When Anthony Ramos was growing up in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn he never imagined he'd be starring in a Broadway show, much less the most sensational musical to hit the Rialto in years. Since it opened off-Broadway this past winter at the Public Theater, Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon, riding a wave of glowing reviews and celebrity endorsements straight to the bank (the advance for its Broadway run is reported to be nearing $28 million). It seems an appropriate destiny for a musical about America's first Treasury Secretary.
Ramos played Philip Hamilton and John Laurens at the Public before transferring uptown to The Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton will open on Broadway August 6. Still, for Ramos, it was never a particularly clear path to Broadway. He spoke with TheaterMania about giving up baseball for the stage, performing for President Barack Obama at a recent matinee, and the hunger that feeds a revolution.
What was it like performing for the president?
It was electrifying. It felt like the place was going to erupt. The energy the audience was giving us just multiplied what I was already feeling.
Was there a lot of extra security?
There were dogs and snipers everywhere. It was really funny, though, because you could slowly see the secret service getting more and more into the show. One of them even asked about the cast album.
How did you get involved with Hamilton?
Last year I was doing Heart and Lights at Radio City Music Hall, which was canceled during previews. I was in rehearsals for that when I saw a listing for a musical that was happening at Theatre Row. Telsey [a major Broadway casting agency] was casting it. I hadn't been out for Telsey in so long. I had just left a job at a cruise ship, so I wanted to pop my face in there and sing a little song so they knew I was around. I didn't expect anything from it. So I went and sang my song and I got an e-mail that day asking me to come in for something called The Hamilton Mixtape.
Had you heard about it?
I had no idea what that was so I showed one of my friends who told me that I absolutely had to go in for it. I went in and did four auditions and they cast me. I had no agent or anything. That was it. We lost our jobs at Heart and Lights at one-o'clock that day. At two-o'clock I got the call from Telsey telling me I was cast in Hamilton.
You had originally wanted to play baseball, right?
In high school baseball was life. My senior year I had the highest batting average on the team. I was one of the starting pitchers. I wanted to play Division III ball and eventually coach. I knew that I was good enough to play college ball, but not professionally. My plan was to compete in college, get some money for school, and then coach after graduation — maybe at my old high school. I was planning my life around that vision.
So how did you go from that very clear trajectory to this?
I started to lose my love for baseball. I knew I needed something else, so I auditioned for something called Sing, which I thought was a talent show. In junior high school I had this singing group called The Halsey Trio. We would sing songs by The Temptations at school assemblies, so I figured I could do something like that again. As it turns out, I auditioned for a musical by accident and they gave me the lead. I wasn't sure I could do it, because it was a big time commitment. But I did the musical and I loved it and decided to do more.
Which is how a lot of people fall in love with theater. But did you ever think you could make a career out of it?
I had two teachers who really pushed me in that direction. One was our director at New Utrecht High School, Sara Steinweiss, and the other was Wendy Halm-Violette. They saw things in me that no one else did. My senior year Ms. Steinweiss gave me a pamphlet for AMDA [the American Musical and Dramatic Academy]. It was the one school I auditioned for. I didn't have money for the application so she paid for it. I went to the audition out of respect for her and I got accepted. Then they started throwing numbers at me and I realized that I could never afford this school. So Ms. Steinweiss set up a meeting with the Jerry Seinfeld Scholarship. I told them that all I needed was one shot and they gave it to me. They paid my full tuition. It's funny now to think that "Not Throwing Away My Shot" was the song they had me audition for Hamilton with. All these things come back full circle.
You also worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda on 21 Chump Street, a short musical for public radio's This American Life. What was that like?
That was after I was cast in the workshop of Hamilton. Lin pulled me aside and asked if I was going to be around in June. I said, "Sure." He told me that he was working on something for NPR and Ira Glass as part of RadioLoveFest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I didn't know what any of those things were…except BAM. In high school I used to see Shakespeare at the BAM Harvey [Theater], so it was always a dream of mine to perform there. Next thing I know, I'm performing at the BAM opera house. That was crazy. Lin put me on the map with that one. I'm really grateful that he trusted me with his material.
Click below to see Anthony Ramos play Justin LaBoy in Lin-Manuel Miranda's 21 Chump Street:
And now you're playing his onstage son, Philip, in addition to playing one of the most fascinating characters in the show, John Laurens. Who was Laurens?
Laurens was from South Carolina and his father was a prolific slave trader. Even though that was the source of his family's wealth, Laurens was totally against slavery. He separated from his wife because he wanted to fight in the war. He died in the process of trying to attack retreating British officers after the war was over. That's how passionate he was about the revolution. He was a forceful abolitionist and his dream was to assemble the first all-black regiment in the United States army.
His story certainly contrasts highly with the image of Thomas Jefferson writing about "unalienable rights" while surrounded by slaves on his Virginia plantation.
That's why I love the line in the first rap battle when Hamilton says to Jefferson, "You think I'm frightened of you, man? We almost died in a trench. While you were off, getting high with the French." I love that hunger. Laurens and Hamilton shared that, which is one of the reasons I suspect they were best friends. They were constantly writing to each other. Some people think they may have been lovers. Who knows? These guys were really close though. They saw that hunger and must have been attracted to that in each other.