clintons—they were like our first royalty. Chelsea came and then came back a few weeks later with her parents. But whether you’re the leader of the free world or a high school kid from the Bronx, there’s no difference in terms of how important we feel it is to share this story with you. Not only does it need to be told because of the things that Hamilton made that we inherited, the seeds he planted, but also we tell stories because it helps us lead better lives, and we need to hear about what other people suffered and overcame, how they failed, sacrificed, struggled, and won, and why we have this. We need to hear about how these young people fought for their legacy so we don’t stay complacent. That’s the power of history, which the show s making sexy again. History isn’t boring, it’s a soap opera; there’s nobody’s life that isn’t dramatic, funny, tragic—it’s just how you tell the story.
PJ: It seems to be working, as every review is overwhelmingly positive, with words like ‘miraculous,’ ‘life-changing,’ and ‘the show of the century.’
REG: Here’s the thing: I think we tend to do that. Every year there’s a hit movie or show that we do that to—and I try to remind myself of that to stay grounded and focused—but the importance of remembering this happens is it makes the next writer who is behind Lin even more real.
PJ: Maybe you’re the good luck charm, actually.
REG: I’m in a show with a beautiful company of people, the most diverse and fascinating group of souls that I’ve met. So many of them are so young and probably my favorite thing for the rest of my life will be to watch their careers and how they develop and what they’ve learned from this experience.
Years and years ago I won the John Lennon songwriting contest; I lived in Los Angeles and it was the first year of this contest, and my partner and I submitted four or five songs, and one of them won Rock Song of the Year. This guy that I used to sing demos for said ‘that’s really awesome, just don’t make it your swan song.’ That was decades ago, and I was recently thinking ‘what if that had been?’ Now, years later, I think he’d say, “Renée, it’s okay if this, now, is your swan song.’ Everything at this point just feels like grace.
PJ: I imagine that your family is the most important role for you.
REG: It is.
PJ: How do you manage doing eight performance a week and having two young children?
REG: It would not be possible to have this dream-come-true experience if I didn’t have the most supportive husband in the whole wide world. Years ago, when I was dreaming up this significant other before I’d even met him, I remember thinking I need the kind of man who can deal with the extremes of the life of an actress. Can you deal with me when I don’t have to leave the house because I haven’t had a job in months and have no money? Can you be the one who supports me when I’m totally disillusioned, and can you be Mr. Goldsberry and hold my purse on the side of the red carpet? Can you do those extremes? It’s not easy—the man who can support you totally when you have so little to give is a very unique creature, and by the grace of God, I have the most perfect one in the world.
Most importantly, he’s just very happy for me—he loves the show more than I do, if that’s possible. He’d be supportive anyway, even if he didn’t love it, but it’s helpful that when I come home he’s listening to the demos. He just wants me to be happy and I am happy, because he is wonderful. I couldn’t leave if my husband, my son, and my daughter weren’t happy; it wouldn’t be worth it. If it were stealing something they needed I couldn’t do it. If this isn’t happiness, I don’t know if it exists.
PJ: Your son has seen the show a few times—how does it feel performing in front of him, of all people?
REG: There are moments during the show that I think a lot about him—so I thought when he was there that I would be a wreck, because I am impacted by family or friends when I know a certain moment will resonate with them personally, but ironically when he was there I was more staid. I feel like my character is stronger and less vulnerable when he’s there, maybe subconsciously, to protect him. The beauty of my character is that she can be all those things.
PJ: And you brought your son to the premier party.
REG: Yes, the first time I brought him was when it closed at the Public Theater, because that was his sixth birthday and I couldn’t not be with him, and the second time was on opening night. They made a 5:00 show and I thought ‘that’s not too late for him’ and he didn’t have school, so he stayed for the party, and he was just the life of the party—break dancing in the middle of the dance floor all night long.
Part of me had this idea that I wouldn’t bring them around too much, because I didn’t want to influence them too much to be a part of this life; this life, you have to do it if it’s your passion. Never stop yourself if it’s what you really want and need to do, and if anyone tells you not to, they are wrong. I want that for my kids, whether it’s science or visual arts or politics, I want them to follow their passion and their dreams.