Back in March, if you had asked Sydney James Harcourt what he would be doing in July, he would have said, “Sitting at home.” Now, he’s eagerly anticipating the release of Hamilton on Disney+, which he says will be “the best possible way to see the show.”
Harcourt is an Original Cast Member of Hamilton on Broadway where he originated the roles of James Reynolds, Phillip Schuyler, and the Doctor. In addition, he served 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.
The option of watching a filmed version of Hamilton adds a lot of new elements to the show. As the camera moves in, around, and above the stage, viewers almost feel like they are in the show. It’s something that could never have happened on Broadway. “You can’t get that close,” Harcourt said in an interview with 4 Your Excitement earlier this week. “You can’t see the fear in Eliza’s eyes… I actually feel that this is the definitive way to experience Hamilton.”
Watching at home also gives viewers the ability to revisit a lyric they may have missed or catch an expression or gesture that flashed across the screen. Moreover, it means you can experience the show from different characters’ perspectives if you want. The first time you see everything from Alexander Hamilton’s point of view, the second time from Aaron Burr’s, and by your ninth rewatch, you’re looking out for Harcourt’s insane moves during “The Reynolds Pamphlet.”
You can also see all of the background action audience members might have missed in the theatre, such as the women slowly coming on stage during “Burn” or the ensemble sitting around Leslie Odom Jr. during “Wait for It” representing a part of Burr’s mind.
“[The show is] magical that way,” Harcourt remarked. “It speaks to the writing but also the staging by Andy Blankenbuehler. It was so deftly staged that it takes your focus where it needs to be but it also has all of this action and storytelling going on around it and in the back… It becomes more powerful and more powerfully experienced.”
Wait For It
Harcourt’s time with Hamilton was and is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. Being an understudy is not for the faint of heart, especially for five major roles in a new show where rehearsal time is extremely limited. As first cover for multiple roles in the production, Harcourt knew that at almost any time, he could be called upon to perform in another actor’s place.
His first time as Burr was for a 2:00 pm show on a Saturday. At 12:30 pm, he got the call: he was on as Burr. He’d never had a rehearsal with any cast member and had only been walked through Burr’s track once. Before showtime, he was able to run through “The Room Where It Happens” one time, including the infamous tablecloth pull. “Otherwise, it was, ‘Hope you know it! You’re on!’” he chuckled.
Thankfully, Harcourt was used to this kind of thing. His first time on as Simba in The Lion King and Washington in Hamilton was the same. So, in addition to constantly rehearsing his ensemble track, he had been spending all of his free time practicing the lyrics of other roles. Still, he was terrified.
“It is the scariest experience I’ve ever had in entertainment, going on for a role with ten thousand words and no rehearsal. It makes me feel a little like peeing my pants even now,” he laughed.
At the end of the performance, Harcourt found Renée Elise Goldsberry, a lifelong friend, waiting for him in his dressing room. “She hugged me and we both cried.” He’d done his job and it didn’t go unnoticed.
When Odom Jr. departed in 2016, Harcourt took over as Burr and finally got to chase after his own “perfect show.” Harcourt was proud to be part of a production that elevated understudies to take over roles, which rarely happens. With a bit of breathing room, he was able to explore how to hit each joke, lyric, and dance step in the way he wanted.
“It’s wonderful to be the part because you have that repetition every day and you can feel like, ‘I’m making this mine,’” Harcourt said. “There’s pride in carrying the torch from someone so iconic, like Leslie Odom Jr.”
Come On, Vogue
Part of what made Hamilton a unique experience for Harcourt was navigating it as an openly gay member of the cast.
“It’s tough to be openly gay in theatre and in entertainment. It can limit [what] you have opportunities to do and the perception of you and your skills. It’s also tough to be the only one of somebody in any sort of experience. You feel representative of all gay people, in a way,” Harcourt expressed. “At the same time, it’s also wonderful because I thrive on my differences. I think we should all thrive on our differences.”
He knew Hamilton had a lot of machismo energy but he’d also done a bit of historical research. It was there he discovered tailor and spy Hercules Mulligan was of slight build, and Hamilton was thought to have had romantic relationships with both John Laurens and Marquis De Lafayette. But other than a few minute gestures, such as a hand on the arm or shoulder, none of this was depicted in the show, which Harcourt understood because “that’s not the crux of the story and what it has to tell.”
But that also didn’t stop him from looking for ways to be “gay on stage” while maintaining the integrity of the production, such as adopting a more effeminate manner when playing a townsman. One of his favorite insertions is during “Guns and Ships.” The ensemble was instructed to improvise during Lafayette’s intense rap, so that’s what Harcourt did.
“I would vogue down to the floor in this military costume, lay out, then I’d get up and do chaîné turns,” he said in delight. Once, Blakenbuehler asked him about it, saying, “So we’re vogueing in the 18th century?” And Harcourt replied, “Well, it’s Lafayette and Paris is burning.” That got a laugh, and Harcourt’s improv stayed in the show. You can even see it in the filmed version on Disney+.
“That’s beautiful for me because I get to exhibit something on stage that I know other people are looking for and can see themselves in,” he said. In fact, after one show, a young black man who served as an usher at the Rogers Theatre, came up to Harcourt. He’d heard about the vogueing but hadn’t quite believed it until he saw it for himself. The young man said, “My heart just burst. That is legendary, thank you so much.”
Harcourt was touched, and he also understood. “It means so much to people to be seen, to feel like they are part of something. You tell a story of revolution, of masculinity, of war and you can forget that there were gay people who existed then and what their lives must’ve been like… I feel really grateful that I’m in a company that will show that and will participate and will allow a minority, a black male, to be as gay as he wants to be.”
From Harcourt’s point of view, Hamilton’s release on Disney+ is going to show a wide audience how they are represented on Broadway, including in musical theater, thereby expanding “theatre lovers” into a more inclusive group beyond what it is now. “We’re gonna have kids of all races, genders, and persuasions singing, ‘My Shot’, and feeling part of the American Dream. Feeling like their tribe is being an American.”
There is an aspect of Hamilton that feels unique and universal for all. So what about a future production where some of the roles are gender-switched? Harcourt didn’t even hesitate with his answer.
“One hundred percent,” he replied. “I’m calling out Lilli Cooper for Hamilton right now. Lilli, I’m telling you, it’s gonna happen, you’re gonna be the first.”
He continued, saying, “It’s a natural progression for the show that broke barriers by having a multicultural cast play our founding fathers and play all of these roles in our show. It is, to me, the next thing that’s coming.”
He believes that Tommy Kail, Hamilton’s director, has that vision in mind too. “We are that show, we are that group, that breaks boundaries and dispels misconceptions.”
The experience of Hamilton has opened up Harcourt’s world in more than one way. Until recently, when he and other members of the Original Broadway Cast performed on John Krasinski’s Some Good News, he’d remained relatively invisible while living in Michigan. Now, Michiganders are bringing baked goods to his house.
Hamilton also gave him an opportunity to grow as a vocalist and show that he can do more. His attitude was, “Pile it on. Give me all of the responsibility you can because I will prove to you that I can handle that and more.” And it has paid off.
He recently collaborated with “best friend and drag icon” Nina West on a cover of Sara Bareilles and John Legend’s song, “A Safe Place to Land.” The project was originally produced for an event benefiting the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Just this week, Harcourt and acapella group Six Appeal released an incredible cover of “History Has Its Eyes On You,” turning the poignant song into an even more powerful protest video.
He’s also involved in a music project called The Outlaw Ocean, which is based on the investigative journalism of Pulitzer Prize-winner Ian Urbina, who chronicled crimes at sea like human trafficking, gun-running, and illegal dumping. Urbina developed the project as a soundtrack to his book of the same name, and Harcourt sings on five tracks as five different characters (including a fish). The Outlaw Ocean releases a new album every other month, with the next due out on August 7.
For now, Harcourt’s eyes are on Hamilton’s July 3 release on Disney+. “Nothing I’ve ever done has had this kind of reach, especially in theatre,” he said, commenting that the cast probably still can’t quite grasp the concept of what Hamilton means to people and how deeply it inspires them. “It’s surely, for me, a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”
Hamilton is now streaming on Disney+.
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