Original 'Hamilton' Star Anthony Ramos on His Final Bow, Performing Post-Election & Working With Spike Lee
One of the smash show’s last original cast members reflects on its epic run.
On Sunday (Nov. 20), actor Anthony Ramos wrapped his epic run in the smash Broadway show and Lin Manuel-Miranda's cultural juggernaut Hamilton. Since auditioning when the production was merely in its workshop phase, Ramos has enjoyed a front-row seat to theater history playing the dual roles of John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton, two characters that creator Miranda evolved and wrote with him in mind.
As one of the last original cast members to leave the production (only Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Okieriete Onaodowan from the original line-up remain), Ramos is now off to star in the highly anticipated upcoming Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It from Spike Lee.
While the show made headlines this past weekend following actor Brandon Victor Dixon's message to vice president-elect Mike Pence, who saw the musical with his family on Friday (Nov. 18), Ramos, who spoke with Billboard before the incident, reminisces on Hamilton’s stratospheric ascent into pop culture, the mood at the Richard Rodgers Theater post-election and meeting President Barack Obama.
How does it feel to be wrapping up your time with Hamilton?
A little surreal, but it feels great, man. I don’t regret anything. You know when you leave things and sometimes you say to yourself, "Man, I wish I could have done more?" I don’t feel that way. I feel like I’ve done everything I could, and it feels great. There’s no better time for me to leave than now. I left it all out on stage at the Rogers theater and I’m ready to move on. It feels really good. Bittersweet, honestly.
As one of the last remaining cast members, you’ve experienced others' final shows, including Lin-Manuel Miranda. What has it been like seeing everyone leave and a new cast takeover?
It feels different when I’m on-stage now because being a part of the original company, you’ve built something with a group of people for an extended amount of time. When those people start to fall off and new people replace them to maintain it, it becomes less about the building and more about the maintenance.
What I’m trying to say is that while I’m meeting new family, there’s nothing like the family that you’ve actually built the thing with and were in the trenches with. The people that are closest to your heart are always the people who were with you when you had nothing. It’s the people who were there when you were planting the seeds and they had their hands in the soil with you. We were all working for 400 dollars a week at the Public Theater and sharing a space downstairs together, so we grew to love each other. That dynamic for me as an original company member is special to me. There’s still so much love in the building, but the vibe is different.
Take me back to your very first show at the Public Theater. What was the mood like? At the time, did it feel special or just another gig?
It’s always been special, never just another gig. The only thing that was going through my mind [during that first curtain call] was, "Thank God I got through that shit. How did that happen just now?” I literally didn’t even know where I was supposed to stand in some scenes but we got through it. The first thing I said was, "Thank you, Jesus" before we did the first bow.
Describe your most memorable show.
Wow, I have to think about this. I have two. One was the show we did for President Obama. We were all so excited. Getting to perform for the leader of the free world was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The energy in the room was different. You felt a presence.
There was something unique about that night, to be on stage and let it all loose for the president. We got to perform this musical about revolution, immigrants, and our founders for the leader of our country. Afterwards he shook my hand and said, "Young man, you are extremely talented." I was like, "Dude. Wow, bro. Thank you." The other show was the matinee after the election.
What was that like? The country was in an interesting place that afternoon.
Obviously, there were a lot of emotions. Our company members have been pretty vocal about where we stood in this election. We had a meeting before the matinee and there were tears. We shared words and checked in with each other. There was a lot of anger and frustration. The one conclusion we came to was that you don’t answer anger with more anger. You answer anger with love. You answer anger with selflessness. The answer to anger is always the opposite thing of anger.
This election has sparked a new level of attentiveness and awareness not only in the United States, but in the world. What we were talking about was that we’re blessed to do this show, and we can’t take it for granted. People are coming to see this show for a little piece of hope, and we try to be aware that this isn’t just a show. For the people coming into this theater each night, their lives are vulnerable, fragile and precious, and we have to handle with care. Not only of the people in the theater, but who we come in contact with in person and in life, period. We took all of that into that matinee, which became one of my most memorable performances.
If you would have told me my most memorable performance would have happened two years into my run, I would have been like, “Yeah, right,” but I’d say it was even more special than opening night. The audience is always a part of the show but the audience was never more a part of the show than that day. The most special moment for me in my entire Hamilton run was the moment I came downstage and turned to the three guys and sang, "Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away no matter what they tell you" and the audience roared at that line and clapped. That had never happened before. That right there was the moment I said, "Everything’s going to be alright and we’re all in this together, no matter who the president is, and we can never forget that."
Unlike any other show, Hamilton has had the most incredible array of luminaries and icons coming to experience it. Beyond President Obama, who are some visitors who have stood out to you?
Laurence Fishburne hugged me like he knew me forever. I remember when we were at the Public Theater, Busta Rhymes gave us a 30-minute speech about how our show motivated him and made him rethink what he wants his next album to be like. That was an incredible moment. And Marc Anthony! I’d blast his salsa albums with my mom. He gave me a huge hug and said, "Kid, I’m so proud of you." That moment was particularly special to me. I think those moments all stood out to me the most.
You’ve accumulated quite a fanbase throughout your Hamilton’s run and your life has completely changed since its debut. How does it feel to be in such rarefied air?
It’s a blessing to have people who love the art that you make and who are inspired by the art you create and are a part of. I really felt it when I started doing solo shows in New York. They’d sell out so quickly. That’s when I realized that people were curious and excited about what I was doing, and it made me that much more motivated. Now that I have the ears of people, I want to make sure I can inspire and make material that hits folks on a personal level, and gets to the heart of what it is we go through on a day-to-day basis. Vulnerability can’t be something I leave out.
You’re in the new Spike Lee show She’s Gotta Have It, which is headed to Netflix. How did you land that role? Did Spike see you in Hamilton?
Spike’s been to the show like eight times. I’ll never forget the first time he came. We came out for the curtain call and the lights came up on the audience and I see Spike pointing at me. [Cast member] Chris Jackson whispers in my ear, "That’s you he’s pointing at!" One day he leaves me a voicemail that goes, "Anthony, it’s Spike. Spike Lee. Call me back.” Really short and straight to the point. He called me in for a meeting to talk about this project he thought I was right for. It’s the 30th anniversary of She’s Gotta Have It and they’re turning it into this Netflix series. I was like, “Wow.” He’s directing all ten episodes and it’s truly a gift to get to work with a legend like that.
Hamilton won a Grammy this year for Best Musical Theater Album and you accepted it while holding the Puerto Rican flag. What did that moment mean to you?
That was lit. We were backstage [at the Richard Rodgers theater] and of course we didn’t know if we were going to win. Lin-Manuel goes, "If we win, do you want to hold up this flag?" And I said, "Hell yeah, I want to hold up that flag!" Kendrick Lamar was performing and we’re jamming backstage and we hear, "The Grammy for Best Musical Theater album… Hamilton!”
By the way, that part isn’t usually even included in the regular broadcast. The fact that Broadway was highlighted that way was a win for the theater community. And when we won, I was hyped. I couldn’t wait to pull that flag out. Broadway, for years, has been a predominantly Caucasian industry. That’s just the way it’s been for years and it’s changing a little. So that was my and Lin’s way of saying, Asians, Indians, African Americans, Jamaicans, whoever.. we’re here. This is for all of us. And my white folk too. [Laughs] There’s no cast that’s more diverse than our cast on Broadway and I think every cast should look like that.