His shot: An exclusive interview with New Utrecht graduate, “Hamilton” star Anthony Ramos

One Brooklyn native is not throwing away his shot.

Photo courtesy of Hamilton.com
Photo courtesy of Hamilton.com

At just 24 years old, New Utrecht High School graduate Anthony Ramos (Class of 2009) is making a name for himself on the Broadway stage on which he stars as both John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Grammy-Award winning musical, “Hamilton.”

But, if not for the people in his life (and the New York City public school system), things could have panned out differently for the local alum, who, at one time, aspired to be a professional baseball player.

Ramos, fresh off a trip to the White House where he and his castmates performed for the President, spoke to this paper about his time on the “Hamilton” train, how he got on board, and what his success means for students citywide.

Where did your journey start?

I grew up in Bushwick, and I lived with my mom. She was a single parent with three kids. I’ve got an older brother and a younger sister. We all were pretty active kids but school wasn’t particularly our strong suit; we were always good at other things. My brother and I were all about sports.

But, I always enjoyed singing. I would kind of do it recreationally. I never had a voice lesson growing up. My mom would just be like, “Anthony, sing for the family,” and I would sing the song I’d been listening to on my CD player for the last month or two.

Looking back, when my cousins and I were kids, we’d put together these little skits – these 10-minute improv scenes. I didn’t really understand what I was doing – that I was writing these mini-sketches and acting – but we were all totally into it. It was just a thing we did, and we did it at every family event until we got to be “too old” for it.

Did you ever get “too old” for singing?

I went to Halsey Junior High School in Bushwick and I still enjoyed singing but, at that point, I’d been playing baseball since I was ten. That was always my focus and outlet, if you will. But, in the eighth grade, we had this little group called the Halsey Trio. We would sing Motown songs at assemblies, and that was pretty much my track record of singing up until my junior year of high school when I auditioned for my first musical at New Utrecht High School, which I thought was a talent show.

I heard that they were hosting auditions for something called “Sing,” so I took a shot. I auditioned and Sara [Steinweiss, founder and former musical director of the New Utrecht High School Theater Guild] said to me, “Oh, can you read these lines?” I asked why and she said, “Because this is a musical.”

The next thing I know, I’m cast as Zeus in this thing. I gave myself some time to think about it because, you know, there were no contracts involved, but some close friends of mine at the time who I’m still very close with said to me, “You gotta do this.”

So, I went ahead and did it and had a great time. The shows were in the winter, and baseball was in the spring, so I figured it was something I could do to keep busy. After “Sing,” I went on do my first full-scale musical, “Back to the ’80s,” and things like “Little Shop of Horrors,” which was my first lead role, and then “Into the Woods” at Bishop Kearney High School.

Did baseball ever take a backseat?

I never loved anything more than sports and finally, this thing came along. I started to lose my zeal for playing ball, and I started to get this hunger for performing. I thought to myself, “Man, I really like this a lot,” but I had no idea how to pursue it, so I was just going to go to school for liberal arts.

I wanted to play ball at SUNY Purchase but my family was going through some things at the time and my applications got withdrawn. I really had no college to go to coming out of high school, until one day, Sara came into school and said, “I want you to audition for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA).”

I said “You’re crazy.”

Why was she crazy?

I didn’t have the money to go there, but Sara paid for my application and she helped me do my essays. She sat me down and walked me through the whole thing and sent it off. I was hesitant, but, sure enough, I auditioned and I got in.

At the time, I was doing a community theater show at Christ Church in Bay Ridge with the Strivelli Players, which was my first show with adults. It was a different dynamic for me at 17. I was just doing my thing at the time, and had quit my baseball team to focus on theater.

One day, Sara walked into one of our rehearsals and said, “I gave your name to the Jerry Seinfeld Scholarship Fund. They fund people’s college tuition but they haven’t given it to anyone at our school in five years. I told them your story and they want to meet you.”

Photo courtesy of Sara Steinweiss
Photo courtesy of Sara Steinweiss

Because I got into AMDA, they kept calling about loans. I remember my mom said to me, “Don’t worry, God is gonna make a way.” The next thing you know, God made a way.

I told admissions to give me one more day and I’d give them an answer about the loans. I got a call two hours later from the Jerry Seinfeld Scholarship Fund saying that they wanted to give me a full ride. I had already met with them. I told them everything: how I grew up, our family troubles. I told them that my grades are not a reflection of me; that I just need somebody to give me a shot. One shot.

I immediately fell to my knees in the living room with my mother just praying.

Was AMDA the right fit for you?

AMDA was intense. I realized when I got there that I had to play a little bit of catchup. A lot of these kids knew so much about musical theater. I knew like “Rent” and “Grease.” You know, the staples. But I did my thing. I had moments of doubt where I wanted to quit but I said to myself, I can’t do that. Too many people put their name on the line for me. I gotta keep going; I gotta do this.

So, I worked my tail off in college and graduated [in spring, 2011].

Where did you go after graduation?

Graduating was rough for me. I had a job right out the gate [starring in “Grease” at the Surflight Theatre in New Jersey], but after that job, it was dead for a bit.

From July until October, there was nothing. But then I just kind of regrouped, and told myself to keep trusting God and working hard. Then, bam, another gig hit.

It was a national tour of “Damn Yankees.” It was a non-union tour, so we did 67 cities in three months. It was intense but it was one of the best times of my life. I’ll never forget one day when our bus broke down on the side of the road in Utah and we got Little Caesar’s delivered to it. I made some of my best friends on that tour.

Maybe two months after “Damn Yankees,” the ball started to roll. I booked “In The Heights” [another production with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda] in a regional theater, worked on a cruise ship, came back and booked a show at Radio City Music Hall. Things were going well.

So, when did “Hamilton” come along?

I was always auditioning while I was working, trying to set up my next gig. I was hustling hard at this point.

I’d booked another show, “Heart and Lights,” but auditions were going on for “Hamilton” at the time – back then it was called “Hamilton’s Mix Tape.” They were doing one more lab before it was going to the Public Theater downtown. I didn’t really know what was going on, so I walked in to audition for another musical being cast by [major Broadway casting agency] Telsey and they said, “Hey, we’d like you to audition for this ‘Hamilton’s Mix Tape.’”

My friends said, “Yo, you need to absolutely do that.” I saw Lin [-Manuel Miranda] was attached to it and he’d written “In The Heights,” but I didn’t see how it could work with this other show I was scheduled for. The casting director said, “I see you’re doing this other show, but you’re right for this so I’m just going to call you back.”

Sure enough, “Heart and Lights” got cancelled during previews. I lost my job at 11 a.m., and at 4 p.m. got a phone call asking if I’d want to do “Hamilton.” These things just kept happening in my life. That’s how I got on the “Hamilton” train. They offered me the role at the Public Theater [where it ran from January 20 through May 3, 2015] and on Broadway [where it opened on July 13, 2015] and that’s how we got here.

Photo courtesy of Sara Steinweiss
Photo courtesy of Sara Steinweiss

How do you feel about being here?

It feels good. This is an awesome thing that I’m a part of, but it also requires a lot of responsibility and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of time, but I wouldn’t want it to be any other way – not right now. In this business it’s hard because, the further you get, the deeper you get into it, the harder it gets. But, I’ve learned so much. It’s a blessing to learn these things because the hard lessons are the good lessons.

It also feels good to be in something that you care about – and I care about this a lot.

What advice would you give to students today?

My advice to them is: do whatever you want. Trust people who love you, and who’ve always had your best interests at heart. Kids today need to be able to go ahead and study that thing, and explore that further, and – at the same time – parents need to back their kids when they’re trying to live out their dreams.

Photo courtesy of Sara Steinweiss
Photo courtesy of Sara Steinweiss

I just want kids to know that, no matter what your circumstance is and no matter where you’re from, you can always make a way. There’s always a way out of or a way in to do something – that thing that you want to do. I think that it’s important for parents to back their kids, to support them and to help them find some mentors – mentors like I had in Sara.

Sara helped me find this thing. She didn’t push this on me. She just saw something in me that she knew was unique. She opened the door for me, but it was me that made the final decision. She saw me doubting myself but she motivated me. All along, she knew this was something that I wanted to do, and I think it’s important for kids to know that they’ve got to do what they want to do. If you want to be a firefighter, go do that, don’t be afraid.  If you want to run a school or start your own business, don’t make excuses. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do that. I thank God every day that my family rallied behind me.

And, I want to encourage students pursuing theater that, this business is hard, but your joy shouldn’t lay in the business. Your joy needs to lay in the art of it, and the giving of it.

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