Hamilton star Sydney James Harcourt talks activism, drag queens, and a post-COVID Broadway

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 05: Sydney James Harcourt visits Build Series to discuss the Broadway show 'Girl from the North Country' at Build Studio on October 5, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 05: Sydney James Harcourt visits Build Series to discuss the Broadway show 'Girl from the North Country' at Build Studio on October 5, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images) /

Actor and activist Sydney James Harcourt opens up about the success of Hamilton, his optimistic outlook on the future of Broadway, and his love for drag queen Nina West.

Hamilton is the 2015 break-out musical that puts a modern, diversified spin on the history of Alexander Hamilton and his rise to becoming a Founding Father of the United States.

The production utilizes hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul musical stylings, performed by a mostly non-white group of actors. Led by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the original Broadway cast sang and danced their way to a record-setting sixteen Tony Award nominations, winning eleven awards, including Best Musical, in 2016. The frequently sold-out show was quickly elevated to cultural phenomena status, even winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Disney+ release of the filmed version of Hamilton has further demonstrated the show’s popularity and appeal to a wide-ranging audience. The streaming platform has reported that the musical was downloaded (viewed) over 500,000 times throughout the course of the weekend alone, all across the globe.

The filmed version features the original Broadway cast that includes Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Detroit native Sydney James Harcourt. Harcourt originated the role of James Reynolds, Phillip Schuyler, and the Doctor but made history during his tenure as he went on as an understudy for almost every major male role in the show.

He recently spoke with Culturess about the success of Hamilton, his collaboration with RuPaul’s Drag Race star Nina West, and why he still has hope for the future of Broadway in a post-COVID-19 world.

Culturess: Everything is sort of crazy in the world right now, what are you doing to stay sane?

Sydney James Harcourt: I’m staying artistic. A lot of my friends who are artists have reached out, digitally, and we’ve been able to create things to speak to the movements that going on now, so you don’t feel like you’re trapped in your house with no way to add to the conversation.

I have spent a lot of time in my career worried about what is going to happen next. You finish one job, then you’re back auditioning, and then before that job is over, you’re auditioning for what the next job is going to be. I learned a while back, not to spend the in-between times in despair or worry, but instead use that time for creating.

Culturess: What do you think the key is to Hamilton being so successful?

Harcourt: I think so many people can see themselves in the story. Hamilton is the underdog. He’s the one who grew up in a town that had nothing and decided to take a chance and come to New York and see if he could make it. And, against all odds, look what he achieved. So you’re rooting for this person, who you already know from the beginning, is ultimately going to have a tragic end.

I feel like in this time of…America’s never been out of a time when we haven’t felt this tribal sort of identity. Where it’s “my rights” versus “your rights,” and this is about “my group.” And unlike a lot of other places, who maybe don’t have the best way of life in terms of democracy, like Cuba, what they do have is nationalistic pride. They are Cubans and they are so proud to be Cubans, whereas, I don’t think Americans generally feel that sense of, ‘at the end of the day, we’re all Americans and that’s what hold us together.’

I think that this show sort of gives people that feeling, watching what we went through in order to win this war and have a Constitution so that we can have these arguments today, and we can peaceably assemble in the streets and fight for rights. It also, I think, makes you look at your own path, your own journey. It certainly did for me.

That was the biggest impact, like how are you using your time?

Culturess: You’ve played different characters, including the Doctor and Aaron Burr, and have been the understudy of many others in Hamilton. Is there a particular role that has been your favorite to play or has resonated with you more than others?

Harcourt: Aaron Burr, by far. It is my favorite role in the musical theater canon. It is that dream for that kid who wants to be a triple threat, who wants to be that song and dance man in the middle of an 11 o’clock number. It’s just that Gene Kelly fantasy I’ve had since I was a kid.

I also love playing a villain. The complexity of Aaron Burr; it’s not cut and dry. The way they present him, and the way he presents himself, as he would have back then, he portrays himself as a sympathetic character. ‘Can’t you see why I did this? I had a daughter too. I had a life, too. I thought he was going to shoot. Why wouldn’t I? He’s wearing his glasses.’

If you play it right, at the end of the movie, here they  are, crying, in some ways for this person who is this vile character from our history, this murderer. You get this opportunity to make people feel this complexity. I think it’s rare in roles, and there’s not a role on Broadway that I’d rather play.

Culturess: After the pandemic is over/under control and once things get back to “normal,” do you think there will be any other shows as diverse as Hamilton, which in some ways started a movement in the musical theater community?

Harcourt: Well, we can hope. We can hope that Hamilton starts a movement.

To be honest, I had those same thoughts when we started Broadway and we did the Tonys. I was like man, in the seasons that come after this, the Powers That Be are going to see that people want representation. People want to see what America looks like now, on stage. Not what we’ve been doing for season after season for so many years. Which are these same stories we keep telling, based in archetypes of black stories or white stories or Jewish stories versus today’s stories. When musical theater started, it was showing the face of America right then at that moment, not always a throwback. Then it didn’t happen, frankly, it just didn’t happen.

In the seasons that followed, it was more of the same. It is still so hard, especially as someone who is of multiple ethnicities and doesn’t fit into one category, but for any minority, it’ still so hard. There are so many fewer jobs that you can get or even be considered for.

While I am hopeful, that here we are again at a crossroads with Hamilton really making a cultural impact, I don’t know. You can only hope that the Powers That Be will let new voices in. That they will let new writers, new music writers into the circle so we can tell those stories. Let new actors with different backgrounds and different types be up there on the stage rather than going with the same thing we’ve been doing for a while.

Broadway, and theater in general, are going to have to through this huge change because how are you going to pack 2,000 people into a theater? How are we going to do eight shows a week and keep the theaters clean? I think that’s going to change.

I think Broadway’s rules have been set since 1900 and haven’t changed much. We have to rethink that now, just like we have to rethink everything in America these days. From statues to laws to policing our own country. I know it’s going through a big change, but we have yet to see what that is going to be. The most hopeful part, for film, television, and theater, is that new stories come through from fresh voices.

Culturess: So, we have to talk about you and Ms. Nina West, and the collaboration on “A Safe Place to Land.” How did that come about?

Harcourt: This collaboration was Nina’s idea. We’ve been friends around fifteen years and I have always been such a huge fan and friend. I was sort of raised by drag queens in New York City. They just really felt like my culture. You hope that when you move to Broadway, that it’s going to be this place of acceptance and art and you can be yourself, but it isn’t always. I found that community in gay performers and gay bars.

We stayed friends for a long time and it’s just been miraculous to watch her shoot like a star to prominence after her season and get the kudos that she deserves. And to have your friend, who you get the joy of watching go through all of this, reach out and say ‘hey, I’ve been asked to perform at this She’s a Riot LGBTQ digital protest to support Black Women Trans Lives, will you sing a duet with me? I’m thinking of this Sara Bareilles/John Legend cover.’ I booked Hamilton with John Legend, singing “Ordinary People.” So I immediately said yes. I knew that Nina could sing, but I didn’t know she could sing like THAT.

So, we made it in our separate basements, and its what I’m sort of talking about with how I stay sane during this time. your friends who do art, you can reach out, you can make the most miraculous things and, without a pandemic, we may never have thought of that.

It means so much to me to have a record that we did, I think we’re going to look back on it in the years to come and go ‘what the hell. how did the two of us, who met in a gay bar in Columbus, OH, with you performing on a stage the size of a postage stamp and me having left the ensemble of Lion King. How did we get this platform? How did we get here to this place?’ And besides it feeling good to work with your friend, it just gives me hope that we can put that out and make an impact.

Culturess: So, now we’re going to talk drag queens. We’re not going to put you on the spot and ask who your favorite is, but do you have a favorite season of RuPauls’ Drag Race?

Harcourt: I mean, season 5 is just so…it just changed the game. And then All-Stars 2 with Alaska. Those two seasons were like fully phenomenal. We got so much entertainment, and talent, and drama.

I feel like that’s when the show finally came together and found its footing. The pre-production really lined up, so they were able to tell us a story and bring in amazing queens like Alyssa Edwards, Roxxy Andrews, Detox, and Jinx to prominence. Of course, I have to throw the 11-gdary season out for my Nina West. Nina is my favorite comedian out of all the Miss Congenialities. The laughs and the unexpected gut-busters that she pulled out during her season were amazing, and I don’t think we’ve ever really seen that before. Nina really carved her own niche out, that’s why I think we’ve seen her be the most successful Miss Congeniality.

Culturess: Last, but not least. What is next for Sydney? What are you working on next?

Harcourt: I think all of us are asking ourselves that question, haha. I have a rap album coming out that I’m doing with Warners Bros. and an investigative journalist with the New York Times named Ian Urbina, who wrote a book called The Outlaw Ocean. It’s about crimes at sea, like human trafficking and piracy, and the like. There’s some really horrific stories, and it was a best-seller this past November.

He had always wanted to marry music and journalism and there’s no better way to get a narrative across in music. He said Hamilton taught him that. It’s been an amazing project, it’s right in line with the character storytelling that we do in Hamilton. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s gut-wrenching. That’s going to be dropping in August or September. I had some Broadway things lined up, but not sure what’s going to happen, so that’s TBD.

What I’m most excited about is that new voices are going to get their chance. I auditioned for so many roles where I was told I was just not the right type. I’d go in for African American but I’m not really what they need. Or I get a lot of Latino roles, but they’d rather go with someone who is actually Latino, rather than just the look. Or there’s a role that previously written for a white character, but ‘hey we need some representation so let’s make this a character of color.’ But that is NOT representation. That is you trying to checkbox a demographic. That’s cynical versus really trying to understand minority characters.

So I’m really excited to see what this next pilot season is going to look like. We’re all going to be auditioning on tape from wherever it is we are, and it’s going to be new voices. It’s incumbent upon us, as artists, to be writing that stuff, to be pushing for representation and writing our stories.

I have this really good feeling about what the landscape is going to look like in 2021. I’m working on my own writing of telling the story of Bert Williams, who was America’s first black star from the turn of the century. He was light-skinned but had to perform in blackface, otherwise, he wasn’t accepted. His dream was to do a dramatic role as himself and he couldn’t get anyone to do that. Most people don’t know about it, even though he was the one who broke the color line on Broadway first. Those kinds of things are fascinating. Those are the types of things we can bring to light. So, I’m trying to do my part.

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Are you part of the half-million viewers who watched Hamilton on Disney+? Let us know your thoughts about the show in the comments section below.