Meet the Women at the Heart of Broadway Hit ‘Hamilton’

Women of 'Hamilton' at Heart of
annie tritt for Variety

If you haven’t seen “Hamilton” yet, it’s easy to believe that the blockbuster musical is all about the men. Actors easily outnumber actresses among its leads and featured players, and the guys — Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course, but also director Thomas Kail and actors Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson — have all put in appearances on late-night TV in recent weeks. Five of its actors are nominated for this year’s Tony Awards.

It may surprise first-time “Hamilton” viewers when, about 20 minutes into Broadway’s zeitgeist-catching juggernaut, the women take center stage, and the fierce bond between Eliza Hamilton and her sister Angelica Schuyler, played by Tony-nominated actresses Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry, respectively, develops into a central element of the story. The characters — and the actresses who play them — are arguably the show’s secret weapons.

“I hope it’s not a secret. They are the heartbeat of the show,” says Kail. “Those ladies, the bond they have, the love they have for each other, is so palpable. It’s why that number when we meet them is such a wave of oxygen.”

Twenty years apart in age and coming to “Hamilton” at differing stages of their lives and careers, Soo and Goldsberry share a sisterly connection offstage, too. It’s a friendship intensified not only by the solidarity of being among the few women to play significant roles in the founding-father musical — but also by the unique, frequently astonishing experience of living in the middle of a cultural phenomenon.

A couple of hours before a recent performance, you could find the two of them huddled together on the stairs backstage, debating the sushi order they’d share. Later, enjoying some late-afternoon sun near the tiny urban garden that cast members have set up atop the marquee of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, they trade admiration and answer questions in unison. Their dressing rooms are right next to each other. “When my stage manager told me he was putting them in there, I said, ‘You might as well just take the doors off the hinges,’ ” Kail jokes.

That’s a Rap: Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones are front and center in “Hamilton.”

“All I really do is just love on these two girls through the whole show,” Goldsberry says of Soo and Jasmine Cephas Jones, who is double-cast as the third sister and as the woman who becomes the subject of Hamilton’s scandalous Reynolds Papers. “If you love what I’m doing, it’s because you love me loving them.”

Soo agrees. “If I didn’t have Renée and Jasmine with me in this experience, being the way that it is, I feel like I’d have to do a lot more thinking about how to create the relationship of these sisters. But because of our relationship, just as who we are, it all kind of just flows out onto the stage seamlessly. ”

Adds Goldsberry: “We both feel this way about the women that are in this business with us. We lean into each other, and we lean on each other, even just when we see each other in an audition room. They’re our resource and our strength and our sanity.”

Goldsberry, a 45-year-old Houston native, has a hefty amount of industry experience. Her résumé includes recurring TV gigs on “Ally McBeal” and “The Good Wife,” plus Broadway work in “Good People,” “The Color Purple” and “Rent,” in which she was part of the final Broadway cast. Her longevity in the business has informed her reaction to the hype of “Hamilton,” which, in the New York theater industry, began early. Goldsberry first noticed it in the audience response to a developmental workshop in 2014.

Between those workshop performances and the start of the 2015 Off Broadway run at the Public Theater, she ran into a fellow actor. “He said, ‘So I heard that you’re in
the best show that ever was — ever.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, we’re screwed.’ Who can live up to that?”

“Hamilton” is only the second high-profile stage job for the 26-year-old Soo, so she didn’t feel the pressure as much. “Because I came at this from such a green place in my career, it didn’t really hit me,” she says. “I didn’t get it.”

Born and raised in the Chicago area, she landed the romantic lead in the buzzy Off Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (coming to Broadway this season without Soo). After Kail saw her in “Great Comet,” she joined “Hamilton” with a reading of the second act in late 2013. Soo’s part as Eliza has one of the toughest emotional arcs of the show, in a role described in the audition breakdown as Alicia Keys meets Elphaba of “Wicked.”

“Those ladies, the bond they have, the love they have for each other, is so palpable. It’s why that number when we meet them is such a wave of oxygen.”
Thomas Kail, director

For Goldsberry, the logline for Angelica — Nicki Minaj meets Desiree Armfeldt  of “A Little Night Music” — seemed so intimidating, as was the rapping required in the role, that she almost didn’t show up for the audition that got her the part.

Soo recalls hearing Goldsberry rap for the first time in a reading of the show. “I was like, ‘Oh, she’s a rapper. She knows what she’s doing,’” Soo says, and Goldsberry screams like it’s the most delightful thing she’s ever heard. “Only me and my boom box from 1990 knew my rap ability before that,” she jokes.

From their perch atop the Rodgers Theatre, they notice co-star Leslie Odom Jr. down on 46th Street, drawing a crowd of fans brandishing their mobile phones. Says Soo, “The stage door is a little crazy.”

At times, so is the auditorium. “Sometimes there’s a lot of screaming going on before we’ve done anything,” Goldsberry notes. “It feels like a Michael Jackson concert. That feeds me, but sometimes it makes me nervous.” She’s also amazed that she has fans among the classmates of her first-grade son (one of her two children with husband Alexis Johnson, a cable executive).

Both women aim to find opportunity in the rabid fandom. Soo, for instance, has teamed with Graham Windham, the organization that grew out of the orphanage founded by Eliza Hamilton, for The Eliza Project, enlisting “Hamilton” cast members to give acting, dancing, and rap lessons to disadvantaged youth. (The Women’s Forum of New York will honor Soo for her leadership June 20; she has chosen Goldsberry and Jones to present her with the award.)

Like the rest of the cast, Soo and Goldsberry were part of the head-turning — and, in some circles, controversial — movement that secured a profit-sharing deal for the production’s original cast. The development could end up having a lasting impact on labor negotiations, particularly for those rare shows that achieve success on the level of “Hamilton.”

Neither actress knows when she’s leaving the musical, but it’s impossible not to wonder about what “Hamilton” will open up for both of them. Goldsberry is trying to remind herself that she has the rare chance to choose what she wants to do next, while Soo says she’s curious about doing something “where I’m wearing modern clothes and sitting. And not wearing a corset.”

But all the hype has to be forgotten as soon as they step onstage — even when there are big names in the audience. Goldsberry and Soo’s favorite visitor so far? “Michelle Obama.” They say it in unison.

“We’re playing women of that stature,” Goldsberry says. “When you’re doing that every night of the week, and getting really a lot of affirmation for it, and then the real thing walks in the room —
it’s like, ‘Oh. That’s what we’re trying to do here.’ ”