HAMILTON has finally dropped on Disney+. To celebrate we sat down with original cast member Sydney James Harcourt over Zoom to talk about being a part of the pop culture phenomenon, playing core roles over the past four years, the conversations around these historical figures now and what the show means to the current moment we’re living in.
It’s here! It’s incredible that HAMILTON dropped on Disney+ after it was initially supposed to be released in theaters. How did you feel about it being released in the current moment we are living in?
Sydney James Harcourt: Shock – you know. After doing the Some Good News performance, and having that breaking the internet moment again, where people are just hungry for something that makes them feel good from this company of performers they loved four years ago, it seemed like the natural kind of decision.
It’s crazy how timeless it is even four years later. What are some of the things you’d like the show to remind viewers of as they relate to what’s going on in the world?
Sydney James Harcourt: We’re all in one tribe together as Americans, we fought hard to have this country. So this unrest that’s happening, these political movements that we are having are the natural result of the people governing the country that they live in. One of the big life lessons the show taught me was to be proud of being an American even with its problems. We have the opportunity to address them. I hope that’s the larger picture.
It’s a story of a time where the constitution was written and the ramifications that defined its people then, have been used to apply to the nation now. But we don’t look the same as that society. To see the story be told by voices of color and be accessible on a streaming service, as someone who grew up unable to see Broadway shows, is such a gift!
Sydney James Harcourt: Coming from Detroit, it just wasn’t on my radar. Like, ‘Hey mom, can you take me to a Broadway show.’ I didn’t even know to ask for something like that cause I was a movie musical nut. It’s just not in your worldview for a lot of people in a lot of places. So to have it shoot to your tv for $6.99 when people have paid 5,000 dollars for one ticket to see this original cast, that’s America!
Before you took over Burr, you played so many of the characters like Philip Schuyler, Reynolds, King George, Washington, the list goes on! How did you become the go-to to fill those shoes – and crown?
Sydney James Harcourt: Initially I was just someone who would cover Washington primarily. Being in a show like this with so many amazing parts being an understudy is pure opportunity. The time will come when you have to go on, it always does like the sword of Damocles. When you first move to Broadway you hear, if you don’t already know people or you didn’t go to Juilliard or Yale or you don’t have family ties, being an understudy can be a way for you to make a moment for yourself. So I said, I’ll cover George Washington but could you please also then let me cover Aaron Burr and King George. Then once I had gotten to Broadway and I had performed both of them they were like, ‘Okay, so let’s add Jefferson and Lafayette as well.’
Can you tell me about how you approached all these different perspectives?
Sydney James Harcourt: Reading and research! I create memories for myself. You look for your ways but playing a villain, at least like Burr, and someone in history who is really reviled, I figured that since this is the guy who talks to the audience, I need to make them love me. For me, nothing compared to going on for Aaron Burr. It just was my dream of a triple-threat showman, show-stopper, classic broadway romping number like Room Where it Happens. It’s the only time I’ve ever had the moment of being out of character, not Aaron Burr in the middle of a number thinking, ‘I’m doing it. I’m in the middle of that number in New York in this show.’
The others–I got to watch so many of the original actors go through their process which is one of the most unique experiences of being an understudy in an original cast. I have to give a lot up to the actors who originated the roles because I got to see that magic happen.
Do you have any stories of notable audience members and did their presence make you nervous?
Sydney James Harcourt: If my mom is watching I get so nervous. It’s not cause she’d be one of those moms who’d be like ‘It was a little off.’ Anything I do up there, she’s going to tell me it was amazing. So it’s almost as if I really do have to be amazing so I don’t have to sit and listen to her lie to make me feel better. [When we have special guests] it doesn’t bother me at all. Renée (Elise Goldsberry) on the other hand: DO NOT TELL HER. For me, one of the first ones that were just like an out of body experience was when I was still on the stage deck and I turn around in my robe and it’s Meryl Streep. And I was the first person that she saw. And she threw her arms out and ran over for a hug and we got to talk about craft and acting. Meryl Streep came over to tell me how much she enjoyed the performance.
Sydney James Harcourt: A lot of the work has to be done by audience members because there’s only so much you can show. Philip Schuyler for instance, I play him in the film, I have him this archetype of this father in law who maybe is a little disapproving of this young upstart Hamilton to give it this levity that it needed in musical comedy. But this guy is a slave owner and just had his statue removed from Albany because of its implications and so there’s no real way to get that across in Helpless. In a cast like ours, how would you even show who’s a slave? Which is a question we had as cast members. It’s all situational, right? Thomas Jefferson, the famous slave owner, is a really nasty figure. He ends up being likeable in the show in some ways even though you’re aware of the dastardly things that he does and reminds you of politicians today. And there’s menace in it.
The show has scary and unsettling moments that come out of dire situations. The Reynolds’s were opportunists out to catch a politician. Reynolds is a villain. Aaron Burr himself is a vile egotistical, murderous, self-aggrandizing pretender. I understand the reasons how it got there from being orphaned but to have such privilege to grow up with slaves but no parents. It’s a window into the mind of how somebody can become twisted like that. They are problematic figures. There are darker things in politics, we’re living it out right now. Also, is George Washington a villain or a hero? We are asking ourselves these questions now. Do somebody’s good deeds and altruism outweigh the human rights abuses that they perpetrated? Are they also a victim of the system that they grew up in? Or were they willing participants? It’s just another layer of how HAMILTON can help further the conversations that are going on here.
Right now is the moment, the quarantine has paused all our lives without distractions to look at the injustices that are occurring to the marginalized, to the disenfranchised, just so many things around us.
Sydney James Harcourt: We’re all holding on by our fingertips in this system that is rigged against us–to keep us on the edge. I think we are all figuring out who we are with this time to think. There’s a lot of people who are suffering. We’re seeing the changes, it doesn’t seem like anyone is ready to move on from it. It’s suddenly become cool to be political and civic-minded and show support. Bring it on!
To close it out, have you seen the filmed version of the show already and did you ever imagine it would be this pop culture behemoth when you came across the project?
Sydney James Harcourt: It’s four years ago, to see it back is an incredible gift. It’s like a really good cinematographer came and recorded your wedding and made it look like this insane adventure to last for all time. When I see commercials before Drag Race, everyone watching sees that too. My reaction is pride in my cast and HAMILTON family. The cuts Tommy (Kail) chose, he made us look so great. It’s such a love letter to the cast.
Did I think HAMILTON was the best thing I had ever auditioned for? Absolutely. But the things that happened? Oh, no–there’s no way that you’d think an off-Broadway show is going to take you to the White House. I think we’re there again. I think we know it’s going to make an impact. I don’t think we can possibly understand the legacy of this film and what it’s going to be.
HAMILTON is now streaming on Disney+.
- [Interview] Sydney James Harcourt for HAMILTON: THE MUSICAL - July 10, 2020
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