With ticket prices upwards of $1,500 and advanced sales of $57 million last November, "Hamilton" is an official Broadway juggernaut. Helmed by certified genius Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical mixes rap, R&B and pop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton’s ascent from penniless orphan to chief architect of the American financial system. The twist, if you haven’t heard, is that a person of color plays nearly every major character—including Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
Miranda, who plays Alexander Hamilton, has said that "Hamilton" is "a story about America then, told by America now." By casting people of color as the founders of our nation, "Hamilton" forces audiences to engage with bodies and voices that would have been categorically marginalized in colonial times.
"Hamilton" also sheds light on lesser-known figures of colonial America, including proto-abolitionist John Laurens. Laurens is played by Anthony Ramos, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican actor and singer from Brooklyn, New York. Ramos also plays Philip Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s eldest son. Here, in this edited and condensed interview, Ramos talks about making his Broadway debut in a blockbuster show and his journey from the tough Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick to The Great White Way.
What’s the significance of having performers of color tell the story of the Founding Fathers?
You ever look at a painting like, “Wow, that’s so good, but I really can’t wrap my brain around why this thing that is so obscure feels so right?” "Hamilton" is that kind of painting. No one’s ever seen anything like it, and I think it’s one of the boldest pieces of art ever to hit. It’s also honest because "Hamilton" looks like how we look like now.
Can you explain more?
Lin could have written a show and had the Founding Fathers be all White men, but at the same time, the show’s about Alexander Hamilton. A lot of people didn’t know whether or not Hamilton, who grew up in the British West Indies, was half [Black]. They had no idea. So it’s only right to have the rest of the cast embody that. Daveed Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson, is half Jewish and half Black. Phillipa Soo,* who plays Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, is Irish and Chinese. Lin and I are Puerto Rican. Having men of color play the Founding Fathers shows that anyone could have done what they did. This is showing our public what it would have looked like if things were different.
Tell me about the two characters you play.
John Laurens was from South Carolina. His dad was a slave trader. Laurens was one of the first abolitionists. He died fighting the British in the Revolutionary War because he hadn’t received word yet that his side had won in Yorktown. The British soldiers were retreating, but he still insisted on going after these guys. He actually died after the war had already been won. He was really zealous. which was so awesome to learn about Laurens. And he and Hamilton had this incredibly close relationship. Some people think they had something going on. I don’t know. I do think Laurens loved and was passionate about Hamilton, so I try to do my best to be true to that. There isn’t really too much about Philip, so I really got to play around with that character a lot.
Besides being able to put your own spin on things, what has been your favorite thing about playing Philip?
I love his confidence but also his passion for his dad. My father wasn’t around a lot, so when I do Philip’s rap when he’s nine years old I think about how his dad wasn’t there the entire time. When my dad was around, I really did my best to show him, like, “Yo, Pops, look at what I’ve done up until this point! Check out my baseball trophies! Check out, like, this new song I just wrote!” The first line in Philip’s rap as a nine-year-old is “Daddy, daddy, look!” I had the “Daddy, daddy, look!” mentality when I was a kid. That’s how I relate to Philip.
What about Laurens?
I appreciate how he was gung-ho about everything. My whole life I’ve been so passionate about making a better life for myself, having [grown] up in a pretty rough neighborhood. Hamilton and his [crew] had been through so much at such a young age, and I really relate to that.
So what first drew you to musical theater?
I mean, it was totally an accident. In high school, baseball was, like, my thing. I was sitting in class my junior year, and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker about an audition for this show called "Sing." I had no idea what it was. I thought, "Maybe it’s a talent show." So I go and sing for this talent show thing and they gave me the lead role in the show. I did it, and I fell in love, man.
How did you manage to transform yourself from a baseball player to a musical theater actor?
My high school director took me up under her wing because she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She gave me a pamphlet [about] the one school that I auditioned for, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I wasn’t even going to go to the audition because I didn’t have the money to pay the application fee. But my teacher paid for it. After I got in, the school threw me these numbers and I was like, "There’s no way. I can’t even pay for this!" So my teacher gave my name to this scholarship fund. I told them my story, about how I came from the ‘hood and how my grades, which were not that good, weren’t a reflection of me. I told them, "All I need is one shot."
You share the stage with several Broadway vets. What has it been like to work with them?
I’m not just learning more about how to be a performer, I’m learning about how to be a better person on the daily. I learned from Lin that you don’t have to stray from who you are. I remember one time I was cracking a joke, and I said, “Aw man, Lin, you know, I talk too ghetto sometimes. I should change the way I talk.” Lin said, “Papa, you don’t have to change the way you talk. You just have to make sure people understand you.” I will never, ever forget him saying that to me. He is the biggest example of someone who has not strayed from who he is to conform to the industry. He’s a hip-hop head, but he also loves musical theater.
What advice would you give young performers—particularly those of color—just starting out in musical theater?
Be a better listener than you are a speaker. Don’t put yourself in the box that other people put you in. You have more control than you think you do. And don’t try to be more than what you are. The perfect job will come when you realize you’re enough. Be OK with the way you’ve been created.
*Post has been updated to correct the spelling of Phillipa Soo’s name. It’s "Phillipa Soo," not "Philippa Soos."