Krystal Joy Brown can’t wait to get back on stage. She’s been playing Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton on Broadway since mid-December. But she has one reservation about re-opening night: “When the show starts, the crowd always applauds at the line ‘Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton’ and I don’t think that I will be able to not burst into sobs.”
Krystal hasn’t performed live since the suspension of the show in mid-March. That changed last weekend with a performance on the terrace of her voice coach, Paul Lincoln, at Worldwide Plaza, in a fundraiser for Food Bank for New York City.
“It was great because we had people hanging out the windows and watching from down on the street,” she says “I didn’t realize until afterwards that, wow, I needed that! I needed that so bad – just to be with people and to sing. I hadn’t sung for over two and a half months. I got that connection, which is the reason I love theater and got into theater.”
In the time running up to the suspension, she wasn’t feeling well – a typical challenge for a Broadway performer in the winter months. “I had been extremely sick for a period of time, from February to the beginning of March. I started to feel better around March 8. I was on all these antibiotics and stuff and I still am not sure if it was coronavirus. My doctor diagnosed me with mild pneumonia and bronchitis. It was pretty much everywhere – lungs, even my ears and nose were hurting, I could barely hear. It was a nightmare cocktail of illnesses.
“I’d had a couple of other friends in Broadway shows that had it. We found out that there was an usher that had been sick. Then Moulin Rouge had a massive outbreak.”
While she was ill, she only missed one show. On Broadway the motto is: “the show must go on,” and the reality is that your pay is docked if you miss a performance. She missed an eighth of her pay that week. “I’m militant about doing my shows. Nothing gets in the way. I finally gave in on a two-show day. It’s the most fatigued I’ve ever felt. I went home and slept 13 hours – my usual is nearer four!”
She sees that the virus has touched many in her community – people of all ages “Look at Nick Cordero – he’s just 41.” But the fate of people of color is of graver concern.
Krystal is frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive plan nationally to manage the pandemic, and the statistics showing higher mortality for black and brown people makes it seem that it is “not really everybody’s problem.” And when people shift the blame to black and brown people for not seeking medical help, she is disappointed. “There is a long history, from gynecological experiments with no anesthetic in the 1800s to sterilization in the 1970s in California that make people not trust the medical profession.”
The time of pause has also been a time of reflection for Krystal. She saw the importance of essential workers and questioned “as an artist, am I essential? I’ve chosen a profession that is not recession proof and it’s definitely not pandemic proof. What have I done?”
But she’s also seen an outpouring of desire for musical content. “We need art to get through this time. These ridiculous Tik Toks are art. I’m watching people create these really fun little videos that are a commentary on society. We’re connecting in this new way.” She believes that the “best art is created when there is massive turmoil.”
Hamilton’s management has been supportive throughout the pause. Krystal describes the environment as “kind – everyone enjoys what they are doing.” Producer Jeffrey Seller has been clear to all the cast that they will be looked after and he will not put people’s lives at risk to get the show back on.
In the wider Broadway community, it’s a lot bleaker for many of Krystal’s friends. Shows have been cancelled permanently, tours abandoned, and she says: “Unemployment is a crapshoot.” She’s been consoling friends. Most folks live a gig-to-gig lifestyle, but where are the gigs? Yesterday, her union – Actors’ Equity – confirmed that Broadway will not be returning until the epidemic is ‘under control‘.
Krystal’s first major role was in the national tour of Rent. “I saw Rent about 11 times, and two times on Broadway. It was the first Broadway show I saw and the first job I ever got,” she says. “Rent was about a real time. It was about Jonathan Larson’s friends group. It’s a story that transcends pain and is full of love.”
She followed with Hair, full of political turmoil, then landed her role as Diana Ross in Motown through sheer hard work. ”I started off as an understudy, then I was a featured ensemble and principal, then starring. I worked my way up.”
The role gave her plenty to research. She explains: “There was such a responsibility in that role. Diana Ross is incredible and still alive and an amazing mother. I could pay a truthful homage to her for what she did for me and all women of color as the first real black superstar.”
When the show closed, it was tough to find work. It’s hard to jump from show to show when there are limited roles for women of color. She says: “You look around and say ‘there’s the black show’.” At that time, it was Hamilton.
Back in 2013 she auditioned for the Hamilton Mixtape (Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived of the show as a mixtape of songs about the founding father’s life before he gave any thought to writing it as a Broadway show). She’d got a call back for the role of Peggy, but by then she had committed to Motown. The same casting director called her back last year for the role of Eliza on Broadway. It has rekindled a deep pride in her country – and a love of New York.
She says: “I was brought up in Virginia – it’s one of the most patriotic states. I always loved history, spent time visiting plantations, and still remained deeply patriotic.
“I saw Hamilton for the first time about six weeks before the last election. I was blown away. This rainbow of people on stage. I was proud of my country again. Then the election happened – a vortex of misery. I moved to Los Angeles.”
Being offered the role of Eliza changed that. “I get to go back to the creation of the United States of America. I had lost a little bit of my hope and faith in this country the past few years. But I’ve fallen in love again with the ideals and principles of this nation. I’m proud again – and back in my real home, New York!”
Previously, most of Krystal’s New York life had been down in the Lower East Side or the East Village. With this role, she decided to try Hell’s Kitchen “I wanted to walk to work,” she says. She’s waiting for P.S. Kitchen to come back (her favorite place, as she’s vegan). But there are still some treasures open for her, like UT47 – “I had a ginger latte this morning” – and Kahve on 10th Ave. She’d never been a runner, but is enjoying running Hudson River Park with her new dog, Ajay, and hanging out at the Pier 84 dog run.
Her view of the future? “Well, we can’t just go back to normal. We’ve got to go back to better. This is a time to listen and learn. Find our leaders, lobby, act locally.”
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