Ta’Rea Campbell, who plays Angelica Schuyler in the leg of the “Hamilton” tour coming to New Orleans March 12, says that before each show, cast members gather in a circle and link hands for what she calls “a little meditative moment of intention.” On the count of three, they say whatever word they’ve decided is the word of the day.
“It might be ‘family,’ ‘focus’ or ‘hot dogs,’” Campbell says. “It could be anything.” When they perform in New Orleans, it may just be beignets.
But what they say isn’t as important as making sure everybody is on the same page and ready to tell the same story for the next three hours. With a large ensemble and a challenging production, synergy is crucial in keeping the show running and keeping a high standard while delivering hundreds of performances a tour.
Since opening on Broadway in 2015, “Hamilton” has become both a household name and a powerful brand. Telling the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton and his assassin Aaron Burr — as well as George Washington, James Madison and King George III — through hip-hop, R&B and traditional Broadway music, the show has allowed audience members who have grown up with cellphones and Snapchat to relate to characters in waistcoats and petticoats.
One way “Hamilton” resonates with today’s audiences is through its intentional use of diverse casting — reflecting America’s increasing heterogeneity — which adds a layer to the play’s discussion of what it means to be an American today.
“America doesn't look like what it used to look like before,” Campbell says. “So it's really important for these stories to be told by what America looks like today with the music, the sounds and the movements that we use today, like hip-hop and R&B.”
Campbell attributes the success of the show to creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ability to combine an appreciation for traditional musical theater and history with a willingness to add his own twists to the classics.
“[Miranda] wasn't afraid to insert himself into the way that musical theater had been looked at for so many years,” she says. “I think that sometimes, the world doesn't make space for you, especially people of color and minorities, so when you make space for yourself, that's beautiful.
“That takes strength,” she adds. “That takes confidence. That takes a revolutionary.”
Some may consider Campbell’s character, Angelica Schuyler, who was Hamilton’s sister-in law, a revolutionary in her own right. In the play, she’s strong and confident as she sings the line, “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m’a compel him to include women in the sequel.” She’s selfless as she puts her personal feelings aside to protect her sister, and she’s witty as she banters with Hamilton in “Satisfied.”
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Campbell says playing such a bold character has affected the way she wants to live her life. “Angelica was fierce, and so I aspire to be fierce in the face of fear,” Campbell says. “She was a little bit ahead of her time, and so I'd like to think that I would be like that, too.”
Campbell originally planned to audition for the part of Eliza Schuyler, Angelica’s sister and Hamilton’s wife, but her agents convinced her to audition for Angelica instead. About a month later, she was cast as Angelica, and now she says she can't imagine playing any other part.
The Philadelphia native knew she wanted to be an actress since she first saw the film “Annie” as a child. The little redheaded girl singing “the sun will come out tomorrow” was Campbell’s introduction to musical theater.
Campbell has starred in a regional production of “Newsies” in 2017 and played the lead role of Deloris Van Cartier in the national tour of the musical comedy “Sister Act.” This will be her third time performing in New Orleans on tour. She says she’s already hit all the local tourist spots in New Orleans, and plans to go with the flow during the run of “Hamilton.”
While she doesn’t have a New Orleans itinerary mapped out, she’s looking forward to some delicious eats. A must-have on her list is a good bowl of gumbo — hold the okra, please — though she realizes this may be a controversial request.
“I don't know if you can even call it gumbo if it doesn't have okra in it,” she says, laughing.
Touring with “Sister Act,” Campbell learned the importance of self-care and finding a sense of normalcy while living out of a suitcase for months.
The show is coming to the Saenger Theatre March 12-31.
“I was the lead in ‘Sister Act,’ so that was really, really demanding on my body physically and mentally,” Campbell says. “There's 24 hours in a day, but we only work for three of them. For the rest of those 21 hours, you have to do all the things that take care of your body to prepare you for what you have to do before the audience. … Touring can be very, very hard. You’re away from your family and loved ones, so you really need to make sure that you are well-rounded or else you can either resent it or not enjoy it as much as you can.”
Each new city means starting over from scratch, so every three to six weeks, Campbell has to re-do tasks like buying a jar of mayonnaise or finding a new yoga spot or Vietnamese restaurant.
Now she’s got the logistics down, Campbell says she enjoys coming to work every day. Performing and feeding off the audience’s energy each night makes living on the road worthwhile. In fact, she says, the audience is so important to the show that it impacts the production just as another character would.
“There's a pulse with the actors onstage,” Campbell says. “There's a pulse with the energy backstage, and there is a pulse within the audience. I like to think that at some point they all sync up and that heartbeat all syncs up together.”
While some audiences are completely engaged in the performance, others get distracted. Campbell says the cast can feel that onstage and will work even harder to stay energized and deliver a high-caliber performance.
“Whether or not someone's coughing, or has their phone out, or leaving in the middle of a song, you have to still deliver the same performance for the rest of the thousands of people that are in the audience,” Campbell says. “You can't really be swayed by a bright cellphone light in the middle of the darkness.”
Doing hundreds of live shows in cities from Durham, North Carolina, to Des Moines, Iowa, gives Campbell and the rest of the cast a chance to bring Broadway to audiences that never may have been able to see the show otherwise.
“Des Moines was one of our best audiences,” Campbell says. “I think that they don't get a lot of theater that comes to their town maybe, and they were so appreciative.”
Just as the audience is an important part of live theater, so is the ability to adapt in real time when things don’t end up going as planned. Occasionally, the problem is not a fumbled line but the turntable — a major part of the stage that rotates in a circle — gone rogue.
“Sometimes the turntable works perfectly, and other times it doesn't,” Campbell says. “So when you think that you're supposed to be standing still singing a song and then all of a sudden it starts to move, that is something that you just have to roll with the punches.”
Asked with which “Hamilton” character she most identifies (other than Angelica), Campbell says affectionately, “The turntable. Because, you know what, life keeps spinning. Sometimes you are ready for it, and sometimes you're not.”