(inset) Sydney James Harcourt and the original Broadway company of ‘Hamilton.’
(Production photo: Joan Marcus, portrait provided by Sydney James Harcourt)
Tony Award-winning Hamilton choreographer Andy Blakenbuehler opened a door when he gave ensemble member Sydney James Harcourt several sections throughout the show to freestyle. “I would let the girl out!” exclaims Harcourt, who seized the moment to reflect that Hamilton’s groundbreaking diversity could also reflect the LGBTQ community.
“Being the only out gay guy, starting from the workshop and the original Off-Broadway cast, it was difficult in an environment that felt very masculinity-focused. It’s been hard, especially for black gay men to find a voice in the broader black community.”
Harcourt vogued and did chaine turns across the stage during “Guns and Ships.” As an uptown citizen with a cane and a cape, he’d let himself be “as flamboyant as I wanted to be so that any gay person in the audience or people down the road could see themselves in it,” reflects Harcourt. “I hope that the contribution I made was to make it visible on stage, that even though we’re talking about the revolution and the 18th century, homosexuals existed so that it wouldn’t be strictly a cisgender heterosexual male story.”
Harcourt also points out historical references that Hamilton and his contemporaries may have fallen on the Kinsey Scale nearly 200 years before it even existed. Hercules Mulligan (portrayed by Okieriete Onaodowan with “quintessential black strength and bravado” as described by Harcourt) was actually a slightly built tailor. At the same time, John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette may have had homosexual desires, as revealed in historical documents.
The Journey to Broadway
Famed New York casting agent Bernard Telsey called Harcourt’s agent to audition for a workshop of Hamilton before the Off-Broadway production at the Public Theater. Harcourt had carved out a niche as a performer comfortable with pop vocals and rap, a skill he perfected during his “survival” job as the lead singer in a wedding band.
And while he and fellow castmates felt like Hamilton could be a hit of the season, Harcourt says he wasn’t prepared for the phenomenon that ensued.
“There is no way that any of us could have, on any level, imagined how big this was going to get, from every A-list star watching you perform to meeting the Obamas, the Grammys and now a movie and another pivotal moment. I knew that it was special. I knew that it was brilliant. I didn’t know that it would be a force in a cultural movement.”
Hamilton opened to rave reviews at the Public Theater in February 2015, with critic Samuel L. Leiter writing, “Will Broadway audiences be hungry for a nearly three-hour history lesson? I have no idea, but if musical theater is ever going to move to the next level, it couldn’t have a better teacher.”
The ensemble was ready to migrate uptown and start earning a livable wage. At the time, a typical Off-Broadway contract paid less than $600 per work. After six months of a physically demanding eights shows per week, it was time for the first Secretary of the Treasury to fill the coffers.
Six Roles Are Better Than One
Harcourt’s ensemble track included multiple characters and a dizzying array of costume changes, but that was only the beginning. Originally contracted solely to cover Washington, Harcourt had his eye on Burr. Eventually, the creative team expanded his understudy responsibilities to also include George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson and King George.
“I kind of felt like, hey, it’s gonna look great on a resume. And why not push myself to make a mark in this show and leave a track for future actors that can give them the opportunity that this show gave me? So often, ensemble members don’t get those kinds of opportunities,” says Harcourt.
The elaborate staging demanded that Blakenbuehler choreograph the ensemble in one room, while director Thomas Kail work with the principal actors in another, so there was very little time for Harcourt to prepare. For Aaron Burr, make that no time. Harcourt received a 12:30 p.m. call that he’d be going on that day for the first time and rushed to the theatre.
“I had never had a rehearsal with any other cast member in the show. I didn’t have costumes. It’s still making me shake talking about it now. It was sheer panic. It’s hard to explain the gravity of knowing this show is not going to stop if you forget a word,” recalls Harcourt. “I had been going over the lyrics of every part while doing the laundry, doing the dishes, running on the treadmill — anywhere I could do it to make it part of my muscle memory. They fit me in an old costume of Leslie [Odam Jr.]’s from the Public, and I used other elements from my ensemble track, and they threw me on. One dance captain stood on one side of the stage with a computer, and there was another one on the other side of the stage. I’d come off and say ‘Tell me what wing for the next entrance, and where I’m exiting.’ When I finished my performance and walked into my dressing room, Renée [Elise Goldsberry] was waiting for me. She hugged me and we sobbed.”
Harcourt eventually played Burr full-time, which enabled the actor to imbue his own sensibility into the role. He tapped into the character’s relationship with the audience as a kind of purgatorial salvation.
“This is sort of his way of living this out, to try to explain to the audience that he’s not a bad or evil person. It’s basically a summation of Burr’s trial for murder. That’s how I saw it,” says Harcourt. “Burr’s life after [Hamilton’s death] was just horrible. He lost his daughter. He lost his son-in-law. He lost his granddaughter. He tried to become the King of Mexico. He was tried for being a traitor. He was exiled to France. It was my apology on Burr’s behalf through history.”
When asked if there’s one lyric that still resonates with Harcourt since Hamilton first opened Off-Broadway five years ago, the actor responds with Burr’s line, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
“Ever since Hamilton, I’ve been so keenly aware of how time passes and what I’m doing with that time. I’ve gotta be creative. Alexander Hamilton taught me that, and Lin [Manuel Miranda] taught me that,” says Harcourt. “Create the thing that you want in the world. So many times, we have these great ideas as actors. There are so many creative people on Broadway, but we get wrapped up working on somebody else’s dream. We forget and don’t take the time to flesh out our ideas and demand that the world hears them. That’s been a sea change for me since Hamilton.”
In the Living Room Where It Happens
Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning Hamilton draws inspiration from Ron Chernow’s epic 814-page biography, bringing the world of Alexander Hamilton into a modern vernacular that has captivated fans from first-time theatergoers and kids in car seats to Broadway regulars. That mass appeal has turned the musical into a $1 billion franchise.
Disney paid a whopping $75 million for the filmed stage version of Hamilton, which may lead to other Hamilton entities in the future. But for now, fans have to tune into Disney+ to get their Hamilton fix. And according to Harcourt, the cinematography creates an entirely new audience experience.
“My favorite number in the show is ‘Satisfied,’” says Harcourt. “I’ve never seen a number that rewinds, then plays it back from another person’s point of view but with everyone in stop-time and in the same space. Add to that staging the camera work, and it’s a mind-boggling experience. As soon as it’s finished, people will hit rewind and watch it all over again.”
Harcourt also mentions one particular moment when Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, comes into the frame during the fatal duel, followed by the shot that ended Hamilton’s life.
“That moment in the movie is so superbly done, the way they’ve used hard focus and soft focus. I don’t want to say a lot more because I want people to be able to experience it for themselves. It’s an astonishing and historic moment in the filming of theater.”
Hamilton premiers on Disney+ on July 3.
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His arts writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.