Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the U.S., hasn’t exactly been the sexiest of historical figures. In books, he’s oft-eclipsed by peers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. How many people even know his mug is on the $10 bill? But this summer he’s the name on everyone’s lips, thanks to composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and his musical Hamilton, now on Broadway. Based on a Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, the show pulls the rug from under the conventional song-and-dance theater experience, and filters this bit of history through high-energy and high-emotion hip-hop and R&B. The buzz is at fever pitch — Hamilton had one of the biggest pre-sale ticket totals in history and has already racked up a number of awards, including Outstanding Featured Actress at the Drama Desk Awards for one of its stars Renée Elise Goldsberry. We got a chance to speak with the actress — a veteran of the stage, who’s also on CBS’ The Good Wife, here wearing Tory’s printed cotton short-sleeve dress — about her career, her fellow Hamilton cast members and why Salt-N-Pepa were inspiring music pioneers. Plus, she shares some great words of advice for parents and would-be professionals alike.


The first play I ever did…
Guys and Dolls, as an eight year old in theater school. I played a Doodle Oodle girl, and a nun.

Memorable roles on Broadway…
I was in The Lion King — the message is much bigger than what you would think from a children’s story. I had a chance to be in Rent as well. I remember seeing other friends of mine in Rent, before I was a part of it, and thinking, “Finally, finally, our music, our grunge-guitar band music, is the medium to tell a story, and it’s revolutionary.” You know, it’s all cumulative. There’s always a new hit in town and we get to be the one of the moment, which feels amazing, but we only exist because of the hit that was two years before, and the one two years before that, and four years before that and… The truth is that we are all here because of the one before, and because we are here something better will come.

How my character in Hamilton is different from others I’ve played on stage and television…
I don’t know that Angelica’s so different. I’ve played a lot of women who are strong. I don’t know that I’ve not played a woman who wasn’t strong, interestingly enough. What is different is that I have another medium of storytelling that I get to use, which is the spoken word in rap; I’ve never done that before. It’s another way to express emotion and thought. Rap allows her to say more in less time and convey spontaneous thought and emotion in a way that’s very unique.

And the challenge of rapping on stage as an actor and singer…
It isn’t a challenge, actually. It’s more surprising that I haven’t done it before, that we don’t do it more because this music isn’t new. That is what’s so ironic to me. This is not some revolutionary music of now; this is the revolutionary music of 20, 30 years ago and it’s going to be here forever. It’s not just reactionary or rebellious; it’s just another medium with which we tell our stories. The fact that it is novel that a woman gets to do this and gets to do this in the theater is surprising.

The cast of Hamilton…
I was just saying to my husband the other day how the souls of the people are perfectly cast. People talk about how controversial and exciting the casting is, how there are people who don’t look like the people on the dollar — as though it’s some great leap to cast somebody who’s Latin or African-American to play someone we’ve always known as an old white man on the side of the mountain — but I feel that the casting is so natural. I feel so perfectly cast to play Angelica. Chris Jackson, who plays George Washington, is our leader in the show. He leads us in prayer before the show.

Favorite scene in the show…
I don’t have one. Hamilton is so special and so good, there isn’t one moment for me that trumps another. Not one song, not one character. They are all so essential to the story that’s being told.

The music of Hamilton
It’s not just hip-hop, rap music. There’s a lot of musical theater. The range is all over the place because [Hamilton creator] Lin-Manuel Miranda’s range and his influences are all over the place. He can tell one story with all of that influence. I have children and it dawned on me that I had to make a point of exposing them to something other than children’s music. My son’s only going to hear three-chord songs in major keys if I don’t do something different. Would that create the artists who grow up listening to everything, who are exposed to everything? No. So I started making him playlists — I went as broad as possible, from Mary Poppins to The Gap Band.

My advice to encourage a love of music in your children…
I don’t think you have to encourage it; music is 100 percent in the DNA of children. It’s in the DNA of human beings to respond to music; that’s what is so powerful about it. That’s why, in ancient civilizations, the first people conquering nations would destroy were not just the leaders but also the drummers and musicians — I remember reading that in school and it so moved me. Music goes straight to our subconscious. If you want to teach your kid the alphabet, your address or phone number, you sing it. What we have to do, as parents, is be mindful not to forget. Children are always going to be responsive to music and gravitate towards it. It’s our job to make a point of not failing to provide as much as possible, as broad as possible, to our children.

And, for me, the spark to pursue music as a career came from…
My parents telling me I could be anything, and I believed them. I mean, some parents probably tell their children that they have to fall back on something. The irony, to me, is that in the world I grew up in nothing is secure. It’s not like you’re going to be a lawyer and be guaranteed a job. There’s nothing you could major in that guarantees you employment now. The only ace you have is a passion for something. That’s the only thing that’s going to guarantee that you’re going to find a way to make money doing something. Maybe you’ll discover that the world isn’t going to pay you to sing, but your passion for music will come out in another form that will find you a way to work in the thing you love. That’s the only thing that’s sure — that you’re passionate about it and you’re going to work hard on it.

I listen to…
Everybody. I listen to Sarah Vaughan, MC Lyte, the Dixie Chicks, Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child… all different kinds of artists. We’re also singing Shoop by Salt-N-Pepa in the dressing room. You know, no one’s really talked about Salt-N-Pepa and their influence on music as women, and not just rap music. What they did… they were so powerful, so strong. There’s so much of what they did that we’re doing now, and that’s not new. Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah — they did that a long time ago. The list of who we can be, who we can emulate is so long and so wonderful.

On the subject of reviews…
I typically don’t read them. It’s just tricky. If you get a bad review or a review that’s different than you had hoped for, that’s obvious. But even if the show gets a really great review, it can’t mention everybody so somebody is going to be left out. And when you get a good review, everybody calls and says congratulations… so you now know that everybody reads them. Then you get a bad review and nobody calls and you know, for a fact, that they read them. The silence is deafening. Then when no one calls, you’re sitting in your house, thinking, how bad could it have been? So you can’t resist going online and reading them. And when you look back, the only reviews you’ve ever read are the bad ones.

But on the subject of reviews for Hamilton
I did read a couple and I’m glad I did. People have written some poignant, introspective and telling things about their experience seeing the show that has been uplifting, affirming and also enlightening to me to understand that side of the dynamic. Because I don’t get to see the show; I experience it. That’s what’s beautiful about theater. It’s two-sided. It’s an experience of a moment that’s happening from both sides. It doesn’t exist without an audience. Being able to read some really smart people on their experience — it has given me something back that has been very impactful. But the reason I brought this up wasn’t to tell you that, but that the Hamilton reviews I’ve read haven’t singled out actors in the way a lot of reviews do. This is a show where you really would have to talk about everybody — and I think that stems from the generosity in the writing and the generosity in the directing.

The last thing I saw that I loved…
That’s so hard. Well, I haven’t spoken about In the Heights [also by Miranda] yet. It’s not the last thing I saw that I loved but the reason why I ran to this audition. People often ask me when did I know Hamilton was going to be a hit, and my answer is “when I saw In the Heights,” which is before Lin even wrote this! Is it the egg or is it the goose that lays the egg? It’s the goose. Lin is blessed. He has an ear, an eye, a voice and a spirit that is perfectly suited to tell the stories that will define us.

My pre-performance ritual…
I love to stand on the stage for a moment, before the lights go down and the house opens. The stage should feel like home, it should feel like the world I inhabit and not some pedestal, and I remind myself that. It can literally be one minute, standing there and looking out at the chairs, just to bring it down to a level that’s very familiar. I also like to hold hands in a circle with my cast (if I’m on time, because it takes a long time to put on the corset, bustle and makeup!). We meet in the green room in the basement and are led in prayer by Chris.

And we pray for…
In theater, every day we have to create this masterpiece again for a new audience. It starts over, from scratch, every single day — like a cook cooking. So we touch and agree about the fact that we are going to start over, and we’re going to be able to do this because we believe in what we’re doing, in each other and the force that gave us the responsibility to do it. It’s the best way to start a show, just holding hands. And if somebody is going in, like an understudy, we’ll lay our hands and touch him or her to fill them up, you know what I mean? Like, you got this, you can do it.

Read more features from the Music Issue, past and present.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, photographed by Noa Griffel, at New York’s Refinery Hotel