In part one of our “Summer of Hamilton” series, original cast member Betsy Struxness recalls the show’s earliest days.
Hamilton. What’s to be said that hasn’t been said? Phenomenon. Game Changer. Standard Bearer. #GOALS. But there was a time before it was…well…what it is.
In 2013, I was in Matilda on Broadway contemplating my next step. A friend of mine would forward me the breakdowns (notices agents receive listing what kinds of characters shows are seeking) so I could tell my agent what I was super interested in. Suddenly something caught my eye…Hamilton Mixtape. A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton. Same creative team as In the Heights. I was immediately intrigued. I read further into the character breakdowns. Angelica Schuyler…Elphaba meets Alicia Keys. That! I want that! I wanna be in this show! Get me in this show!
So I get called in to audition for the reading. I didn’t book it. I was so sad and so confused. How could I get cut when I wanted it so badly? Nope, not my ending.
About a month or so later, I get called into a dance audition for the workshop prior to the off-Broadway run at The Public Theater. The SECOND Andy Blankenbuehler started showing us the choreography, every other person in the room fell out of focus. No Broadway dance audition I’d ever been to felt like this (and I have been to A LOT…seriously…about 15 years worth). This was something special. Daring. I was determined to book the job that day. That was the only thing on my mind.
From that second on, almost every encounter I had with the making of this show felt like that moment. Once I booked the job and we were rehearsing the workshop, I knew there wasn’t a world that existed in which this show didn’t go to Broadway. But that’s as far as my mind went. It would get to Broadway, it would run, and a lot of people would probably like it. Like it. Ha! Boy was I not ready for how it was received.
It wasn’t until previews off-Broadway that I knew something different was happening with this show. That was the day the #StruxSelfie came into being: accidentally and authentically. Busta Rhymes came to our show. Not gonna lie, I totally thought it was a look-a-like falling asleep in the front row. Turns out, he was closing his eyes to listen to all the raps with a keener ear. Afterward, there was a talkback, in which I participated. Busta remained, but in the middle of it gets escorted out towards the green room by our director Tommy Kail. When the talkback ended I went the same route and as a joke to pretty much no one I said, “Hey is Busta still here?”
“Yeah, he’s right there,” his security guard said, clearly used to people fawning over the man. I just started chuckling because A) I felt stupid and B) WHAT?! I’m gonna get to meet him? AWESOME! So while he’s having a delightful conversation with Lin about the show, I snap a picture. The very first #StruxSelfie.
After that, it was just a steady flow of celebrity: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and former President Bill Clinton. Sir Paul McCartney. Rita Moreno. Bernadette Peters. Bobby Cannavale. Rose Byrne. Glenn Close. Bon Jovi. Spike Lee. Jimmy Fallon. Sara Bareilles. Lily Rabe. Sarah Paulson. Julia Roberts. Patti LuPone. Mark Ruffalo. Edie Falco. Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. Billy Crystal. Jerry Seinfeld. Michael J. Fox. Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Hugh Jackman. Frances McDormand. Tina Fey. Meg Ryan. RZA. Paul Rudd.
And that’s missing some folks too. In our last two weeks of the off-Broadway run at The Public Theater, First Lady Michelle Obama came to a Saturday matinee. We knew SOMEONE was there but weren’t quite sure who. I’d heard Madonna was coming so when castmate Ephraim Sykes came off stage, awe-struck and just saying “She’s here,” I was like, “Madonna?”
“Michelle Obama,” he whispered, wide-eyed.
And then we got to meet her. She gave us all hugs and told us how proud she was of us. Of course, I was watching this all through a glaze of tears over my eyes. Secret Service wouldn’t allow us pictures, alas no #StruxSelfie.
And all of that was just off-Broadway. That’s when we started realizing that this wasn’t only something different and moving for us as artists, but it was something different and moving to the audiences as well. That was clear the night Busta was there too, because as he was clapping and making eye contact with every performer at bows, Mandy Patinkin was in the row behind him, on his feet shouting “BRAVO!” Titan of Music and Titan of Stage and Film, two men of very different artistic backgrounds, both on their feet and both giving so much respect to what we had just given them. It felt very powerful.
Further on in our run, we hosted the UN Security Council. After the show, there was a cocktail reception where we all got to mingle. What a fascinating cross-section of diverse individuals in one place. In talking to some of them, I was really surprised by how taken they were with the show. People from other countries were apparently just as intrigued by the whole thing as Americans were. It was our first encounter with any sort of politicos coming to the show and immediately drew my attention. Our contemporized but authentic portrayal was getting noticed by those in government. Their love for it only proved how relevant the situations of Hamilton’s time are currently, in the US and around the world.
I’m not sure if others felt the same way I did, but the move to Broadway excited me and worried me at the same time. Was the reaction to the off-Broadway production a fluke? Would people still care? Would we disappoint anyone if we couldn’t live back up to the hype? I think it’s safe at this point to say: No, it wasn’t a fluke. Yes, people will still care. No, we are not a disappointment. Phew! And so it all cranked up…bigger and bigger and bigger, with another influx of Celebrity and more politicians. The #StruxSelfie returned in full effect starting with Vice President Joe Biden.
But before Biden, on our sixth preview during our first week on Broadway, President Barack Obama came. I cried. And then we started getting used to all sorts of Secret Service in the theater at least every other week. It was actually pretty awesome.
The dream has never been to be in a grand hit phenomenon of a show. The dream only went as far as getting me on Broadway. Once there, the goals kept changing because of the experiences themselves. The goal now is to keep looking for projects and opportunities that make me feel the way reading that casting breakdown for “Hamilton Mixtape” made me feel. Excited. Intrigued. Eager. It’s a rare combination of emotions that doesn’t come along every day. Being part of the creative process for this show has changed my ideas of how I want to proceed with my career. Gone are the days of wanting to just be in a Broadway show, replaced by a relentless search for the next challenge…whatever that may be and wherever it may lead is as yet unknown.
Betsy Struxness is a performer and photographer based in New York City. After graduating with a BFA in Dance from The Juilliard School, Betsy has gone on to all sorts of performing adventures from cruise ships to voiceovers, Broadway to TV, you name it. On Broadway, Betsy made her debut with Wicked, and then very quickly joined the cast of Memphis right before its run into the Tonys. Her first originating experience was with Leap of Faith, to be joined in swift succession by Scandalous and Matilda. Her biggest honor to date though has been bringing the smash hit Hamilton from the workshop to off-Broadway to Broadway as one of the original cast members. Other credits include: Theater: Shakespeare in Love (Viola)-Virginia Rep; Wicked (ensemble, Nessarose u/s)-Chicago & San Francisco; All Shook Up (ensemble, Sandra & Natalie u/s)-1st National Tour; TV: Onion News Network, Broad City and Louie; Voiceovers: Checkers, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Century Link, Shell, Geico, Stolichnaya, GoGurt. In between all that, however, Betsy enjoys her free time as a traveler and photographer. Shooting everything from landscapes to portraits. Bridging the gap between the performer and photographer, you can check out Betsy’s semi-known Hamilton-inspired series: #StruxSelfie. www.betsystruxness.com Twitter and IG: @be_strux
And now, more #StruxSelfies…