As Hamilton converged on the American public nationwide on Disney+ for the Fourth of July weekend, performers like Sydney James Harcourt got to finally experience the Hamilton phenomenon from a completely different perspective. As the first out man in the cast of Hamilton, Harcourt put in the work in this legendary show; he 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 including “George Washington”, “Thomas Jefferson”, “King George”, “Marquis De Lafayette” and “Aaron Burr”. Upon Leslie Odom Jr’s departure in 2016, Sydney took over the role of “Aaron Burr”. He played 700 plus performances. Harcourt holds the distinction of being the only LGBTQIA cast member in the original cast. From the beginning though, Harcourt knew something about star power; Harcourt got his start with some of New York City’s most dynamic nightlife performers. I caught up with Harcourt recently to talk about Hamilton’s latest premiere, the pandemic and the Broadway effect, and what famed New York City dolls influenced him the most.
Michael Cook: How have you and your Broadway compatriots been dealing with the fact that Broadway is now going to be closed into 2021? This is truly a time we have never seen before.
Sydney James Harcourt: I think it’s still taking time to set in. I can generally detect the temperature of the community on Instagram. When they first announced that Broadway would remain closed through the summer, I saw a lot of messages of despair from artists in the community who are always looking for that next job, it’s a way of life. Since I moved there when I was young, once you are out of a job, you are immediately looking for the next job. This is a complete shell shock; to hear that there is no possibly of shows until January of 2021, I have not seen too much about it yet. That might be because of everything being about the pandemic and about this social/racial movement that we see happening, but I think a lot of it is that people are taking time to process it and see what it really means. I think for people that moved to the city recently with hopes to come to New York and do theater are sort of rethinking what their life path might be. I think we are going to begin to see over the next weeks and months the real impact of this; it’s a stunning development.
MC: Not since 09/11 have we seen the Broadway community so directly impacted and really see them come together as well.
SJH: I think my first audition for my first Broadway show was on September 12th for Bells Are Ringing. The next day they held the audition, and thanked us for coming in a somber tone. Then it was “5,6,7,8”…
MC: Hamilton dropped on Disney + over the weekend to massive fanfare What is it like getting caught up in the Hamilton whirlwind again as people all over the world can now watch it with a click of a button?
SJH: The first time, it was gradual. We did the workshop and it was hours for five weeks. We rehearsed the Off-Broadway, and it was still our secret, although there was some buzz. In the beginning previews at The Public you could walk in and get a ticket and sit down, that’s what Busta Rhymes did. Then you were caught up, then it really just kept bogging your mind; like, am in in Inception? As an actor, you then move on from a show, but there is no moving on from being part of the original company of Hamilton, that is a legacy job and it is one that you pray for as an actor. We all knew that we had filmed that film, we had no idea when it would be released. I honestly thought that it might be fifteen years down the road. The first inkling that the whirlwind would be relaxing our community again was the Zoom we did with John Krasinki on Some Good News, and then the reaction to that. The reaction to the original cast of Hamilton still had that affect on people, especially when they feel like they need something to hold onto or to cheer them up. When it was announced that it was coming out, it took everyone by surprise and I am thinking Lin (Manuel Miranda) included. He was making the decision, but to pull the trigger and do it, it was a surprise. Since that moment, many of my performer friends like Nina West have said “you don’t know what is about to happen this week”. I told Renee Elise Goldsberry (that played Angelica Schuyler) “I know you won the Tony and that we all think we have a grasp on what it is like to be in the show, but we have no clue”; I got my seatbelt on. It is going to reach audiences that are people that don’t consider themselves musical theater lovers, people that don’t think music theater is as accessible to them, people that don’t think the story of the founding fathers is not accessible to them; I am really excited for it to bring the country together as one tribe, as Americans.
We forget that. I go to Cuba for example, and you see dark skinned Cubans and you also see blonde haired, blue eyed Cubans. They all think of themselves as one fierce nationalistic pride. I think we get caught up in the tribalism in this country. It can be hard and you can be made to feel ashamed by thinking of us as one tribe of Americans. I think this experience for the country is going to engender that feeling. I was telling someone yesterday, it’s like when you have been watching a movie in French subtitles and then you start to forget it was not in your native tongue and you were reading it. Watching Hamilton be performed by a cast of multiracial actors across the board, you forget that it was all white story. If you’re watching a cast of mostly minorities, and you just become focused on the people and the stories and what it means to be an American and I am excited for that.
MC: You not only got the chance to be a part of the original cast of Hamilton, but you also got to be the first out cast member of Hamilton as well. What it is like to be the first out man in this landmark show?
SJH: If you are in the business of musical theater, and find yourself as the only out gay man in a show, it is always trippy. It was like “I’ll escape to musical theater where I can go and be gay”! You get here and you realize there is an adjustment, and everything is not technicolor like you thought it would be. It is a bit trippy and it is an adjustment. I think for gay people in all walks of life in new job situations, there is always the coming out period. Everywhere you go, every time you are with a group of strangers and a lot of times what you present on the outside or how you look does not fit their perception of who you are going to be, or who you are. You have to ease them into the reality of “I look like an ex- con, but I’m actually this guy that knits in the corner and writes songs on my guitar and loves Drag Race. As far as doing this show that is in a lot of ways militaristic, it makes me proud to be that person who can represent for actors out there who don’t see a place for themselves in a show like this. It shows the power and the strength of acting and training that we can be anything.
MC: There are long standing rumblings of a story with heavy homosexual undertones being threaded throughout Hamilton.
SJH: Going back the the source material, which was Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography, it describes that he and John Laurens and the Marquis De Lafayette are long rumored to have had intimate relationships with each other through examples from the letters that they have that still exist, through things that Hamilton’s son said, and just through the general descriptions of people from the time. Even thought he was very militaristic, he was overly feminine. We all know that there is a Kinsey scale; things happen. During the Revolutionary War, there were two people to a bed and he would often sleep with Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette and there were not women anywhere around, so things happen. I think we know that from life, but it is not erased from this show. It’s discreet for sure, but it is there in certain moments that are in the movie. The tenderness between John Laurens and Hamilton before “Ten Duel Commandments”, the way that Hamilton takes the desk of John Laurens when Eliza Reed pens the letter, there is a fondness there that is more than your brotherly love that I think gay people can see themselves in. We have to look for those little signs because history is not going to come out and say that they were gay.
MC: Based on the country’s current climate, this could be that absolute perfect time for Hamilton to be released to the nation now. Do you feel that is accurate?
SJH: Absolutely. Being a cast member of Hamilton, really engaged me. I was political before, but it really engaged me in the minutiae of the political process. Of how things happen, the deals that get done, of who some of these founding fathers really are. We are not told that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are in a lot of ways, these vile characters when you are growing up. You can see that in the show though. I think that is important for it not to be this glorification of our founding fathers, but to hold them to account. I feel that in a way it feels real when Hamilton calls out Jefferson as a slaver who didn’t fight in the war but was “off gettin high with the French.” We can apply that to what is going on today, to who is in charge now. I think for people to gather around their televisions on the Fourth of July and to watch something that celebrates a multicultural cast in 2020 telling the story of our founding is the perfect example of how far we can come and how far we can go.
MC: You collaboration with Nina West was incredible, and you are also a massive RuPaul’s Drag Race fan correct?
SJH: Yes-it was what saved me, back when it was on Mondays. I remember seeing the first ad in the subway for Drag Race.
MC: How do you think you would explain the entire Drag Race phenomenon and your connection to drag as a whole?
For me, it came before Drag Race. I was raised by drag queens in New York. I didn’t fit in necessarily, in musical theater. I am mixed, and I am raised by my white mom in Michigan. I didn’t have this concept of fitting in sociologically with the “black community” as a strong black male. I was not necessarily femme enough for a lot of the gays in musical theater either; I just didn’t feel like I had a home. When I went to my first gay bar, my roommate was a dancer in Cats and snuck me into Barracuda. I saw Edie perform there, I saw Candis Cayne perform there, I saw Cashetta and so many legendary drag performers. We became friends and I loved what they did. I loved the humor, I loved the send up of stereotypes and all of the things that we love about Drag Race now they were all there Sunday through Thursday on the stages of these little gay bars in New York City. There was a point in which I left The Lion King and went on tour as my drag queen magician friends magician’s assistant.
For me, it is just an embodiment of gay culture; the drag MC at the bar. It is how we go and socialize with each other, it is in the fabric of being there. To later see it come to our televisions in a new format bringing the language and the culture that was filtered through the ballroom scene and bringing it all together in one place…For a long time, it was like liking Mariah Carey in the 2000’s; you always found yourself defending yourself (laughs). With Drag Race, even among the drag community, you would hear people say they “aren’t into trashy tv” with all of these misconceptions about it. Then they watch it and they see a human show; it is the quintessential reality competition show for performers. They put them through their paces; there is no ‘acting” reality tv show, but this is it. To think what you have to do as an auditioning actor, you have to go on a commercial audition one day, you have to go on a dance audition the next day, you have to go in the studio to record, people ask you to write, there are all of these challenges that go into being an actor where you are constantly trying to get this job; that is what they do.I think the popularity for a lot of people who are not performers, it comes from the wit and the humanity, and how much fun it is to be your unabashed self without any cares. I think that is incredibly attractive to people who sometimes find themselves playing a role in life rather than being unashamedly who they want to be.
MC: So those times in New York City with those queens truly were some of your best times it sounds..
SJH: I did Wigstock, seeing Joey Arias and Raven O, all of it. Cashetta was my best friend, she really was; it is an emptiness in my heart. I watched Jiggly Caliente do her first Star Search competition on Thursday nights! She took me under her wing; it was a magic, magic time in my life. A lot of people don’t know that about me; I don’t just love Drag Race; I lived a lot of that life with them and have been to the balls they’ve thrown. It is so special to me. It’s like watching family to me, it’s very deep.
MC: What do you want to do now? You do love a network procedural it seems!
SJH: I do love being on a network! I was just talking to Renee about this actually. For a long time in your career, you spend a lot of time just trying to get a job or just trying to get the most commercial job. Then you just get to a point where you want to do things that are art, things that speak to my experience, or what I can bring, or how I can leave a mark, more than just a procedural that follows all the usual cues. Combined with the pandemic, it is kind of like there is a blank slate out there. What is coming next is sort of in your hands. I’ve been out since I was fifteen years old and have always been out in everything that I have done, for better or worse. Not a lot of people know that about me though, in the business. This time for me has been about raising my awareness in the gay community at large. I am that gay guy in Hamilton. I do vogue down to the floor during guns and ships when they say “Lafayette”! When I was allowed to be fully femme and as gay as I wanted to be in some of the improv moments in the character ensemble, I went there. I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the show. What’s next? I don’t know.
Nina West called me last week and asked if I wanted to make a video. They were doing the She’s A Riot fundraiser and she wanted to sing this song with me. On a lark we make the video, and then it’s on Billboard and Sarah Bareilles is retweeting us. I have been writing a lot, there is a lot of music happening and for me as a singer, this feels like a great time for me to be working on my music and my things. I am interested to see, with this social movement what is different. Previous to this, auditioning for things, it always felt like I was boxing myself up to be acceptable in the type that they were casting. I gotta be hood enough, I gotta be black enough, I gotta be straight enough, I gotta be mean enough, or I have to have that street smarts when you walk in the room and you don’t necessary feel like characters are being written that are more representative of the culture that you live in and American culture at large. I think with the pandemic, the new calls that will go out and the new breakdowns for stories, are going to be a lot more inclusive. With new writers and new stories. I am just sort of excited to see what that is. Everything just kind of got a reset; a show that I was supposed to be doing that was going to start rehearsals in the fall, that is not happening now. A lot of stuff, workshops, even a lot of the television shows that were cast late in pilot season all got paused; some will resume and some of them aren’t. I think a lot of us in the acting business are saying, let’s see what they come up with and what kind of things come across from your agent. At the same time, Lin (Manuel Miranda) taught me this; you’ve gotta write the thing that you want to be in. Don’t build somebody’s else’s dream; build your dream. Write it and then either direct it and produce in it, or star in it. Play that part, come up with it. Especially as the voices who outside the mainstream, we have to be more prolific with what we create, rather than always playing a sassy gay character in someone else’s story.
MC: How have you been staying creatively infused during the quarantine?
SJH: For me, I think at least in New York, it is a very solitary life to begin with. There are many days where I don’t talk to another human other than the casting director. I am in my house going over eleven pages of sides, and if I leave the house it is to go out to another audition. You change, you go to the gym, I’m not a super social person at the gym; I go in, get the workout in and go home. It didn’t feel a ton different to have a lot of time alone in my own space. There was the initial fear; I left New York and came to my family home in Michigan in March when it all went down. There was this initial fear of this virus and what is going to happen. Suddenly you realize, all this time you wish you had to work on your stuff, it is here. I think for a lot of us who are creative, we have had projects that we have talked about writing, made a little demo for, or mentioned to friends that you have to put aside when you have to do your real job or your auditions. There was a whole catalog of things that I needed to finish. So I started getting up every day and would spend the first four or five hours of the morning writing and doing research on projects that I want to work on. There is an actor from the turn of the century named Bert Williams who was America’s first black star. He was incredibly light skilled, he was Bahamian and was forced to perform in blackface to have a career. I think that is a mind bogglingly interesting story considering where we are now, so I started working on that. I got really back into my studio and doing music. And lo and behold, your artist friends start calling you and asking you if you would be interested in doing something. The amount of digital content you are asked to create; I have made short films, I have made little music videos, it has really upped my game in what I can do digitally. I think that it showed a lot of us that this might be the new frontier. What kind of short entertainment can you make in your own home with your tools to put out there and raise peoples awareness about who you are and just entertain and feel good? I haven’t felt like I have been coping I feel like I have been thriving.
“Hamilton” is currently streaming on Disney+
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