“I Think If She Were a Man, She Would Have Been President”
Renée Elise Goldsberry already had a jam-packed resume when she auditioned for the musical Hamilton. The triple-threat actress listed several Broadway roles, as well as numerous hit TV shows including Ally McBeal, One Life to Live and The Good Wife, among her credits. But when joining Hamilton, the juggernaut musical that has taken Broadway by storm, Goldsberry can no include another addition in her skills set: rapping.
Goldsberry auditioned for the role of Angelica Schuyler, a spirited and intelligent woman of the American Revolution, who, when first introduced to the audience, proudly declares, “I’m looking for a mind at work.” Rather than apprehensive about the possibility of battles on her home turf, Angelica is thrilled by the spirit of the revolution that surrounds her.
Calling Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton based on Ron Chernow’s book, “revolutionary” has quickly become a cliché, as it is about the American Revolution and has changed and will likely continue to change the craft of musical theatre. After the Off-Broadway bow of the production that featured a multiracial cast of actors playing the forefathers of America, Hamilton quickly moved uptown and took up residence at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, selling out for the foreseeable future. The cast has performed for a Democratic Party fundraiser, won a Grammy Award and had President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Jay Z and Meryl Streep among the celebrities in its audience.
On May 3, the musical made history again when it received 16 Tony Award nominations, breaking the previously held record, including one for Goldsberry for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
This was not what Goldsberry had expected when she first tried her hand at rapping in the audition room. “I always tell people that you never necessarily know how your story’s going to go,” she said. “Especially in very young careers in entertainment and sports — at a very young age you feel like, ‘What I’ve done is what I’m going to do.’ It’s very surprising that at this time in my life I get to add rapper to the list of things that I do.”
The audience first gets a glimpse of Goldsberry’s skills when Aaron Burr tries to flirt with her as she and her sisters Eliza and Peggy walk the streets of New York, and she quickly informs him, “You want a revolution? I want a revelation!”
But it’s at the scene of Eliza and Alexander’s wedding that Goldsberry’s talents are displayed in full force. After watching her sister happily marry the ambitious revolutionary, the scene freezes. Angelica, standing stock-still center stage, accounts in rapid-fire rap how, when she first met Alexander, she immediately fell in love with him, but instead introduced him to her sister and became the maid of honor at their wedding, concluding that her own fate is to “never be satisfied.”
Watching Goldsberry perform the role of Angelica — a confident and fiercely intelligent woman unable to put her talents to use — performing this type of music is a welcome change from many rap songs that present women merely as objects or describe sexual encounters in less than consensual ways. Goldsberry has also performed with co-stars Miranda and Daveed Diggs on the BET cypher, rapping about famous women in history like Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks.
“It’s very much in line with what our show does and what women rappers do,” Goldsberry said. “They’re all very powerful — you have to be powerful to be a rapper. It seemed like a very natural fit, especially when our show is celebrating history to focus on powerful women.”
That focus is apparent as Angelica’s relationship with Alexander develops. Audiences witness him confiding in and being advised by her about his struggles with Congress. It’s no surprise when Goldsberry describes Angelica as a “foremother of America” and says, “I really think if she were a man, she would have been president.”
But she is quick to point out that Angelica is not the only empowered woman in Hamilton. Like any loving sister, she is eager to share the recognition with the character of Eliza, played by Phillipa Soo.
“I think the women that come across the most powerful are the ones that are the most aware of where real power is,” Goldsberry said. “I think that Angelica is the most aware that Eliza has the most of it, even though her demeanor might not demand the same kind of attention from the beginning.”
Playing powerful women is nothing new to Goldsberry, who spent seven years on the hit TV drama The Good Wife as District Attorney Geneva Pine on the critically-acclaimed, award-winning series, which concludes its run May 8.
“I stumble into really life-changing experiences,” she said of the show. “When I first went to an audition for The Good Wife, I had no idea that the role would turn into seven years. I was a part of every season on the show. Cumulatively that was a lot of time in that world. And The Good Wife — they’ll stop making new episodes, but its impact on TV ... that legacy is just set.”
Since its 2009 premiere, The Good Wife has been praised for its sensitive and complex portrayals of women. Many of its central characters are female, and they pass the Bechdel Test. But along with sexual diversity, the show has also embraced racial diversity — an action that took Goldsberry by surprise. She recalled a day when, having been told Anika Noni Rose, an African-American actress, would be on the show, she thought, “That’s great. I probably won’t be on the show.” But she was.
“Our surprise was that we were two African-American women on the same episode at the same show ... We were laughing at the shame that we felt for assuming that no show would ever do that,” Goldsberry said. “In the world that I lived in as an actor, my assumption was that if there was a brown woman with straight hair they won’t hire another. They have that box checked. The way they cast that show, they didn’t observe any of those limitations, any of those exclusions. It surprised us. We were so grateful.”
With the success of Hamilton reaching far and wide — a national tour will launch in March 2017 in San Francisco — Goldsberry has become accustomed to a new level of notoriety and fame. (She didn’t know what a GIF was until she was in one. ) While her gratitude for the show is evident in almost every sentence she speaks, she’s quick to say she wasn’t disappointed with her career before being cast in the musical.
“When people say to me, ‘I’m so happy for you, Oh my God! I can’t believe — finally!’ I always chuckle to myself. I really felt very good about my career before Hamilton. This is something that’s never happened to anyone before. It’s changed the world for me as well, but I’m always surprised when people admit how disappointed they were for me before Hamilton. ‘Really? Was it that bad?’”
Listing her Broadway debut, her first major role on One Life to Live and her first performance in Shakespeare in the Park as major moments in her career, Goldsberry added, “I’ve been in moments in my life before that felt game-changer-like, even much younger, because something can be a game changer if other people don’t recognize it. If it changes your game, then it’s impactful.
“I’ve had significant moments in my life before where people were like, ‘Renée, this IT! You are going to blow up!’ And even in my 20s, I always felt like I would smile at that statement and think, ‘Maybe, maybe not. I’m going to enjoy this for what it is at the moment.’ I always smiled and didn’t really listen but just hear the compliment and be in the moment and enjoyment.
“I feel that way about Hamilton, too. You have no idea what tomorrow holds, ever. You only know what today is. And today I get to be a part of this massive theatrical hit. I don’t even really have the words to describe what it is. And I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to formulate them.”
More from BUST
Carey Purcell is a New York based writer, reporter and theatre critic. Carey is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the League of Professional Theatre Women, the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. She has contributed to Elle, Jezebel, Salon, the Huffington Post, Alternet.org, Broadway Style Guide, HowlRound.com, TheaterMania.com, NewYork.com and WHERE New York magazine. She has also appeared on the TV show “Good Morning America.” Follow her on Twitter @CareyPurcell and read her writing at CareyPurcell.com.