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Identity, memory and artistry with Sydney James Harcourt

Sydney James Harcourt
Sydney James Harcourt

The "Hamilton" star talks Aaron Burr, Shakespeare and the importance of preparedness in IPR's Studio A.

Sydney James Harcourt shot to international fame a few years ago as an original cast member of the Tony Award, Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Hamilton."

He was an ensemble member and first replacement for the character of Aaron Burr, which he assumed after Leslie Odom, Jr. left the production.

"Aaron Burr was a bucket list dream come true of my Gene Kelly fantasy," Harcourt said. "To be that triple threat, that lead role in the middle of the stage, is so fulfilling. It doesn't get any better than that."

During his time in the chorus, Harcourt was also the understudy for the characters of Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington and King George.

He said that keeping all of those roles in his mind simultaneously required as much muscle memory as it did mental memorization.

"My goal was to do it while I was riding my bike, doing the laundry, going up the stairs, running on the treadmill - all of the songs," Harcourt explained. "At the drop of a hat, I could be all in."

In the video below, watch as Harcourt performs a medley of all of his "Hamilton" roles.

But "Hamilton" is just one part of Harcourt's career. On Broadway, he's been everyone from Aaron Burr to Simba in "The Lion King" to an ensemble member of the Green Day musical "American Idiot."

It all started at Interlochen, where Harcourt attended the Arts Academy as a classical voice and dance major.

"Everything I've ever done at Interlochen has only brought good things to my life," Harcourt said. "I see Interlochen as a beacon."

Harcourt also took on the title role in Shakespeare's "Othello" in 2022 Shakespeare Festival at Interlochen Arts Camp. He learned the role in less than three weeks and had never done Shakespeare before.

Sydney James Harcourt (right) with Andrew McGinn in the 2022 Interlochen Shakespeare Festival production of "Othello"
Interlochen Center for the Arts
Sydney James Harcourt (right) with Andrew McGinn in the 2022 Interlochen Shakespeare Festival production of "Othello"

Although Othello was daunting, it was nothing compared to the first time he stepped in as Leslie Odom, Jr.'s understudy for the role of Aaron Burr in "Hamilton."

"My first time as Aaron Burr, I had no put-in, I had never rehearsed with any of the cast members," Harcourt recalled. "I didn't have costumes - they had to let out Leslie's costumes. I got the call at 12:30 and the show was at two."

Harcourt also noted that the character of Aaron Burr has 10,000 words - more words than Shakespeare's Hamlet.

But that very last-minute experience as Aaron Burr gave Harcourt the confidence to take on Othello on short notice.

"It's another one of those things where, hey, if I can do that, I can do anything," Harcourt said.

Sydney Harcourt recently visited IPR's Studio A and performed "I Cannot Hear the City" from the Marvin Hamlisch musical "Sweet Smell of Success." He was joined by pianist Doug Peck.

Harcourt said this particular song appeals to him because it has so many opportunities for different interpretation.

Sydney Harcourt sings "I Can't Hear the City" in IPR's Studio A with pianist Doug Peck
Sydney Harcourt sings "I Can't Hear the City" in IPR's Studio A with pianist Doug Peck

Harcourt, who now has a home in northern Michigan, regularly works with Interlochen students who are studying anything from theater to popular music to jazz to interdisciplinary arts.

He said that he encourages students to be versed in many different art forms because they never know what they might be asked to do.

"Hey, dancers, you should have a monologue," Harcourt suggested. "You might go into an audition where someone wants to hear you talk, and you could be the lead in something."

He also helps young artists navigate the relationships between their personal identities and professional careers.

"What's it like to be a queer artist, a Black artist, a mixed race artist out in the world?" Harcourt said. "It's amazing to be able to come here and share that perspective with the students."

In the workshop for "Hamilton," for example, Harcourt was the only openly gay cast member.

He said his experience, and one he cautions students about, is to watch for the subtler types of discrimination and exclusion.

"You've got to be prepared for the subtle discrimination, because it's not going to be seen," Harcourt said. "You have to be graceful, and you have to be patient, because reacting to it is only going to make you look bad."

Harcourt recently became a member of Interlochen's Board of Trustees, which he said is an opportunity for him to share what the students how Interlochen can help students most effectively.

"I'm there on campus, so I can tell the board what the kids are thinking and feeling," Harcourt said. "It allows me to get them the resources they need to get a full experience."

Watch below as Harcourt delivers the 2021 commencement address at Interlochen Arts Academy.

Sydney James Harcourt takes the stage of City Opera House in Traverse City with current Interlochen Arts Academy theater students and fellow Broadway star Alexandra Silber on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more information and tickets.

Stefan Wiebe engineered this edition of Studio A.

Shelby Eppich and Kacie Brown provided additional support.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.