Part II of an exclusive interview with Seth Stewart, one of the original cast members of the smash musical, Hamilton.
After an amazing run with a show called “In The Heights”, moves were made and the producers created Hamilton and eventually delivered Broadway.
What they didn’t do was deliver the commensurate compensation. Instead, they leveraged the show to not pay the talent what they are worth.
“Having the career that I have, having had worked with these people and because I was in the ensemble I got grouped in. I was being seen as an ensemble member and I didn’t appreciate that. It started to divide the company very quickly. People I had worked with before they started to change and they didn’t even want to hear hat they changed.
“Its like that Kanye lyric, ‘man I guess I should have forgot where I came from.’ On one hand, its beautiful, because you’re like thank God this man created this show for Black and Brown people and White people, for everybody. Thank God that we can be here right now, when most shows with people of color are only about shit that’s happened in the South or jazz; shit that’s always been done. This was revolutionary in the fact that like this is the new America talking about the old America and its hip hop? Come on, I love it, my favorite two worlds: hip hop and theater. I will not take away from the genius of what it was because it also was revolutionizing Broadway.”
While the producers insured the actors were expert in learning their rhyme cadence and showing the world how to respect hip hop from a place of reverence, internally, a lack of appreciation abounded.
“From a business side, this is show business. I always try to explain this to my student, you do whatever it is you got to do to protect your show. That’s number one priority that’s why show is first. But if you don’t know business, they’re going to fuck you. If you don’t know how to budget your numbers to stay in New York City, its going to get you. It looks like big money until agents start to take their fees, until managers take their fees, until taxes start to take their fees because entertainers don’t get to write off.
“Its a two word process: show business and they basically tried to get us on the business. How do you do something everyday, day in and day out when you don’t feel appreciated? How do you tell your team to go win the Super Bowl but you don’t appreciate them and you show that in payment and you show that by saying you guys shouldn’t be crying and complaining, you’re in the biggest show in the world and you should be happy, you should be grateful.
“Like I was grateful until you told me that I should be grateful. It started to tarnish and it started to do all this stuff and you can’t explain it because everybody else is like you’ve got a diamond why are you crying? Yeah but this actually a piece of coal but the pressure that we’re putting on it is helping make it a diamond so how do you become part of something great and are in something great and to the whole world it looks amazing but behind the scenes you don’t feel worthwhile.”
But Stewart did suck it up. He knew the platform outweighed his personal struggles with the operation.
“How much do you suck it up because there are other kids out there, you know, black and brown kids and I’m going to give them new dreams the way Alvin Ailey changed my life. I’m trying to optimize all this because there are kids out there who didn’t even know they had this dream until they see us tonight. Kids of all colors, it doesn’t matter. There’s somebody that might have been racist that came up into our show and actually might have said, well maybe Black people aren’t that bad. We don’t know the change we are going to make so what pills do we swallow in order to change the things that we will never see that we changed.”
Unapologetically Black in Hamilton
But there were deeper connotations to a man of color playing white men who never advocated for people of color.
“That’s a hard thing that I always had to deal with in that show. It was hard to deal with talking about the slave and not just the idea that we’re trying to free slaves. I think the whole world needs to go to Atlanta and the African American museum where there’s a slave ship and you can feel what it was like to be in the bow in the ship. I’m thinking during the show like i’ve had my lineage come across here like y’all brought my family across here in these types of ships. I’m touching the walls of the set, like the wood and the rope and I remember having a flashback of the African history museum and just thinking about it.
“My great great great grandmothers might have came over here in that ship and one of her sons could have been dead next to her and she would have had to come over here for months on that ship. They were chained up back to front like cargo for hundreds of years and I’m touching the set piece, this rope and I know we’re living the Willie Lynch letter. I’m touching that set piece and this is my blood. We were Kings and Queens, African people don’t remember but we were Kings and Queens. I could hear them and I could feel them. I’m a competitor so I know how to use everything but I’m tired of using it.”
Stewart sees the irony of the current protest movement and Hamilton. A raging against the machine that the men he helped portray built. He and his cast members felt that the platform was a perfect way to raise awareness for Black Lives Matter, however, the organization did not.
“Back then, we tried to tell the producers to back us with Black Lives Matter when Black Lives Matter was gaining bigger visibility in 2015-2016 and they never stood behind us. So much so that they created an apology four years later and that killed me. They didn’t think that they’re putting my father at risk by making moves, people don’t think of the jeopardy they can put your family in to build a brand for financial reasons.”
Now a film on Disney+, Hamilton is celebrated and Stewart is canonized as part of an ethos that will live forever. He reflects on the journey and wants only now to leave a legacy for the youth through teaching and an encouraging word.
“The world is yours but it’s not so create your own, because that is what i’m doing in my life right now. It’s all about maneuvering through a world where you don’t have control so the only control you have is your own world, you.”